Biomedical and Taiwan’s Aging Population

Advanced equipment on display at the opening of the Biomedical Innovation Plan Center. Photo Courtesy of Office of the President.

Development of the biotech, biopharmaceutical, and medical device industries offers an opportunity not only to advance Taiwan’s technology and grow its economy, but also provide solutions to many of the problems faced by an aging society.

“Taiwan is aging at a rapid rate and we need new ideas and new approaches by industry to tackle that issue,” says Deputy Minister Kung Ming-Hsin of the National Development Council. “The biomedical, biopharmaceutical, and medical device sectors all have something to contribute to take care of the diseases that come with aging.”

With 14% of its population already considered elderly, Taiwan is aging quickly and will become a super-aged society – with 20% of its population over 65 – by 2025, putting increased stress on the healthcare system. Strengthening public health and promoting social welfare are therefore two fundamental goals of the Asia-Pacific Biomedical Industry plan, the formal name for this aspect of the 5+2 program.

Taiwan already has a thriving industry sector under the broad biomedical heading, with over 40 companies listed on the Taiwan Stock Exchange and many firms located in the Central and Southern Science Parks making biomedical equipment, biologic drugs, medical devices, generic drugs, implants, and more. Nearly 200 more companies are located in the National Biotech Research Park in Taipei’s Nangang District, and the Pingtung Agriculture and Biotechnology Park in the South is host to nearly 100 more.

Taiwan’s biomedical industry earned revenues totaling nearly US$10 billion in 2015, according to data supplied by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST). But most of the production involved the manufacture of generic drugs or OEM medical devices, occupying lower links in the value chain. The biomedical program will seek to raise the value of Taiwan’s industry by establishing and upgrading R&D centers, integrating advances in precision machinery to manufacture higher-value medical devices, and transforming generic drug companies into makers of innovative pharmaceuticals.

Efforts to raise the level of Taiwan’s biopharma industry began in the 2000s, but with long development cycles, the investments have yet to pay off. The lengthy lead time is one of the reasons that many oppose spending government money on this sector.

“We’ve been doing biopharma for a long time, since the Chen Shui-bian presidency, with a lot of budget allocated towards it, but no return so far, so it’s a huge disappointment,” says Darson Chiu, a Tunghai University professor and researcher with the Taiwan Institute of Economic Research. “We should be very careful regarding biomedicine, as it will take a lot of investment and squeeze our limited budget.”

Drug development is a highly risky endeavor, with the odds extremely low that even promising molecules in the lab will eventually lead to blockbuster products. Taiwanese biotech firm OBI Pharma lost billions of NT dollars in market cap last year after it revealed that Phase III clinical trials for its new breast cancer vaccine OBI-822 were not statistically significant, causing a selloff of company shares.

Taiwan conducts highly regarded fundamental research in molecular biology at a number of prestigious research institutes and universities, particularly Academia Sinica. “But applying that research to commercial developments has been an issue and we haven’t done very well on that,” says NDC’s Kung. He says that the Basic Law for Technology, which has strict limitations on academics’ ability to work in private industry, has stymied development of the sector, and that the government is looking to amend this law “to encourage cooperation between research institutions or centers and commercial industry.”

Kung acknowledges the risks involved in biopharma research, and notes that the government is also placing heavy emphasis on the medical device sector, which requires far shorter development time and has much faster time to market.