Monday, June 25, 2007

Disease Killers: Taiwan Liposome

(Excerpts from Red Herring ASIA 100 & Common Wealth Magazine)

Last August, the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong was teaming with excitement as venture capitalists and startup bosses from around the globe mingled in search of an upcoming promising star.

The event, hosted by Red Herring, often referred to as the “Bible of Silicon Valley,” served to celebrate the winners of the magazine's Asia 100 for 2006—the 100 most promising startups in Asia—picked from among 700 nominated companies. The prominent search engine Google and online auctioneer eBay were also once picked as winners of the magazine's most promising 100 startups in North America.

Among last year’s Asia 100 winners, Taiwan Liposome Company (TLC) attracted particular attention, because it was featured on the cover of Red Herring's August 28 print issue with the headline “Disease Killers.”

The TLC story begins with the simple dream of a retired scientist who returned from overseas. Ten years ago, Professor Keelung Hong retired from the Liposome Research Laboratory (LRL) at the University of California, San Francisco, after doing research on liposomes for thirty years. At the time, he simply thought that Taiwan should catch up with this new trend of nanodrugs. He visited one Taiwanese pharmaceutical company after another to ask them whether they would be interested in producing liposomes. At the sixth drug maker that Hong visited, TTY Biopharm Co. Ltd., Chairman Lin Rong-jin was willing to get involved in the venture.

Founded in 1997, TLC is a small company with only 34 employees and a paid-in capital of just NT$120 million. It is being favored because it has managed to break out from the typical dilemma of ordinary biotech firms by opening up a third road of value-added innovation.

In the perennial battle between drugs and disease, “nanoparticles” could be the silver bullet the world has been waiting for. Working stealthily and armored with a natural exterior compatible with the human body, they avoid the attacks from macrophages that drugs normally face once inside the body. Moreover, nanoparticles can administer precise dosages to the disease site. They could be particularly revolutionary in cancer treatment, where existing drugs often carry side effects as traumatic as the disease itself. Using liposomes, a microscopic spherical sac that is one type of nanoparticle, Taiwan Liposome Company has developed a package of technologies that can load layers of these sacs with multiple drugs to act like guided missiles targeting disease.

In addition, TLC has an additional “dual-functional” technology that allows chemotherapy and radiation drugs to be synthesized in a single agent. “We have pioneered this synergistic dual-function drug,” says TLC General Manager George Yeh. TLC shows great potential, as it is eyeing US$80 billion worth of market opportunities that will be up for grabs when a number of drug patents expire in 2009. The company is working with two cancer drugs from Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, which will be off patent in 2008 and 2010 respectively. Using TLC’s technology, the drug companies can extend their patents, improve therapeutic value, and increase the product’s life cycle, says Mr. Yeh.

Mr. Yeh says that the biggest challenge is penetrating the US market. TLC intends to license its technologies for the US and European markets, while retaining the rights for Asia.

Given that the technological threshold for entering the liposome business is not high, global competitors fight a “battle for speed.” Whoever is able to first put together a good, diverse team and seize opportunities will be the winner. Nevertheless, from the very beginning, TLC fought with the aim of making the world notice it.

“We want everyone to know that this is a company from Taiwan,” Hong says earnestly, in explaining why the company name includes the word Taiwan. “Even after we go global, everyone will know that this company started out in Taiwan,” he adds with a smile.

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