The Asia-Pacific (APAC) region is the third largest pharmaceutical market in the world, and has seen a shift from predominantly producing generics to developing innovative technologies. Here are five emerging biotech hubs in the region to keep an eye on.
The life sciences industry is seeing rapid growth in the APAC region – home to 60 percent of the global population – due to increased R&D activity, a flow of mergers and acquisitions, a large population and market demand from several aging societies.
This has led to the emergence of several biotech hubs in the region that are at the forefront of innovative healthcare and sustainability. Supported by these developments, the APAC biotech market is estimated to expand at a rapid compound annual growth rate of 16.8 percent up to 2028.
In no particular order, here are five cities and countries in the APAC region that are engaged in developing their biotech industries.
Table of contents
Singapore is a leading hub for R&D, biopharma manufacturing and commercial operations in the APAC region, with a growing startup ecosystem. Thanks to government support through policies and continued public investments, the pharmaceutical sector is a pillar of Singapore’s economy, responsible for about 5 percent of its Gross Domestic Product. Big pharma companies, such as GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Novartis and Sanofi, have been drawn to Singapore because of its pro-business environment, talented workforce and infrastructure: Four of the top 10 drugs by global revenue are manufactured in Singapore. More than 25 R&D centers have also been established by multinational medical technology companies.
In addition to the presence of global companies, Singapore has focused on growing its own biotech community. As of 2019, there were more than 350 biotech companies in Singapore, from startups to small-medium enterprises. Relying on Singapore’s network of top universities and research institutions, biotech companies are showing growth across different therapeutic areas and modalities. For example, RVAC Medicines, founded in July 2021 to develop mRNA therapeutics and vaccines, raised $140 million in a Series B round in April 2022. Meanwhile, the clinical-stage cell therapy startup Tessa Therapeutics closed a $126 million Series A round in June 2022 to advance its personalized and off-the-shelf CAR-T cell programs.
Other key startups include the cancer diagnostics startup MiRXES, synthetic biotech Allozymes, and artificial intelligence (AI) drug discovery company Gero.AI.
Regulatory reforms, the opening of capital markets to foreign investors, the establishment of bioclusters, and talent returning from overseas have all led to a boom in China’s biopharma ecosystem, driving a shift from generic production companies to innovative biotechs. In 2020, 344 new molecular entities (chemical and biologic) were submitted for clinical trials, up from 114 in 2016. And as of July 2021, the market value of publicly listed innovative biotechs on the Nasdaq, Hong Kong Stock Exchange, and Shanghai Stock Exchange Science and Technology Innovation Board was $387 billion.
Shanghai is one prominent biocluster in China, and is home to the Zhangjiang National Innovation Demonstration Zone. The zone hosts 22 industrial parks with more than 1,400 biomedical innovation companies and 330 national R&D institutions, including the Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, which focuses on drug development, and the Shanghai Center for Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics Research, which specializes in preclinical and clinical drug metabolism studies.
This focus on innovative platforms and institutions has borne fruit. In 2020, the total licensing revenue of biomedical companies in Zhangjiang reached 46.1 billion yuan ($7.14 billion), while the annual output hit 110 billion yuan ($17.28 billion). Additionally, 75 new drugs developed in Zhangjiang – accounting for 20 percent of the country’s total – were approved for clinical trials.
Biotech companies based in Shanghai include CARsgen Therapeutics, which is developing next-generation CAR-T cell therapies; Clover Biopharmaceuticals, developing novel vaccines and biologics; Stemirna Therapeutics, developing mRNA drug platforms; and Innogen Pharmaceutical Technology, developing treatments for metabolic disorders like diabetes.
Taiwan sees the biotech industry as key to its national development, and has laid down plans to make the country an R&D hub for innovative precision medicine and medical technology. Bolstered by proactive government policies and transferable experience from the IT, semiconductor and electronic industries, the biotech industry in Taiwan is booming. In 2021, the biotech sector generated 700 billion New Taiwan dollars ($23.37 billion) in revenue, representing a 10 percent increase from just a year prior.
The government has also pushed the development of innovation clusters, successfully launching the National Biotechnology Park in 2018, the National Taiwan University Hospital Hsinchu Branch in 2019, and the Southern Taiwan Science Park Smart Biotech Medical Cluster in 2020.
New Zealand has a thriving biotech sector that goes beyond human healthcare – only 52 percent of biotech companies are involved in the human health space. The remainder are focused on products and technologies to improve the health of the planet. This includes animal health and productivity, marine and agriculture biotechs, as well as companies working on renewables and ecosystem support. By leveraging biotechnology, New Zealand aims to become healthier and cleaner through greater sustainability and climate compatibility.
New Zealand’s strengths are in animal sciences, horticulture, marine and biomedical industries. This opens up niche opportunities worldwide for providing bioremediation (waste management using microorganisms); biorefinery (converting waste biomass to energy and other byproducts such as biofuel and bioplastics); animal-derived biologic development; and plant breeding solutions, to name a few. Companies involved in these sectors include Mint Innovation, which uses chemicals and microorganisms to extract precious metals from old electronics, and Biotelliga, which provides biologic-based crop protection as an alternative to synthetic pesticides.
Although it was ranked fourth in the world for biotechnology innovation potential, there are still several hurdles facing New Zealand in its quest to expand its biotech industry, including underdeveloped infrastructure and venture capital industry as well as its small size, geographical isolation from other hubs and lack of overseas promotion. Nevertheless, the country has seen steady growth: In 2020, 211 biotech companies were reported in New Zealand, up from 108 in 2009. The biotech sector’s annual revenue has also increased significantly since 2009, with an estimated compound annual growth rate of 7.6–14.5 percent.
In a research report by CBRE, Melbourne was ranked as one of the top five life sciences hubs in the APAC region. It is home to more than 40 percent of Australia’s biomedical researchers and 41 percent of Australia’s life science companies. More than 40 percent of Australia’s medical research funding is also directed to the city. And in 2023, a startup incubator is scheduled to open, which will accommodate up to 40 early-stage companies from around Australia to support their growth.
Melbourne’s position as a primary hub in the region is backed by its advanced and innovative manufacturing expertise, key R&D infrastructure, extensive logistics networks and the presence of two of the world’s top universities for biomedical research (University of Melbourne and Monash University).
There are more than 250 medical technology companies in Melbourne, which has a long history of translating ideas into cutting edge solutions. For example, in the 1960s and ’70s, researchers at the University of Melbourne began testing the feasibility of an implanted electronic device in providing deaf people with hearing; the developed cochlear implant became the first to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1985. Melbourne is also home to the bionic eye, which was shown to restore vision in a landmark clinical trial in 2021.