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Taiwan's Expatriate Scientists Return

Biotechnology's Golden Age Unfolds

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Top scholars returning from abroad are contributing skills honed over their lifetimes to make the biotechnology sector Taiwan's next miracle.

Biotechnology's Golden Age Unfolds

By Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 381 )

September 14, 10:30 a.m. A horde of reporters and cameramen are gathered in the conference room of the Executive Yuan’s National Development Fund.

The room’s main door slides open, and Ho Mei-yueh, chairwoman of Taiwan’s Council of Economic Planning and Development, strides in, along with internationally renowned AIDS researcher David Ho. They have appeared to announce that TaiMed Biologics has acquired patent authorization from world biotechnology giant Genentech for its experimental anti-HIV drug TNX-355, which has entered late-stage phase II clinical trials.

TaiMed’s list of board directors is full of heavyweights, the majority of whom are top biotechnology scientists who have spent much of their professional lives abroad and have now returned to Taiwan.

The company is the culmination of the efforts of a group of biotechnologists and industry veterans who have made their mark overseas over the past 30 years – from David Ho, Academia Sinica president Wong Chi-huey and Academia Sinica research fellow Chen Lan-bo to Genentech’s senior vice president of product operations, Patrick Yang.

This elite group is working together for the first time, ready to make a concerted effort to create a prototype for Taiwan’s biotechnology development.

“Whether it’s investment, science, clinical, management – we want it to have top people,” said Ho, who had arrived in Taiwan after a long trip early in the morning the previous day. Although he hadn’t slept for several days because he was involved in final negotiations with Genentech, an excited Ho didn’t show the least sign of weariness.

Former vice premier Tsai Ying-wen, the new company’s chairperson, will be responsible for outside negotiations and integrating its group of scientists. TSMC chairman Morris Chang, who generously agreed to serve as an outside adviser, will provide access to his rich network of international contacts and experience in building global commercial success. Former Academia Sinica president Lee Yuan-tseh is serving as the company’s biggest facilitator behind the scenes.

This elite group decided to cooperate because of a common sentiment – that biotechnology is ready to take the baton from information technology as Taiwan’s next star industry.

Decades of Experience

Compared to other countries, Taiwan’s biggest asset and advantage are the thousands of biotechnology and pharmaceutical professionals who grew up in Taiwan and are now working overseas. These scientists, mostly in their late 40s or early 50s, have accumulated years of valuable experience at prominent pharmaceutical companies and research institutes and are now in their “golden era.”

The question for Taiwan is how to build a bridge and produce a platform that can spark the interest of these overseas scholars, so to replicate the success of the 1980s, when the Hsinchu Science Park was able to tap the reservoir of senior Taiwanese talent working in Silicon Valley, and propel the information technology sector to prosperous heights.

Over the past decade, in fact, biotechnology and pharmaceutical professionals have been returning home in waves, hoping to bring to Taiwan the newest international concepts and trends. TaiMed is simply the biggest manifestation of these ten years of accumulated experience.

Large numbers of returning scholars have gravitated to every part of the biotechnology chain – from upstream academic research units, to midstream incubators to downstream enterprises.

Of Academia Sinica’s eight research institutes and centers related to life sciences, six have directors who have returned from abroad within the past ten years. Next January, Wen-hsiung Li, a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, will take over as director of Academia Sinica’s Research Center for Biodiversity.

In the 1970s, many students with backgrounds in pharmacology, agricultural chemistry and chemistry often went abroad to study after graduating from college, and then decided to settle in the United States.

After paying their dues overseas for three decades, many have started to ponder changes in their lives as they approach 50.

Ultimately, these scientists have turned out to be like kites tied down with string – always bound to the earth, no matter how far they fly. And perhaps because they have lived as strangers in a foreign land, their desire to give something back to their native country has proven all the stronger.

Energy at the Height of Battle

These sentimental factors, however, have always existed. What has changed is the overall biotechnology environment. Vocational conditions have matured enough in Taiwan over the past few years to enable the scientists to fulfill their dreams and return home.

Around 50 years of age, their children mostly grown and out on their own, these scientists feel temporarily relieved of their family burdens. Many nearing retirement age can draw pensions, leaving them without pressing economic concerns. At the same time, however, they’re not in physical or mental decline as seen in 60- to 70-year-old retirees. At their age, they still have plenty of energy to fight a new battle.

“At our age and in our situations, we’re better able to adapt and control our lives and do what we feel like doing,” said Michael N. Chang, president & CEO of Optimer Pharmaceuticals Inc., who after achieving success with his first enterprise is starting up a second company at age 51.

Unlike in other businesses, accumulating experience in biotechnology is a slow process. A new pill can take more than a decade to develop, for example. To gain sufficient practical experience and a keen understanding of the industry requires more time than in other fields, so it is only when people reach their fifties that they have the wherewithal to make a contribution.

“People hit their peaks in the biotechnology business in their 40s and 50s,” said Ellson Chen, president and CEO of Vita Genomics, Inc.

Working for American biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies for the past 20 or 30 years as these industries rose from mere beginnings to great prosperity, and having gained a wealth of experience and achievements, many felt it would be impossible to achieve new breakthroughs.

“When you’re at a big company and you’ve reached a certain stage, to be honest, the big companies are no longer very attractive,” says Hong Kong native Hardy W. Chan, executive vice president and chief scientific officer of ScinoPharm Taiwan Ltd. Having worked up to 10 years ago as vice president of research and development for Syntex Pharmaceuticals, which was later taken over by Roche Pharmaceuticals, Chan said he had seen and learned everything he could there.

In contrast, Taiwan is the great unknown, but also offers more attractive challenges.

The Eggheads Come Home to Roost

Taiwan’s biotechnology environment is gradually maturing to the point where it can extend its embrace to these returning scholars.

Alice L. Yu, a research fellow at Academia Sinica’s Genomics Research Center, remembers that this wasn’t the case in 1996 when Lee Yuan-tseh recruited her to come work in Taiwan. Her specialty is translational medicine, which takes the results of basic research and applies them to clinical medicine. She recalls that at the time, she asked the Department of Health about its “IND” (investigational new drug) assessment procedures. The DOH official unexpectedly answered back, “What is IND?” When she asked about its “IRB” (institutional review board), she got the same answer.

“Coming back at that time, there was no opportunity for me to use my skills,” Yu says. But she feels her talents can now be put to use, as guidelines have been devised for IND assessments and IRBs, and a Drug Review Board has been established over the past few years.

Huang Weng-foung, a professor at National Yang Ming University’s Institute of Health and Welfare Policy, believes the moves have led to better discourse.

“Quality has to reach a certain level before you can speak a common language,” Huang said. “At this point, the level of the common language is getting better with time.”

Super Recruiters

For many biomedical talents, Lee Yuan-tseh and Wong Chi-huey provided the final nudge that persuaded them to return home. Nobel laureate Lee, who decided to come back to Taiwan and fight to improve its scientific environment, struck a chord with many expatriate Taiwanese scholars.

Alice Yu and her husband John Yu, director of Academia Sinica’s Institute of Cellular and Organismic Biology, recall that Lee Yuan-tseh approached them many times, trying to lure them back to Taiwan without ever offering any preferential incentives. One time, he sent a fax to their home with a simple message: “Taiwan is not a perfect place, so it really needs you.”

Yu and her husband were persuaded by this straightforward appeal.

One of the main movers in putting TaiMed together was former Harvard professor and Academia Sinica research fellow Chen Lan-bo. Five years ago when Lee Yuan-tseh was attending a conference in Houston, he invited the Boston-based Chen to come to his hotel and said to him, “You should do something for Taiwanese biotechnology.” Since then, Chen has traveled between Taiwan and the United States 48 times, working to propel the development of Taiwan’s biotechnology sector.

Wong Chi-huey, himself persuaded to return to Taiwan by Lee, has taken over the recruiting baton and adopted a more strategic, longer-term approach.

“I’ve studied from a Taiwanese angle how to compete with the world,” Wang said. “What are our conditions? What can we do under these conditions? What else can we develop? Can we compete based on our talent and environment?”

Three years ago, Wong didn’t know Winston Chen, who at the time was serving as the head of Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Photophysics Group. But when Wong called him, Chen bought Wong’s pitch within 20 minutes.

“Some people may have wondered how I could decide within 20 minutes, but I felt at the time that President Wong’s vision was excellent, so I was happy to return. I didn’t bother asking about the details,” Chen says.

In his search for talent, Wong has approached a wide range of top researchers, from upstream R&D specialists like Winston Chen, to experts in clinical applications of basic research like Alice Yu, to industry executives like Michael Chang and Chris C.L. Fan, president and CEO of Wyntek Corporation. His strategy is to make sure each link in the biotechnology chain has a sufficient level of talent to drive Taiwan’s biotechnology sector to new heights in one fell swoop.

Plugging into the International Grid

Citing a study comparing the San Francisco Bay area and the Hsinchu clusters, Chen Lan-bo notes that there are 4,500 ethnic Chinese making names for themselves overseas in the biotechnology arena, and the whole world is targeting these talents before they retire.

The reason is that biotech and pharmaceutical companies are focusing on a global competition, looking at how they can acquire international markets, capital and technology.

This group of returning experts holds the connectors that can plug Taiwan’s biotechnology sector into the international grid.

They are familiar with international industry operating guidelines and understand how to compete globally. Chen Chih-ming, for example, founded Andrx Corporation, which became one of the top ten generic drug makers in the United States. After Chen left Andrx, he set up Anchen Pharmaceuticals Inc. and located its R&D headquarters in Taiwan in search of opportunities for cooperation with Taiwanese R&D teams.

Generic drug makers emphasize speed more than anything else. They want to quickly obtain FDA approval to produce and sell drugs whose patents have run out, so they can grab market share before their competitors and charge premium prices. At the end of last year, Chen Chih-ming and his Taiwanese R&D team were the first to gain FDA approval to make an anti-depressant whose patent, held by pharmaceutical giant GSK, had run out. They managed to submit their application to the FDA a mere two to three days ahead of their nearest rival.

“Everybody was wondering who would get in first, but nobody expected it would be Anchen of Taipei, Taiwan,” recalls Yang Ming University’s Huang. “The experience of how to get around patents and registrations, how to identify a product’s niche and deal with the technology to design the pill or tablet, all to get the first crack at the market – executives with this kind of experience are sorely lacking in Taiwan today.”

Because the biggest markets are overseas, there is rarely the opportunity to transfer cutting-edge technology to Taiwan. But some returning scholars still provide Taiwan with technology, experience and international standards to keep the island involved in the field. Optimer’s Chang decided to bring an experimental breast cancer vaccine to Taiwan to give the company’s local branch the chance to conduct post-phase II clinical trials.

“I only came back to Taiwan to help Taiwan. Otherwise, it would be impossible to find technology or products with potential here,” Chang says.

This group of returning experts also has a thriving network of contacts that they can quickly mine to create opportunities for overseas cooperation, with Academia Sinica couple John and Alice Yu being clear examples.

At the end of September, John Yu took a two-week trip to Europe and Southeast Asia. He first stopped in Germany to discuss a cooperative project, then headed to Britain to discuss a conference on stem cells that will be jointly organized by Taiwan and Britain next year. Next, he stopped in Singapore and Thailand to discuss an Asia-Pacific stem-cell network that is expected to be formed at the end of the year.

Meanwhile, at the end of August his wife Alice led a delegation of DOH officials, hospital superintendents and nurses to the San Diego and San Francisco branches of the University of California to learn more about how to conduct clinical trials. Before that, she had invited the lead nurse clinician of an American hospital for a two-week seminar to explain to local nurses the difference between nurse clinicians and regular nurses. She has also arranged for Minister without Portfolio Ferng-ching Lin to visit the FDA and National Health Institute and meet with key people and observe the agencies’ core operations.

“Having been overseas for a long time, I think one way I can contribute is through my network of contacts,” Alice Yu says.

Perhaps even more importantly, these experts can bring an international-operations mentality to the local biotechnology industry.

Wyntek president Chris Fan, for example, is a proponent of what he terms the “1, 10, 100” law, an expression of the importance of implementing integrated planning and control as early as possible, and not relying on last-minute quality control measures. If a problem is discovered during the market research period, it may take an ounce of effort to fix, Fan believes, but it may require 10 times the effort if found in the R&D stage, and 100 times the effort during mass production. Therefore, one must carefully think out quality strategies from the beginning, rather than waiting to deal with flaws at the end of the manufacturing process.

Taiwanese enterprises are usually accustomed to pursuing short-term gain without taking risks and have trouble communicating clearly, making it hard for them to deal with international companies. They can learn from the knowledge these returning experts have gained in managing biotechnology and pharmaceutical businesses.

“People say that even with the highest trees, their leaves inevitably fall back down to where their roots lie. Coming back to one’s native land, many things seem very familiar, and it’s a wonderful feeling. So I think that even more people will be returning with time,” says Winston Chen. “Once everybody focuses on the worthwhile goal we want to accomplish, they won’t worry about fame or fortune. It’s a very good opportunity for Taiwan.”

Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier

Keywords:

好友人數