Drugmaker's ceaseless R&D investment bears another fruit
Hanmi Pharmaceutical has succeeded in exporting new drug technology that could lead to another blockbuster. The Korean drugmaker entered into an exclusive licensing agreement recently with its U.S. partner MSD to commercialize a dual agonist, a candidate for a new hepatitis treatment, for 1.02 trillion won ($860 million). If the medicine hits the market, Hanmi will receive additional payments in royalties.
The contract was a victory for Hanmi's perseverance. The company initially developed the dual agonist for insulin secretion and obesity control. Hanmi licensed it to Janssen Pharmaceutical during its Phase 1 clinical trial in 2015 in a deal worth 1 trillion won. Because of some problems, however, the Belgian-based company returned the license in July last year, giving up its down payment. Yet, Hanmi has finally opened a new way for the efinopegdutide candidate material to treat nonalcoholic steatohepatitis (NASH).
Korea's history of developing new drugs largely overlaps with the path Hanmi has taken. Discussing it isn't easy without mentioning Lim Sung-ki, founder and chairman of Hanmi, who passed away recently. Starting as a pharmacist on the outskirts of Seoul, he established Hanmi at 33 and made it a global pharmaceutical company with annual sales of 1 trillion won. The domestic pharmaceutical industry at the time focused on making generic drugs. Still, Hanmi managed to sign export contracts totaling 8 trillion won in 2015. The record-high export performance paved the way for the current Korean biotech boom.
There were times the company suffered setbacks due to the abrupt cancellation of contracts. However, it did not stop its investments in research and development. The company invests 20 percent of its annual sales into R&D and has spent 2 trillion won for that purpose over the past decade. “Pharmaceuticals without R&D are dead corporations,” the late magnate used to say.
Many of the nation's flagship industries are now struggling to survive amid the unprecedented pandemic. The quantum jump made by the biopharmaceutical sector has reaffirmed the potential of the Korean economy while emphasizing the need for a more favorable policy to foster promising firms. That also shows why the government should play a more active role in its promotion instead of leaving it only to private businesses.