BioPartnering: Global BioPartnering: A Personal Perspective

May 1, 2004
Robert Lee Kilpatrick

BioPharm International, BioPharm International-05-01-2004, Volume 17, Issue 5

Biotechnology players are emerging in countries that historically have not been substantially active in this industry.

Partnering is a global phenomenon that will change the biotechnology industry for the better. Until recently most biotechnology companies were based in the United States, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Israel. The outlook is changing fast as new companies are now being created in Japan, China, Singapore, India, and Russia. There are many predictions that by 2050, much global economic growth will take in Brazil, India, Russia, and China. We expect biotechnology innovation to play an important role in these economies.

In the future, many new opportunities for partnerships will exist outside the US and Europe. These are likely to be in research and development, manufacturing, clinical trials, and the many other components of a successful drug development program.

There are indications that the globalization of biotechnology is already happening. I have first-hand experience of this phenomenon. When my company created the first BioPartnering Europe conference in London in 1993, biotechnology companies used partnering as a way to validate their businesses through licensing deals, research collaborations, and other financial vehicles. Now in 2004, partnering has become the primary revenue generator for many public and private biotechnology companies around the world. BioPartnering Europe has since been joined by partnering events in Tokyo and Vancouver with a combined delegate-base representing nearly forty countries — an indication of the global dimension of partnering.

As part of the second annual BioPartnering North America conference (Vancouver, February 9–11, 2004), we launched a new multimedia web product named www.biopartnering.com. It is a conference support tool, making information gathering, communications, and meeting scheduling as efficient as possible for conference delegates. The site also allows us to track biotechnology companies who are seeking partners, and we are attracting companies from parts of the world that were previously unknown to us or underrepresented. Biotechnology players are emerging in China, Cuba, Russia, India, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, and Taiwan.

Macro-and micro-economic factors are driving economies outside the historic centers of biotechnology activity — the US and Europe — to create viable and vibrant bioclusters. Let us look briefly at four countries.

China's annual economic growth of about 8% per year leaves it poised to surpass the US as the world's largest economy in the next 15 years. Its total population is over 1 billion; in the coastal regions, about 200 million people may be classified as middle class and are potential customers for biotechnology products.

China has a strong indigenous medical and pharmaceutical tradition and has been a longstanding global leader in the production of herbal-based and other natural remedies. A strong commitment by regional and national governments to the development of a western-style biotechnology industry, coupled with substantial private investment from within China, is helping to shape Shanghai and Beijing as nascent bioclusters that will attract talent and capital in the coming years. Companies such as Crimson Pharmaceuticals and Shenzhen SiBiono GeneTech represent a new breed of Chinese biotech player that will become more visible in the coming years.

Cuba has a longstanding interest in the development of a government-funded biomedical industry, including medical education and research and development. CIMAB in Havana has exclusive rights to commercialize products and services of the Center of Molecular Immunology and has been actively pursuing international collaborations since 1992. Political problems have made it difficult to establish formal academic ties with US commercial and academic institutions. Still, European, Asian, and Latin American groups have entered into commercial agreements with more than 25 pharmaceutical companies for product licensing and joint research programs. When trade relations with the US are eventually normalized, American biotechnology companies will be well placed to draw on the biomedical infrastructure developed in Cuba.

India has a large and growing generic drug industry and is proving to be a formidable player in the international biotechnology sector, particularly in process development and manufacturing. In addition, several companies focus on contract research, including clinical trials management, and Indian companies are actively seeking customers in the US, Europe, and Japan. There is a real opportunity here for all parties involved.

The growing convergence of biotech and information technology (IT) offers India another route into biotechnology via bioinformatics. India has developed a leading role in the IT sector, and there is a daily deluge of hot news stories about western companies outsourcing all aspects of their IT work to Indian companies. Less well known is that the same economic advantages also apply to biotech companies who are great consumers of IT services. We are already seeing the growth of an indigenous Indian biotechnology sector that draws on a well-educated and technologically-savvy workforce that speaks English and is able to leverage a skill-set derived from a strong generic drug industry and world-class IT industry.

Singapore has focused intensely on the growth of a sustainable biotechnology-based economy under the direction of the Economic Development Board and the Agency for Science Technology and Research. The Biopolis is Singapore's largest physical commitment to biotechnology. More than bricks and mortar, the Biopolis is one of the world's first institutions dedicated to biopartnerships, linking the National University of Singapore, the National University Hospital, and the Singapore Science Parks with leading institutions around the world. A statement of purpose on the Biopolis website says: "the developer has introduced a concept of sharing of medical research equipment among research institutes to increase interaction opportunities and fuel collaborations." This collaborative model will offer Singapore a leadership position in the years ahead.

Although it is beyond the scope of this column to describe the characteristics of all the emerging biotechnology centers in detail, it is possible to draw some general conclusions that will help guide business development professionals and investors.

  • Biotechnology is a global industry with the promise and perils that have applied to other industries. Intellectual property issues will continue to hamper innovative companies, but over time these will be resolved.
  • Regional differences apply. Particular expertise in various markets depends on demographics, economics, politics, and historical technical advantages. Countries that ban certain procedures, such as stem cell research and cloning, or types of products like genetically modified (GM) foods, may drive an indigenous industry overseas.
  • Outsourcing by western pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies will drive the growth and development of the industry around the world. This trend will affect all aspects of biotechnology's industrial development, and high-cost economies will need to find ways to adapt to this reality.
  • Not all countries will adopt the Wall Street model (that is, a small company financed by venture capitalist) for biotechnology company creation. Outside the US and Europe, the lion's share of biotechnology development will take place within large corporations or government-funded research and development institutions. Even the American system is not as purely market-driven as it seems. US biotechnology companies rely indirectly on federally funded programs from the NIH and the Department of Defense and on state-funded university research centers.
  • Biotechnology offers a greater power for good and for ill than humanity has previously experienced, surpassing nuclear power in its potential. With the exception of problems associated with social acceptance of GM foods in Europe and, to a lesser extent, elsewhere in the world, biotechnology companies have been able to conduct their business in a politically neutral environment. This may change in the years ahead as industry opponents become better organized.

On balance, biotechnology has never had it so good, and although it has been a struggle for many companies to get funded in the past three years, partnering remains the lifeblood of an industry that is truly global in outlook.