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Japan’s Red Biotechnology and International Business Partnering Take Spotlight on BioJapan 2023

by Richard Chau
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BioJapan 2023, one of the most important biotech and pharmaceutical exhibitions and business partnering events in Asia, was successfully held in October 2023 at PACIFICO Yokohama. Along with BioJapan, the world’s oldest biotechnology exhibition (since 1986), “Regenerative Medicine JAPAN”, which aims to accelerate and industrialize R&D in the field of regenerative medicine, and “healthTECH JAPAN”, which provides a fusion of digital technology and life science, were held concurrently at the same venue. 

Totaling all three exhibition components, BioJapan 2023 saw constant growth in the number of visitors, exhibitors, participating countries, and the number of business partnering sessions. The record-breaking numbers demonstrate that the event has overcome the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and regained international prominence, standing as the world’s third-largest event of the kind, following the BIO International Convention (US BIO) and BIO-Europe.

Thomas F. Huang, CEO of GeneOnline, also attended this monumental event and had the privilege of interviewing Takahiro Matsui, Senior Fellow of the Tradeshow Business Unit of the Co-Creation Department at JTB Communication Design, Inc., one of the main organizers of BioJapan 2023. This enlightening discussion covered the key highlights of the event, as well as investment trends and challenges of Japan’s biotech industry.

Related article: Building Bridges at the Brand-New Chugai Life Science Park

Spotlight on Red Biotechnology, with Cell and Gene Therapy Taking Center Stage 

Matsui first provided a glimpse into the staggering numbers that defined BioJapan 2023, with more than 16,000 visitors and 1,039 exhibitors, featuring over 17,000 partnering sessions. A remarkable 125% growth in exhibitors from the previous year and a record-breaking number of business discussions indeed showcased the resurgence of the biotech industry after the global pandemic, establishing the event as a premier platform for cross-border collaborations and business networking in the global biotech arena. He also pointed out that the focal point of BioJapan is on red biotechnology (i.e., biotechnology used mainly in healthcare and pharmaceuticals), particularly drug discovery. 

According to Matsui, cell and gene therapy stood out among the myriad of sectors showcased at BioJapan 2023, with a threefold increase in companies engaged in research and development activity in this field compared to the previous year. Notable developments include in vivo allogeneic cell therapy drugs, ex vivo CAR T-cell therapy, and gene therapies based on AAV or plasmid vectors. Matsui cited PTC Therapeutics as a prime example among hundreds of exhibitors. As a developer of gene therapies for rare diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), this American biotech company recently opened an office in Tokyo and began conducting clinical trials in Japanese hospitals to establish a presence in the country.

CDMOs and Digital Therapeutics Gaining Popularity

In recent years, contract development and manufacturing organizations (CDMOs) have become highly sought after in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry in the APAC region, and Japan is no exception. In the interview, Matsui also mentioned the strong presence of biopharma CDMOs as another highlight of BioJapan 2023, with world-class players such as Fujifilm, Boehringer Ingelheim, Lonza, Samsung Biologics, and WuXi Biologics actively participating in the exhibition. 

Additionally, Matsui added that digital therapeutics (DTx) also emerged as an exciting feature. Given that the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the global digital transformation, the organizers, in response to the trend of healthcare digitization, have launched the concurrent healthTECH JAPAN from 2020 onwards, showcasing state-of-the-art achievements in various fields such as DTx, medical AI, and smart healthcare.

BioJapan 2023 as A Showcase of Diversity

The three-day Asian biotech extravaganza undoubtedly featured major Japanese pharma companies such as Takeda and Chugai, Matsui noted that Japan’s research universities have become a powerful force, as over 120 institutions from throughout the country were exhibiting at this year’s event, accounting for about 12% of the overall exhibitors. This strong academic presence provided visitors and investors with opportunities to access cutting-edge research and early-stage innovations. 

From Matsui’s perspective, for international market players looking for collaborations with Japanese pharma companies, BioJapan offers a comprehensive platform with a distinct advantage. In contrast to other global biotech events, Japanese pharma companies not only exhibit but also actively participate in partnering sessions. This, Matsui explained, makes it considerably easier for international participants to connect with the right individuals for potential partnerships, as decision-makers from various divisions attend the event. Such accessibility, he stressed, speeds up the decision-making process, a crucial factor in an industry where time is often of the essence.

Challenges and Opportunities in the Japanese Biotech Industry

Delving into the intricacies of Japan’s biotech ecosystem, Matsui provided insights into the challenges faced by the industry. While Japanese universities boast a high global standing in terms of research, the country is behind in the number of biotech and startup companies. Despite the presence of major players including Astellas, Chugai, and Takeda, he noted that Japan lacks biotech companies on par with global top 10 leaders like Pfizer or Novartis due to a relative scarcity of approved new drugs. 

Matsui suggested that Japan’s biotech ecosystem still has room for improvement compared to regions with global prominence, indicating a relatively modest number of start-up companies in the country as a key issue. To encourage the development of new biotech companies, the Japanese government has allocated funds through its Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare. He also highlighted other governmental endeavors manifesting such commitment, such as the Japan-US bilateral summit and establishment of Greater Tokyo Biocommunity, aimed at fostering growth in the biotech sector and facilitating cross-border collaborations.

Bridging the Gap: Role of BioJapan in Facilitating Biopharma Investments

As the conversation turned to the funding landscape and the role of BioJapan in connecting biotech companies with investors, Matsui highlighted the increasing presence of venture capitalists in partnering sessions this year, including international investors, signaling positive prospects for biotech funding. He also noted the significant participation of Korean biotech companies, with the number of participating companies even exceeding that of the United States, reflecting evolving global biotech dynamics.

Concerning funding agencies, Matsui mentioned that universities and R&D organizations currently still make up the majority of the funding targets of the Japanese Agency for Medical Research and Development (AMED). Compared to the Korea Drug Development Fund (KDDF) where an increased portion of the budget is allocated to biotech and pharmaceutical start-ups, he is hoping to have more funding for the startup companies to strengthen Japan’s biotech ecosystem and keep abreast of the international market.

Regarding access to global investment for Japanese biotech companies, Matsui expressed an optimistic view, citing the interest of pharma giants such as Roche and Novartis in the growth potential of Japanese market players, which could lead to opportunities for collaboration and licensing. Despite regulatory disparities, he believes BioJapan plays a vital role in facilitating cross-border collaborations, bridging the gap between global investors and Japanese biotech innovators.

Takahiro Matsui, Senior Fellow at JTB Communication Design Inc., interviewed by Thomas F. Huang, CEO of GeneOnline.
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