Biotech Event Showcases Taiwan’s “Next Trillion-Dollar Industry”

Leo He of Golden Biotechnology Corp. promotes a drug made from a mushroom grown in the central mountains of Taiwan. Photo: Louise Watt

Combining on-site and online participants, exhibitors, and speakers, BIO Asia-Taiwan 2020 introduced hundreds of new biotech and biomedical developments, including many related to COVID-19.

In a visual demonstration of how well Taiwan has controlled COVID-19, the island hosted Asia’s first major industry gathering since the onset of the pandemic, a biotech conference and exhibition appropriately themed “Finding Cures in the Crisis.”

With many large events around the world cancelled to limit the virus’ spread, the organizing committee of BIO Asia-Taiwan was also initially skeptical that they could pull it off. But if there was ever a time the biotech industry needed to meet, it was now.

As the pandemic rages across the globe, the biomedical industry is at the forefront of driving developments to combat it. But restricted travel means companies are struggling to make the kinds of new connections that lead to international partnerships and deal-making.

Johnsee Lee, chairman of the BIO Asia-Taiwan 2020 organizing committee, said they had considered postponing the event because border closures and restricted travel meant few people would be able to attend from outside Taiwan.

“Then we thought about how the industry still needs to continue functioning – we need to find partners,” Lee told Taiwan Business TOPICS. “We have to talk about licensing, collaborations, and also fundraising.”

So, the organizers came up with a hybrid “Online + Live” model, combining speakers and exhibitors on-site and online. As a result, the world’s first large-scale on-site biotech conference since the onset of COVID-19 was able to go ahead as scheduled from July 22 to 26.

More than 400 speakers took part in the three-day conference portion of the event, either in person at the TaiNEX 2 Exhibition Center in Nangang, Taipei, live online, or via pre-recorded videos. They spoke on topics ranging from combatting pandemics, precision medicine, advanced therapies, artificial intelligence for healthcare, investment, and regional cooperation.

To keep the interest of viewers who logged in online, most presentations were only 15 minutes long and ran back-to-back, without the coffee breaks typical of conferences.

The event attracted 1,400 registered participants – almost as many as last year’s 1,500 – although the registration cost this time around was significantly lower. This year 30% of participants were from abroad, and around 400 signed up to participate online, including 107 from the U.S. “This is much better than we expected,” Lee says.

At the four-day exhibition that complemented the conference, 500 companies had displays on-site and a further 200 presented virtually, through online booths that resembled chat rooms. Exhibitors reported a big decrease in on-site visitors compared to last year. While online booths gave smaller companies a chance to compete for attention alongside big names, receiving virtual visitors was sometimes difficult because of time zone differences.

The organizers tried to replicate the networking that is a key part of any conference with online lounges where you could hand over virtual business cards. Rather than having to vie for a free slot in small meeting rooms on the conference sidelines, people scheduled more than 2,000 one-on-one meetings online.

Of the nearly 5,000 logins during the event, 30% were from outside Taiwan – mostly from the U.S., Japan, and China.

This year’s conference of the Washington, D.C.-based Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO), which was forced online in July, provided some lessons for the Taipei event. These included encouraging speakers to pre-record their presentations, preparing good lighting, and using appropriate backgrounds. BIO, which co-organized the Taipei event with the Taiwan Bio Industry Organization (TBIO), hadn’t thought to forewarn speakers at the July conference of the risk of birds chirping throughout their presentations, as happened with one speaker who recorded his remarks outdoors.

In a speech at the opening ceremony, President Tsai Ing-wen said it was a testament to the country’s handling of COVID-19 that BIO Asia-Taiwan was being held at all. She said Taiwan is willing to share its experience of dealing with the coronavirus and hopes that Taiwanese and foreign companies will find ways to “create new opportunities in the post COVID-19 era.”

The biomedical sector is already a part of Tsai’s 5+2 plan to promote key industries to drive growth and sustainable development. Her government has built biotech and pharmaceutical clusters throughout Taiwan and relaxed investment and recruitment restrictions.

This initiative has accelerated innovation, she told the audience of industry leaders and representatives of local government, overseas trade offices, academia, and medical associations. “We are now planning the next round of innovative legislation to incentivize R&D on new pharmaceuticals,” she said.

Over the past two years, Tsai added, Taiwan has carried out more than 300 clinical trials, 80% of which were with international companies.

The biomedical field’s revenue grew by 8.7% in 2019, the highest in recent years, said Tsai, who has experience in the sector as a former chairperson of TaiMed Biologics, a drug development company in Neihu. Noting that total investment last year surpassed NT$55.1 billion (US$1.9 billion), the President said she is “confident that the biomed industry will be Taiwan’s next trillion-dollar industry.”

Lee, who besides heading the event’s organizing committee is chairman of TBIO and founder and CEO of two biotech companies, said that the pandemic had given a boost to Taiwan’s biotech and biomedical industries “because it has changed people’s minds” about their importance. Companies that make components to help with drug manufacturing, or products for antibody and other testing, “are all continuously selling products,” he said.  

“These are products that could have significant impact on a company’s business and also their product portfolio because this is a global market,” Lee said. “Think about how big the demand is just for preparing for the next pandemic.” He said that this is the reason why share prices for many biotech companies are increasing so drastically, adding that it bolsters industry resources and increases Taiwan’s visibility.

Potential breakthroughs

At BIO Asia-Taiwan, local companies displayed their potential solutions for COVID-19, including vaccines, tests, and drugs.

Golden Biotechnology Corp., a drug and health supplement manufacturer based in Tamsui, was promoting Antroquinonol, the only drug from Taiwan to have received U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval for carrying out Phase II clinical trials on COVID-19 patients in the U.S. It is being tested as a potential treatment option for mild-to-moderate pneumonia.

“It’s totally different [from other drugs under development for COVID-19] because it’s made from a medicinal mushroom grown in Taiwan,” said Leo He, manager of Golden Biotechnology’s international business department.

The drug is derived from Antrodia camphorata, traditionally used to treat liver diseases, and took 10 years to develop. It was already being trialed in the U.S. for non-small cell lung cancer when COVID-19 came along.

“This medicine is multi-functioning; anti-cancer is only part of it,” He said. “If everything goes well, by next year hopefully we may be approved to be the first COVID-19 treatment from Taiwan.”

Among the companies promoting fast finger-prick and other tests to identify COVID-19 was Cold Spring Biotech Corp., based in New Taipei City’s Xizhi District. One product on display was a nucleic acid diagnostic kit that looks like a camera lens. A nasal swab from a patient is inserted into one of its compartments, and a test result takes 45 minutes.

Yang Chung-hsiang of Cold Spring Biotech Corp., left, with colleagues Haley Chao, center,and Eric Chen, right, and their COVID-19 testing products. Photo: Louise Watt

The procedure uses a polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which amplifies a DNA sample hundreds of thousands of times so there is enough of it to analyze. The test kit is portable, weighing less than 600 grams. 

“Conventional PCR machines are too large to be carried around,” said Yang Chung-hsiang, Cold Spring’s R&D project manager. “So, this is designed for the countryside or some poor countries where they may lack a complete lab where professionals can conduct these tests. Because of the scale of the outbreak you can’t have labs everywhere. You need to go where the outbreak starts and try to figure out who is affected.”

The test kit has been approved by the Taiwan FDA but is not yet on the market.

At least three Taiwanese companies, plus Academica Sinica and the National Health Research Institutes under the Ministry of Health and Welfare, are developing vaccines to counter COVID-19. Developers have complained that Taiwan has lagged behind other countries because of onerous regulatory requirements, according to local media. Following the criticism, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung announced in July that the government will allocate NT$18.7 billion (US$637 million) for the development or procurement of a COVID-19 vaccine and to streamline the approval process for high-potential candidates.

Among the companies in the vaccine race is Adimmune Corp., which provides up to 40% of Taiwan’s domestic vaccine needs each year, Liu Chung-Cheng, its president and general manager, told the conference. Adimmune is using recombinant protein technology, which uses only a small part of the virus’ DNA sequence to create a protein that will trigger a response from the body’s immune system.

The method is faster than the traditional way of making vaccines, as “we don’t have to culture the whole virus,” said Pinky Li, manager of the business development division of Enimmune Corp., an Adimmune subsidiary. “As long as we know the virus’ sequence, we can choose the part which can induce the most appropriate immune response for vaccine development. So, when a new emergency disease comes, we can react very quickly.”

Liu, Adimmune’s president, said the company is awaiting TFDA approval to start the first phase of clinical trials in humans. It plans to produce 10-40 million doses, he noted.

Medigen Vaccine Biologics Corp., based in Neihu, is working with the U.S. National Institutes of Health to develop a vaccine using recombinant spike protein technology.

Stanley Chang, chairman and CEO of parent company Medigen Biotechnology Corp., said recruitment of patients for trials may start by early September.

“Our commitment to the Taiwanese government is that by the end of this year we are going to supply the government with one million doses of the vaccine,” Chang said, adding that the company is aiming to supply up to 20 million doses annually. “After that, if we can expand our scale rapidly, we’ll be able to provide our vaccines to neighboring countries in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.

Chang said that to drive the future development of Taiwan’s biotech industry, the government should look at integrating AI with precision medicine, precision machinery, and medical collaboration. While many companies around the world are working on using AI in medicine, “that is just a small part, but not the holistic part of the future of biotech business,” said Chang. “You have to link all four things together.”

Looking forward to next year’s BIO Asia-Taiwan conference, Johnsee Lee said the advantage of the online forum was that it allows for more speakers and participants from abroad. “In the future, online participation may actually become more important than on-site,” he predicted. By broadening the types of participation and speakers at an event, the organizers can give themselves more flexibility, he said.