HAR­NESS­ING THE HU­MAN GENOME

The Peak (Hong Kong) - - Contents -

Thanks to its unique data­base ar­chi­tec­ture and ge­o­graph­i­cal reach, Shang­hai-based ge­nomics pi­o­neer Wuxi NEX­TCODE is best placed to de­code the hu­man genome for im­prove­ments in pre­ven­tive health­care and di­ag­no­sis of rare ail­ments

adding that other ju­ris­dic­tions around the world have spe­cial courts set up for such cases.

Hong Kong in­vestors and ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists' lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in deal­ing with re­search-driven com­pa­nies has also added to the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by wouldbe biotech start-ups. More­over, in­vestors and en­trepreneurs point out that ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists in Hong Kong tend to­wards shorter, faster rates of re­turn, which works against biotech. Wil­ton Chau, a biotech in­vestor, chair­man of the Qleap Ven­ture Fund and vice-chair­man of the Hong Kong Biotech­nol­ogy Or­gan­i­sa­tion, says that most Hong Kong ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists don't know how to in­vest in biotech. He points to a global trend of ven­ture cap­i­tal in­vest­ing in as­set-light, low cap­i­tal ex­pen­di­ture projects.

Li of Novo­heart has taken matters into his own hands. He is cre­at­ing a fund specif­i­cally for in­vest­ing in Asia-based biotech com­pa­nies. The first in­vest­ment is of course into Novo­heart, but Li says he is gath­er­ing other in­vestors to­gether.

More­over, he is now the di­rec­tor of the Hong Kong branch of the Karolin­ska In­sti­tute, the Swedish re­search univer­sity ded­i­cated to repar­a­tive medicine. The Karolinksa In­sti­tute se­lects No­bel lau­re­ates in phys­i­ol­ogy or medicine. The lo­cal node is based at the Hong Kong Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy Park, which also hosts all the city's biotech com­pa­nies fo­cused on re­search. It re­cently cel­e­brated its first an­niver­sary.

The in­sti­tute in Hong Kong is fo­cused tightly on biotech­nol­ogy re­search and com­mer­cial­i­sa­tion, says Li. He hopes it can re­cruit up to 100 re­searchers, with as many as 60 of those from Hong Kong and the rest from over­seas.

Li, ever the op­ti­mist, says that progress on the in­sti­tute has been “faster than ex­pected”, adding that it is get­ting a lot of at­ten­tion for its work al­ready. “Big pharma com­pa­nies are ask­ing to see the Karolin­ska In­sti­tute Hong Kong node.”

The new govern­ment of Car­rie Lam has also in­spired hope. Li de­scribes the re­cent an­nounce­ment that the Hong Kong govern­ment aims to in­crease R&D ex­pen­di­ture from 0.73 per cent to 1.5 per cent in five years as an “ex­cit­ing first move”. The need, he says, is for more suc­cess sto­ries in Hong Kong to en­cour­age in­vest­ment and in­ter­est from stu­dents and would-be re­searchers that can cre­ate and staff new biotech start-ups.

So far, Hong Kong has lagged be­hind re­gional ri­val Sin­ga­pore in the quest to be­come a hub for biotech, but the win­dow of op­por­tu­nity to move ahead may be here. Se­cur­ing fund­ing has been dif­fi­cult for the pioneers show­cased here, but re­search that was started 15 or 20 years ago is now start­ing to bear fruit, says Dr Ce­cilia Pang, biotech­nol­ogy di­rec­tor for the In­no­va­tion and Tech­nol­ogy Com­mis­sion. She points out that in­ter­na­tional in­vestor in­ter­est in Hong Kong biotech, par­tic­u­larly from main­land China, is grow­ing.

Mean­while, the Hong Kong govern­ment has been qui­etly in­vest­ing into lo­cal biotech­nol­ogy ideas. As of Au­gust 2017, the govern­ment's In­no­va­tion and Tech­nol­ogy Fund has ap­proved HK$836 mil­lion for 433 "biotech­nol­ogy-re­lated projects".

Sin­ga­pore, which be­gan its push into biotech over 20 years ago, set­tled on a strat­egy of of­fer­ing tax in­cen­tives to big pharma com­pa­nies to set up there. But while that may have en­cour­aged com­pa­nies to put re­gional head­quar­ters there, it may leave an open­ing for Hong Kong to of­fer up a more com­plete ecosys­tem of biotech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment, Pang says.

Gen­er­at­ing in­ter­na­tional in­vestor in­ter­est may be the

key to get­ting Hong Kong biotech from in­fancy to a more ma­ture phase. The city's top life sciences pro­fes­sion­als of­ten have in­ter­na­tional net­works that can help with this, as seen with our pro­file sci­en­tists. Dr Daniel Lee of the HKSTP says that the num­ber of biotech com­pa­nies at the park has grown from 30 to 100.

And de­spite the longer in­vest­ment time­lines of biotech, there is in­ter­est from Hong Kong's big­gest cor­po­rate groups. CK Life Sciences, a sub­sidiary of Cheung Kong Hold­ings and chaired by Vic­tor Li, is in­vested in biotech, but not yet in Hong Kong.

Mean­while, Li and his com­pany have listed on the Toronto Stock Ex­change, in part, he says, be­cause Hong Kong's stock ex­change is not yet ready for biotech. Al­bert Yu, in his role as chair­man of the HKBIO, is or­gan­is­ing Hong Kong's first ever biotech­nol­ogy con­fer­ence in Novem­ber. Just af­ter our cover photo shoot, he was off to Shen­zhen, seek­ing funds for the fu­ture of Hong Kong.

– Der­rick Au

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