Taiwan's Biotech Dream Team
A group of luminaries from science and business have launched a company they believe will propel Taiwan's biotechnology sector into the global arena.
Taiwan's Biotech Dream TeamBy Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 381 )
At two o’clock in the morning on September 13, world AIDS authority David Ho arrives in Taipei on the red-eye from Yunnan Province in China. It has been days now since he last enjoyed the luxury of shutting his eyes.
Negotiations with the world’s largest biotechnology outfit, Genetech Incorporated, over transferring the rights to an anti-AIDS drug, have entered their final stages. With the countdown to sealing the deal already underway, Ho cannot afford to ease up for even a second.
And, regardless of whether five o’clock in the evening in Taiwan means a bleary-eyed five o’clock breakfast on the US East Coast, former Harvard University professor Chen Lan-bo is up and about. At the same time, Genetech executive vice president of product operations Patrick Yang is awake in San Francisco, where it is still just 2 a.m.
Having synchronized their watches, they are both busy thumbing their Blackberries as they author emails to Ho, Academia Sinica president Wong Chi-huey and former vice premier Tsai Ying-wen back in Taiwan. At dawn the following day, Ho and Wong arise around five or six o’clock, to ensure they have communicated over every detail in advance of the press conference scheduled that day.
This situation has persisted for four weeks now – ever since this dream team entered into serious negotiations with Genentech – stretching into one long Blackberry time zone with no distinction between day and night.
Dream Team Targets Patent
The whole affair was instigated at a meeting of the Hsinchu Biomedical Science Park Guidance Committee. Patrick Yang occupies a seat on this committee. A graduate of the Department of Electrical Engineering at National Chiao Tung University, Yang is presently in charge of manufacturing and production at Genentech, the world’s largest biotechnology pharmaceutical company, where he supervises a workforce of 5,000 research personnel and an annual research budget of US$1.5 billion. He is one of just seven members on this corporation’s highest-level executive committee.
It was Yang who had informed Wong, the dream team’s convener, and the other committee members at the biomedical park that Genentech had acquired the patent for the AIDS drug TNX-355 after it purchased Tanox Incorporated, a firm established by the ethnic-Chinese biotech businesswoman Nancy Tang.
TNX-355 provides the opportunity for a different approach in the fight against AIDS. Older AIDS drugs work to directly inhibit the enzymes that enable the replication and growth of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). However, patients frequently develop resistance to these drugs with long-term use. TNX-355, on the other hand, adopts an approach that blocks the virus from binding to cells, directly severing the bridge that allows infection. Ho judges this to be a “new class” of drugs.
Since Genentech’s operations are instead focused primarily on tumors, immunology and tissue restoration, it had hoped to release the patent rights to TNX-355, and Yang had a good feeling Taiwan would put its all into a contest to win the patent.
This effort got formally underway after Genentech finalized its purchase of Tanox in early August.
Yang and Chen Lan-bo in the US played crucial roles as liaisons over the short one-month course of the intense negotiations.
A former professor at Harvard Medical School who enjoys a 30-year friendship with Wong Chi-huey, Chen has founded three successful businesses, and since retiring last year has been putting his energies into hedge fund investment on Wall Street. Due to his abundant experience in academics and business, former Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tse, five years ago, persuaded Chen to shuttle between Taiwan and the United States in order to provide recommendations for the development of biotechnology in Taiwan.
During the negotiations, it was crucial for the dream team to prove to Genentech that TaiMed Biologics possessed the quality and professionalism required. At this time, David Ho’s authority and professionalism proved quite persuasive in this regard.
“When selecting a partner, Genentech will certainly consider how professional a company is and whether it has the means to take on this drug which has already entered the final stages of development,” says Wong.
Expert Negotiator Presiding
Lastly, they brought onboard expert negotiator Tsai Ying-wen as chairperson of the board.
Though she had no previous experience in the biotech industry, Ho says that Tsai possesses a special ability when it comes to the power of persuasion.
The team sent Tsai to the United States for a two-week “crash course” in August. With Chen Lan-bo acting as host, Tsai paid visits to important biotech businesses, educational institutes and Wall Street as well. After meeting with Tsai at that time, Chen relates, a few of his Wall Street friends who had been unwilling to help out in the past all pledged to spare no effort in assisting Taiwan.
Tsai’s talents as a communicator and harmonizer were applied to great effect during the final stage of talks with Genentech. Chen says that for many things, “she takes a deeper view than the American lawyers and is able to make the details even clearer than the American biotech companies.”
Participating scientists maintain that the integrity and impartiality for which Tsai is renowned are a requirement for doing business in the biotech sector.
“I think this is a business to stay for the long term, and integrity is a very important quality for a successful business in the long term,” says Ho, adding, “Short term, I think you could skip on the integrity... and then forget your vision. That’s possible. But we are not doing this.”
TaiMed’s Strategic Goals
With its dream team of world-class talent and its high-tech patent rights, many observers view TaiMed Biologics as the pair of wings that will carry Taiwanese biotechnology aloft with the rising currents of the global industry.
It is expected that TNX-355 will become Taiwan’s first new drug to receive approval from the US Food and Drug Administration. As Taiwan succeeds with new medicines, it can establish plants that meet international standards and even manufacture other pharmaceuticals, and go on to play an important role on the world stage.
From the beginning, the plan of TaiMed Biologics’s mother company, TaiMed Incorporated, envisioned the establishment of many more subsidiaries like TaiMed Biologics. However, TaiMed Inc. has expressed the ambition to do more than simply churn out subsidiaries – it intends to seek out appropriate targets, and even make investments and get involved in management, as it did in the case of TaiMed Biologics.
TNX-355 has already entered the final stages of phase II clinical trials. However, even though its antibody success rate is already higher than that of the average biopharmaceutical, the possibility of failure remains. And since TNX-355 is designed solely for the treatment of AIDS patients, uncertainties remain as well regarding the size of its market and its commercial value.
It is increasingly obvious that biotechnology will be one of the industries of the future. Taiwan’s biotech flagship, under the leadership of a pool of talent that has returned from abroad, has already officially set sail.
“As we planned this project, we wanted TaiMed to have significance.” This biotech ship is heading out to sea, yet David Ho’s voice remains as slow and resolute as always, and a calm and relaxed smile appears on his face as he says, “It’s not a success measured strictly by dollars.”
Translated from the Chinese by Stan Blewett
Chinese Version: 夢幻團隊打造宇昌生技