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#MakeHistory: Highlighting History | South Korea Goes for Biotech Gold

February 22, 2018
With the Olympic Games concluding this week in South Korea, the pomp and circumstances in Pyeongchang are certainly emblematic of the country’s place as an influencer on the global stage. However, the country has focused on more than winter sports these last few years. They have also developed a golden biotech industry focused on strong commercialization and global partnerships. With roughly 5% of the country’s GDP spent on R&D, the industry breakdown consists of 34% in the human health.

Over the past 25 years, multi-ministerial coordination and the realignment of industrial systems to facilitate R&D have bolstered the country to be a leading developer in the region. The Korean government designated biotechnology as a key component of the country’s development strategy in the early 1980s. With the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology, traditional manufacturing and research practices transitioned to focus on more advanced technologies. With this new priority, legislation supporting innovation and biotechnology flourished. The government’s passage of the Genetic Engineering Promotion Law in 1983, known today as the Biotechnology Promotion Law, reinforced South Korea’s strong foundation for the biosciences developments to come.

However, it was not just government support that formed the industry’s solid foundation. The establishment of research-based innovative associations in the 1990s, reinforced the strength of the growing industry. With associations such as Korean Genetic Engineering Research Association, known today as Korea Biotechnology Research Association (KBRA), and other institutions such as Korea Research Institute of Bioscience & Biotechnology, Bioindustry Association of Korea (BAK), and Korea Bio Venture Association (KoBioVen) paving the way, South Korea set out to make a big impact. In 2008, these three major Korean biotech associations joined forces, founding a new larger united association known as the Korea Biotechnology Industry Organization (Korea BIO) that supports both the bio-industry community and government.

Thriving academic institutions and an increased commitment to higher education also play a critical role in South Korea’s race to become a major player in the biotech field. South Korea is among the highest spenders on higher education of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The country also yields among the region’s top performers in mathematics, reading, and science- specifically in the life sciences industry. With over 5% of the country’s GDP spent on education in advanced degrees, South Korea’s education infrastructure has proven to take care of its own. Fostering an education ecosystem that privileges life science development has encouraged innovative life science breakthroughs.

The symbiotic relationship between government, local associations, and educational institutions has fueled the country’s engine for biosciences development. With the cooperation of these three forces, South Korea’s national R&D expenditure in biotechnology grew nearly 40-fold to over $311 million from the 1980s to mid-1990s.

But nothing was a bigger turning point in South Korea’s biotech history than The Basic Plan for the Promotion of Biotechnology in 1994. Despite its name, this plan was anything but basic. This national biotechnology plan shifted the tide for the country’s competitive edge. Since putting forth the Basic Plan for the Promotion of Biotechnology, government investment has increased at an average rate of over 24% annually until 2008.

This significant investment in R&D yielded powerful results. By 2004, there were over 500 South Korean companies using biotechnology in their businesses. Within these companies, there also was an interest to shift from producing generic branded drugs to increased focus on new drug discovery.

Government investment only continued to intensify moving forward. With over $5 billion invested in the industry infrastructure from 2004-2007, the country moved to rank 7th among 59 countries and regions in the 2007 global competitiveness ranks by the International Institute for Management and Development (IMD). Investment grew even further in 2005 with the government investing an addition $1.4 billion into biotechnology.

Just when we thought there couldn’t be more investment, in 2006, the South Korean government established Bio-Vision 2016, which set the goal of making the country a global biotechnology leader. With goals to strengthen multi-ministerial coordination, develop advanced industrial infrastructure, promote a culture of research integrity and bioethics, and achieve innovative breakthroughs, the bar was set high. But with investment in biotechnology led by six Korean Ministries, including that of Education, Science and Technology; Knowledge Economy; Health and Welfare; Food, Agriculture, Forestry; Environment; and Land, Transport & Maritime Affairs, the country was well equipped to meet those goals.

The benefits of Bio-Vision 2016 were immediate. Within a year, the country’s Technology Strength (TS) index ranking improved to no. 13 in 2007, showing immediate improvement from no. 17 between 1998 and 2001. Effects of the policy also shifted industry towards regenerative medicine research, growing their medical devices industry, and expanding R&D capacity.

In March 2012, the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) was established, and with it both countries agreed to provisions to facilitate high-quality health care and improve access to safe and effective innovative and generic pharmaceutical products. Implementation of KORUS has led to various policy improvements, including regulatory data protection and intellectual property enforcement, although there remain strong concerns on South Korea’s implementation of its intellectual property rights and pricing and reimbursement commitments.

With the strengthening industrial capacity and growing support from local associations, South Korea developed a balanced regional and national system that supported biotech clusters throughout the country. These established hubs became epicenters of innovation with a goal of making regional economic development self-sustaining and self-reliant.

This environment propelled the biotech industry to what it is today. South Korea is one of the most aggressive countries in the region for the development of biosimilars, with the government setting an ambitious goal of providing 22% of global biosimilars supply by 2020. That said, ask anyone in the pharma business in South Korea what’s next and the overwhelming answer would be: expanding global partnerships and making the country a global hub of biotechnology.

BIO continues to champion the progress being made in Asia and recognizes that global collaborations are critical to not only South Korea’s success, but also those of global stakeholders seeking to find investment and licensing partners in country. To foster those cross-border partnerships, BIO is hosting its 15th annual BIO Asia International Conference on March 19-20, 2018 in Tokyo, Japan. This year, we will feature a dedicated session entitled Market Outlook—Investor Priorities and Structuring Cross-Border Financing and look forward to welcoming Korean biotechs including:

  • Eone-Diagnomics Genome Center

  • 1ST Biotherapeutics, Inc.

  • OliX Pharmaceuticals

  • MyGenomeBox Co.,Ltd

  • SIWON Intellectual Property Firm

  • Y-Biologics Inc.

  • Gyeongsang National University

  • SPARK Korea, Korea University

  • Chungnam National University

  • Daewoong Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd.

  • NGeneBio Co., Ltd.

  • Samsung BioLogics

  • IMGT Corp.

  • Konkuk University

  • Standigm

  • Pharos I&BT Co., Ltd

  • Kolon Life Science


To learn more about this exclusive partnering forum focused on doing business in the current Asia-Pacific business and policy environments, visit

South Korea’s rich history of support for the biotech field provides the country a favorable platform to address the challenges ahead. Accordingly, we anxiously watch as South Korea continues to help us make biotech history!