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Exclusive Interview with Dr. David Ho

Success that Money Can Measure


Renowned researcher David Ho talks of the significance of his new biotech venture, the importance of making a contribution, and the definition of success.



Success that Money Can Measure

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

As former Princeton University president Harold T. Shapiro once observed, to be overly concerned with avoiding all risk is to accept mediocrity and relinquish leadership. This is an insight that Dr. David Ho, the leading international researcher on acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS), has taken to heart.

“ There are crucial moments where you have to believe in what you are going to do, like with the TaiMed project, ” the 1996 Time magazine Man of the Year, global AIDS guru and father of three declares, adding, “It is risky, right? But we are doing it.”

Ho is now doing his best to make a contribution to his native land of Taiwan, by embarking on something he has never done before – founding a biotechnology startup.

Back in Taiwan just two days for a news conference officially unveiling TaiMed Biologics – in which he is a prominent participant – and announcing its acquisition of key pharmaceutical technology, Ho found time to speak with CommonWealth Magazine . Following are highlights from this exclusive interview.

Q: What is the strategic significance of TaiMed Biologics’ success for Taiwan?

A: I think, really, it’s more than just the commercial aspect of the new drug. That, of course, has to be given consideration, because investors are interested in making money. But for me and for Tsai Ying-wen and other people, it’s more than just that, because we want to help to develop the biotech industry in Taiwan.

So the strategic gains are very important. This drug, we feel, would allow us the opportunity to have an FDA-approved drug. That would be a first in Taiwan. If the drug is approved, then we have to manufacture the drug, and Genentech has agreed to work with us to help us manufacture the drug in Taiwan. That would also allow TaiMed to have a manufacturing factory that’s approved by the FDA. So these are all very strategic gains. So now Taiwan will have the ability to manufacture clinical-grade drugs for us.

So this could be applied to other things. Besides just TNX-355, it could be used to synthesize, to manufacture other types of biological drugs. So that gives Taiwan a particular strategic gain.

The third is, really, having this manufacturing site allows Taiwan to make certain things that it currently has no ability to make. For example, certain crucial vaccines.

Taiwan is talking about the fact that it’s not part of the UN, not part of WHO, and if there were to be a major outbreak, for example, of avian influenza, because Taiwan is not part of the international community that would manufacture a vaccine, currently, if that would happen, there’s no facility. But this will enable Taiwan to manufacture certain types of vaccines. So that’s another very important strategic gain.

Q: How is this different from Taiwan’s past strategies?

A: Taiwan always has very good people. You know, as Tsai Ying-wen said at the press conference, we have a lot of wonderful people working in research and development, in various places in the world. But there’s no unified strategy. People come back and start companies that are very small. It’s not put together the same way with the same careful attention to good people at every level.

If you look at a successful company in America, it has good people, and good people all around. It’s important to have not just good science, but good development people. And also you need to have strong investors – investors who really know this area, and expect return only in the long term. If you take the mentality that I want to invest a certain number of dollars today and a year from now I want that to grow – biotech is much longer term, and the risk is much higher. So we need people with the same mindset.

And in biotech, seldom would you have a plan and have that plan work. So that’s why you need people – good people from the management and scientific aspect – because you have a plan and you constantly have to make adjustments. And in the end the company could be successful, but not according to the original vision.

So because you will change many times, you have to adjust the conditions as they develop.

The Morris Chang Story, Redux

Q: Does coming back to Taiwan to assist with TaiMed Biologics feel a little like returning to your roots?

A: I think in many ways, myself and (Harvard University professor) Chen Lan-bo and (Academia Sinica president) Wong Chi-Huey, we have looked at the Taiwan IT industry, and see that it is really successful, really something the country can be proud of.

Of course we all look at Morris Chang as a person who made that all possible. If you think about Morris, he didn’t have to come back to Taiwan. He was the executive vice president at Texas Instruments – very successful and, I am sure, he made a very good living.

But if there’s a need here, and we can make a contribution, it’s great. If you look at Morris’s story, he really started his efforts in Taiwan when he was in his fifties, almost his second career. He had a wonderfully successful first career.

But you could say, what am I going to do next? I don’t really know the answer for me yet, but it seems like working on this project is another way of helping and another way of getting started with something different. I have never opened a company before. And if I wanted to do one, it is actually easier to do it in the U.S. The regulations and all those things are much easier, and of course, for me it’s easier, just because I am much more comfortable in the language and everything in the US. I was brought up there.

So if I just wanted to open up a company, and have it be successful – but I think there’s something special about coming back here to do it, because all of us here who have been working together feel that there’s this national goal for Taiwan and we could help.

The past year, really, working closely with Pat and Wong Chi-Huey, I felt all along I am working with very good people, very smart people with integrity and commitment. Commitment to the work, commitment to excellence, and commitment to helping Taiwan with this mission.

What impressed me about the working relationship is that everyone worked so hard.

A Leader with Integrity for a Long-Term Enterprise

Q: Tsai Ying-wen has no business background, yet she has been appointed chairperson. What special quality of hers led to that decision?

A: I think we need a leader with A+ quality. Really that quality is very important to us. Because management is as important as the science and development. If you have bad management, the company will not be successful. So part of the solution is, we want every aspect – whether it’s investment, science, clinical, management – we want it to have top people.

It’s pretty clear to everybody, if you sit down and talk to her, that her intelligence is there, that’s no question. And she also has the leadership qualities. She can talk to people very well. She can convince people. So she has the charisma.

But very important, you also have to have integrity. I said that at the press conference. She also has the integrity, the character. That was very important to us. Business experience is less important, because we could learn all that. And we have people who can guide us: Stan Shih of Acer is an advisor, Morris (Chang) is an advisor. We have a lot of very savvy business people, but we need, fundamentally, a leader that has the right character.

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. We are not here to make money in the short term. Short term, I think you could skip on the integrity, and turn a company around, take it public, and then forget your vision and make some money. That’s possible. But we are not doing this. The principals involved are not doing this for the money. We are doing this for the purpose of building this company as a model.

Q: What is your definition of success?

A: Probably a combination, but ultimately it’s what makes you satisfied, inside your heart. For me, of course I began as a scientist, and I want to be a successful scientist. And I think I am comfortable where I am. I have a certain record of achievement that I am proud of. I want to continue to build on that, but even if I died tomorrow, my record I am happy with. That’s one indication of success.

Then another value is the family. I think I have a good family. I am very happy with that. And really the third one is the significance of one’s work. I have friends who are millionaires or billionaires, who have said, I would trade with you. The significance – that makes me happy, because our work has touched people’s lives.

Q: It seems that the significance of your work is a special attribute of your team – the fact that you hope to have an impact.

A: As we planned this project, we wanted TaiMed to have significance, particularly for Taiwan. And that’s our goal. So it’s not a success measured strictly by dollars.

Transcribed by Ming-Ling Hsieh 

Chinese Version: 何大一:找一個不能用錢衡量的成功