The BEL labs ensconced in Taiwan's ITRI. Credit: ITRI

Taiwan's government has announced the launch of a $1.76 billion venture capital fund as part of a comprehensive 'biotechnology takeoff package' aimed at putting the country on Asia's biotech map. The National Development Fund will have a 40% stake in the venture with the private sector contributing the rest. “We have a lot of early-stage discovery [in Taiwan] but a mechanism to commercialize it has been lacking,” says Chong-Chou Lee, director of the biotech office in the government's science and technology advisory group. “We need this package to [bridge the gap between discovery and] clinical trials and then think about partners for tech transfer.” Taiwan urgently needs an innovation-based biotech business to replace its manufacturing-based information and communications technology (ICT) industry. Taiwan's pool of medical professionals and well-equipped facilities have so far attracted companies such as Novartis of Basel and London-based GlaxoSmithKline, who have set up clinical R&D centers in the capital. But Taiwan's limited domestic market has meant that growth in the biopharma sector has been modest. With the newly launched venture capital fund, any biotech project with commercial potential, based in Taiwan, stands a good chance of being supported, provided the products eventually make it to the global market. “Innovation in biotechnology here is growing, but the challenge is to connect the local with the global,” says Chung-Cheng Liu, general director of Biomedical Engineering Research Laboratories (BEL) in Taipei, the largest nonprofit R&D organization in Taiwan and part of the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI). The fund will support the drive towards commercialization with measures aimed at strengthening the country's infrastructure by, for instance, setting up preclinical testing labs and establishing the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration to bring the regulatory environment to international standards. Biotech incubators will be created within existing science parks, positioning biopharmaceutical companies near the Academia Sinica (the Taiwanese National Institutes of Health) in Taipei, medical device firms close to BEL in the Hsinchu area and agricultural biotech at a site in south Taiwan. The venture fund is looking to boost the number of licensing deals. For example, the German firm Boehringer Ingelheim has recently signed an agreement to develop Taipei-based AbGenomics' novel monoclonal antibody to treat autoimmune diseases, and BEL and the National Taiwan University Hospital have inked a deal with Exactech, an orthopedics company located in Gainesville, Florida, to use a cartilage repair platform developed locally.