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Analysis: Biotech start-ups elevate Hong Kong’s regional role

Albert Wong argues that biomedical technology should not be ignored and explains how the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation can support it.

Amid all the attention given to robotics, artificial intelligence, big data and IoT, one of the most attractive areas of technological advance is often overlooked: biomedical technology.

For some, the costs and risks associated with the industry make it less attractive as an investment proposition. But in Hong Kong Science Park, we view it differently. A mix of groundbreaking technologies and a strategic focus to convert Hong Kong into a regional biomedical hub make this sector highly attractive.

Add to that the growing health awareness in the region, where lifestyles, changing diets and growing wealth, together with ageing populations, are creating health issues once associated more with the western world. Rising demand and pressure on healthcare services are pushing up medical costs, but at the same time, creating huge potential for the growth of biomedical sector.

Hong Kong is well-placed to support biomedical technology development. It has the world’s biggest market – China – on its doorstep, a large talent pool, access to funding, with a legal structure and a finance system that gives confidence to both inventors and investors. At Hong Kong Science Park, besides its facilities and a lot of like-minded people, close working relationships with the city’s eight world-class universities mean there is a lot of talent available. Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTP) facilitates knowledge transfer and nurtures talents through connections with stakeholders to provide technical and financial support for the technological innovation and commercialisation.

For the field of biomedical technology, HKSTP fosters innovation and development of products such as futuristic diagnostic devices or life-saving treatments to address the society’s health needs. On the technical aspect, HKSTP provides laboratories and service support at Science Park, such as the Biomedical Technology Support Centre. These can be used on a time-share basis, while staffed by professional scientists, all of which would be beneficial to start-ups often operating on a shoestring budget. The Park is also an ideal platform for sharing expertise and business collaborations, as well as investment-matching, for the entrepreneurs to follow their r&d dreams.

As a result, the Park now hosts over 100 biomedical companies and start-ups with business scope spreading across medical devices, stem cells, genomics and regenerative medicine, molecular diagnosis, as well as research and development on Chinese and Western medicines. All these different subspecialties contribute to an ecosystem that’s highly conducive to biomedical research.

For drug r&d, there are strong synergies for Hong Kong and mainland China, particularly in areas where researchers have common objectives, such as the development of early disease diagnosis and precision medicine for treating cancers. Because of its bilingual system and largely Chinese population, Hong Kong is an ideal place to draw on international research and expertise, and adapt it to best suit local needs.

More importantly, clinical data from Hong Kong is recognised by the China Food and Drug Administration for registration and approval purposes, making it an ideal testing ground for emerging therapies and devices which are tailor-made to the population’s genetic make-up to achieve optimal efficacy.

In Asia, healthcare is heavily burdened by rapidly ageing populations and increasing chronic diseases prevalence, especially cancer. At present, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide. Every year, it causes more than 1.6 million deaths – more than breast, colon and prostate cancer combined. And among all the cases, 51% of the world’s lung cancer cases occur in Asia, while 21% of cancer deaths in Asia are due to lung cancer. In China, the world’s largest consumer of tobacco, about two-thirds of young Chinese men smoke, and it is estimated that about half of them will die as a result of it if they don’t stop.

The good news is that local innovation is driving advances in cancer treatment. One company at the forefront is Hong Kong-based Sanomics, which specialises in genomics technology and has dramatically altered the delivery of treatments to individual lung cancer patients based on the ground-breaking new concept of precision medicine.

With precision medicine, Sanomics is shifting from body testing to DNA analysis to identify more targeted therapies for cancer. Precision medicine is a sequencing approach that looks for and examines abnormal changes in genes. It supports the decision-making of oncologists based on information about genetic alterations in tumour DNA. Specific treatments can then be aimed at abnormalities or mutations which cause the growth of cancer cells.

What is unique about Sanomics’ approach is that it uses bodily fluids, such as blood, to screen for genetic alterations when tumour tissues are not available or when it’s not possible to do a biopsy on a patient for conventional diagnostic purposes. It adopts a new process known as liquid biopsy. It is faster, more convenient and more practical in the clinical setting associated with less invasive procedures for the subjects.

Sanomics is an excellent example of the successful commercialisation of academic research in Hong Kong – developing from a proof of scientific concept in university to providing commercial products and services. The company started from HKSTP’s incubation programme, in which the Park would provide support on financial aid, laboratory and technical needs, as well as collaboration matching with corporations who are looking for partners. Sanomics soon established a collaboration with a leading global pharmaceutical company to test and find the optimal treatment for lung cancer patients based on their genetic make-up.

On the back of its success to date, Sanomics is now building Asia’s first hub for liquid biopsy in Hong Kong, and will lead the region in the use of genomics for personalised management of cancer.

Research and development, such as that which supported the growth in liquid biopsy diagnostics is driven by the private sector, especially in late-stage research. In Hong Kong, there is no shortage of funding, but investors tend to need more education on longer term, early-stage investment. So we play to the different investor strengths and needs, tapping universities particularly for early-stage research.

Hong Kong is fortunate in having some of the world’s finest universities, all with different specialisations from lab-based research and product development to in-the-field community healthcare. These are particularly good at early-stage research, but less so when r&d reaches the commercialisation stage. In these situations, a research licensing model has proved effective. The late-stage research and commercialisation then go to private sector companies, such as Sanomics at Hong Kong Science Park, which have the expertise to progress its development.

The Science Park has different means to support start-ups, including its Corporate Venture Fund and other funding schemes. It also holds investment-matching events such as the Elevator pitch, to be held in November, in conjunction with Jumpstarter. Through arranging such regular matching events, HKSTP helps to pair angel investors and venture capitalists with Park companies to accelerate their biomedical innovations and developments.

An investment ecosystem is a critical component to technology development. The biomedical sector, like other technology sectors, needs smart investors to bring up the good ones, and prune the not-so-good ones. Biomedical technologies take a long time to develop and to mature. Development and regulatory processes cost money and time. Investors have to be ready to partner, bringing expertise and patience. The investment cycles often include long drawn-out periods of non-profit or even non-revenue. The entry barrier is high and the risk is high. Smart and strategic investors are critical to the growth of biomedical. We are lucky that we have some of these in Hong Kong.

Albert Wong is CEO of the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corp.

Posted on: 12/09/2017 UTC+08:00


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