Turning Taiwan into a Regional Biomedical Hub

Positioning Taiwan as an Asia-Pacific Biomedical R&D Hub – Is Taiwan Ready for the Top Spot?” That provocative topic was the theme of a half-day conference – held April 25 at the Chang Yung-Fa Foundation’s International Convention Center – that featured a number of prominent expert speakers and panelists from both Taiwan and internationally. The event was sponsored by the International Research-based Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations (IRPMA), the Taiwan Bio Industry Organization, the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei, the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) Commercial Section, and the Biomedical Development Board of Taiwan.

Following lengthy discussion, the answer to the question raised in the conference title seemed clear. Taiwan has indisputably made great strides in building a positive ecosystem for its biomedical industry to develop, and indeed Taiwan has the potential to take a central role in biomedical R&D in the region. But at the same time, there is broad recognition that Taiwan still has some way to go – especially in such areas as the regulatory environment and market access – before it will be in a position to mount a convincing challenge for the “top spot.”

Taiwan’s serious aspirations in the biomedical field were emphasized by the guest of honor speaker, Vice President Chen Chien-Jen, who cited the Tsai Ing-wen administration’s determination to aggressively promote the biomedical sector. The Vice President went on to outline Taiwan’s achievements in that direction, including the institution of strong IPR protection, successful experience in conducting clinical trials, the establishment of incubators and accelerators to foster startups, efforts to enhance regulatory efficiency, and creation of a favorable infrastructure in the form of the Taipei Nangang Biomedical Park (due to open later this year) and other science park facilities.

A report by Professor Meir Perez Pugatch, a healthcare economist at Israel’s University of Haifa, provided a clear analysis of Taiwan’s comparative advantages and disadvantages in biotech, based on the results of the latest Biopharmaceutical Competitiveness Index (BCI), a global survey. Taiwan ranked a healthy third among “newcomer economies” after Singapore and Israel – “an amazing success story” in Pugatch’s estimation – with strong scores in such categories as Clinical Research Conditions & Framework, Scientific Capabilities & Infrastructure, and Effective IP Protections (bolstered recently by new Patent Linkage legislation).

But Taiwan has lagged significantly in two areas: 1) the Regulatory System, where long delays occur for licensing and even more so in the reimbursement process, and biosimilar standards need clarity, and 2) Market Access & Financing, where the reimbursement-approval delays and unpredictable pricing system discourage the entry of innovative products.

“Taiwan has laid the groundwork for becoming a top-tier bioeconomy,” Pugatch observed. Now it needs to concentrate on removing the remaining regulatory and market-access bottle-necks. “Closing the remaining gaps will boost Taiwan’s attractiveness of FDI, enabling it to compete with mature markets and establish itself as an attractive biomedical innovation hub and reliable trading partner,” Pugatch concluded.

Another presenter, Wallace Lin, chief administrative officer of the Biomedical Development Board of Taiwan, noted Taiwan’s many assets as a biotech location, including its high-quality hospitals and medical professionals, strong ICT industry as a source of technological support, sound legal system and IPR protection, good environment for startups, and numerous research parks.

Three panel discussions rounded out the conference. The first primarily was an opportunity for two biomedical entrepreneurs – Grace Yeh of PharmaEngine Inc. and Chris Tsai of GGA Corp., to talk about their experience coping with various regulatory hurdles facing startups in Taiwan. The second panel heard briefings from two Taiwan-based multinational pharmaceutical executives – Wendy Lin of Janssen/J&J and Boon Huey Ee of Merck Ltd. Taiwan. While noting Taiwan’s advantages as a place for conducting clinical trials, they stressed that Taiwan faces increasing competition in this respect and urged the authorities to clarify the incentives that Taiwan can offer.

A third panel, which included Secretary-General Wang Tsung-Hsi of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, discussed ways of increasing Taiwan’s biotech investment competitiveness. Panelist Lai Li Peng of Merck Sharp & Dohme Taiwan emphasized that continued improvements in the regulatory system and better market access for cutting-edge drugs would do much to enhance the investment attractiveness.

In closing remarks, Johnsee Lee, chairman of the Taiwan Bio Industry Organization, stressed the importance for Taiwan of increasing its international collaboration and partnerships with leading multinationals. He described the conference as a “milestone” in bringing various stakeholders together for candid discussions. “Taiwan has made much progress,” he concluded, “but there is still a lot to improve to make Taiwan ready for the top spot.”