LG Life Sciences Ltd. was a pioneer, producing the first globally approved drugs developed by a South Korean company. A shift in priorities all but stopped the flow of innovative new drugs to the world market during the past decade, yet the pharma’s legacy of innovation lives on in a stable of biotech companies developing first-in-class and best-in-class molecules.
The pharma’s role in sparking the development of a Korean biotech industry has less to do with the specific research programs it developed, and everything to do with the environment it created for its scientists. James Lee, former LG researcher and CEO of autoimmune and inflammatory company Bridge Biotherapeutics Inc., estimates that 25-30% of the innovative biotechs in Korea founded since 1997 are led by ex-LG scientists.
BioCentury’s BCIQ database lists 73 biotechs founded in Korea since then.
BioCentury identified 12 of the companies that were founded by former LG researchers and spoke with seven of the founders.
Several said they were inspired to tackle novel drug development while working as scientists under LG’s Nam Choi, who helped launch the company’s genetic engineering and biotech research and later, as head of life sciences research, instilled a culture of learning, experimentation and debate.
The first few start-ups launched by former LG scientists began to appear after Choi departed in 1998.
These were followed by another handful in the late 2000s, after a new CEO took the helm at LG and the pharma’s emphasis on growing revenues resulted in discontinuing its cancer programs in 2006.
These early start-ups founded by LG alumni had difficulty raising money, thanks in large part to the bad luck of launching into unfavorable markets for biotech or the global economic crisis. The 12 start-ups on BioCentury’s list have raised about $200 million since inception.
Four of the 12 companies are public, with a combined market cap of W1.2 trillion ($999.1 million), edging out LG Life Sciences, with a market cap of W988 billion ($790.4 million) (see “All Grown Up.”)
Some of the 12