When companies think "Asian markets," they generally think "Japan." But doing so risks missing out on opportunities in other Asian countries hungry for modern therapeutics.

By focusing on Japan, companies also may mistakenly assume that all Asian countries are alike, whereas in reality the cultures and business structures are as varied as in Europe. Therefore putting together Asian partnering deals requires more than a knowledge of Japanese culture and pharmaceutical companies.

For example, the Korean pharmaceutical sector is going through tremendous change, both in terms of the companies involved and government policy on issues that affect foreign companies wanting to do business in Korea. As always, periods of fluidity are periods of opportunity.

Size of market

The Korean health care industry is well-developed for a country of its size - about 44 million people, with health care accounting for 7 percent of manufacturing GNP, according to Roberts Mitani Inc. The New York company is an investment and banking firm that locates Asian capital for promising U.S. health care technologies, usually including a corporate component. At least a dozen Korean pharma companies have annual sales of more than $100 million, and Korea is one of the largest exporters of antibiotics and vaccines to the Southeast Asian and Chinese markets.

According to Laurent Ayasse, managing director of Pacific Century Pte Ltd., the Korean pharmaceutical market is the third largest in Asia after Japan and China, with $3.2 billion in sales versus $37 billion in Japan.

"If you look at Asia from a U.S. biotech point of view as 'Japan' - full stop - this is more and more completely wrong in terms of opportunities," said Ayasse, whose company is composed of a Hong Kong-based group of pharmaceutical executives who help find Asian partners and funding for U.S. companies.