In the fast-growing, relatively new field of biopharmaceuticals, California-based Amgen has been one of the standout performers. Founded in 1980, it earned a record US$23.7 billion in revenue last year to rank in 123rd place on the Fortune 500 list of the largest U.S. corporations. It also ranked within the world’s top 10 drug companies by sales.
As part of a drive to globalize its business to the fast-growing healthcare region, the company established Amgen Taiwan Ltd. in 2015 with the goal of bringing new innovative drugs to Taiwanese patients.
“Taiwan is not among the most sizeable markets, but it’s a very important market,” says Joyce Lee, general manager of Amgen Taiwan. “Because of Taiwan’s well-established national healthcare system, there are a lot of opportunities for collaboration – for example, utilizing big data to identify potential new treatment areas.”
Amgen, the biotech pioneer, specializes in using science and biotechnology together with living cells to develop innovative biologics to treat serious diseases.
“The technology barrier is much higher than for traditional chemical drugs, with their simpler molecular structure,” Lee says. “That’s true not just for the product-development stage, but also for the manufacturing process. There are big challenges for the quality control, stability, and sustainability of the product during manufacturing and also for the delivery of the product to the patients.”
As a result of Amgen’s proven expertise in biotech, the company in 2009 was encouraged by the U.S. government to devote some of its resources to developing biosimilar products, which are highly similar to and have no clinically meaningful differences from the reference product. Amgen’s first biosimilar was launched in Europe last year, and this March it received its first license approval in Taiwan for a biosimilar, for the treatment of immune-mediated diseases.
“Biosimilars are not just another source of business for Amgen,” Lee says. “Around the world, there are many countries where patients cannot afford to be treated with biologics. For us, producing biosimilars is actually part of our Corporate Social Responsibility. It’s a way to help patients, physicians, and payer institutions by providing treatments with greater affordability, while assuring high quality and reliable supply.”
A major focus of Amgen’s activity in recent years has been on health problems associated with an aging population – a subject particularly relevant to Taiwan, which will soon enter the ranks of the world’s “super-aged societies.” One of the dangers of old age is osteoporosis, a weakened bone condition that may make the elderly more prone to falling and to suffering a fracture from the fall.
“Osteoporosis is a much more serious concern than most people realize,” Lee says. “If patients lose mobility, it means a big deterioration in their quality of life. The social cost for the caregiver is also very high.”
In order to raise public awareness of osteoporosis, Amgen has been cooperating with local medical societies and the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Bureau of Health Promotion to try to promote the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis. For example, they have devised a simple questionnaire designed to alert people to the presence of the disease.
Amgen continues to work with the Taiwan Osteoporosis Association and hospitals to develop a network of physicians and facilities trained to diagnose and treat osteoporosis. The program reflects Amgen’s commitment to promoting a “predict and prevent” approach to healthcare. Big data and other new technologies now make it easier to identify high-risk groups and then intervene to prevent the disease.
Describing Amgen as having “a very special culture, one that really supports innovation,” Lee cites a company program under the scope of its Value-based Partnership that operates like an internal angel fund. Employees, either on their own or working with an external stakeholder, are encouraged to propose projects based on bold new ideas to a global team of evaluators. Winning proposals receive funding from the company headquarters to implement their projects.
A team from Taiwan was among the top-three award winners for a project to screen all the elderly in a given town or county for osteoporosis by measuring bone density. The program currently serves as a pilot study in central Taiwan for later expansion to other localities in Taiwan or abroad to help promote the prevention and treatment of osteoporosis.
“Perhaps because of our California background, Amgen is more entrepreneurial than most companies – we have more startup DNA,” Lee says. “We tend to be very visionary, willing to take a risk.”
As Amgen Taiwan enters a new stage of growth, it is looking both to recruit outstanding personnel and create a robust program to develop talent inhouse.
“We want people who are innovative, like a challenge and have a strong learning ability to enable them to adapt to change, and grow along with the company to serve patients in Taiwan.” Lee says.