South Korea wants to become a leader of the international marine biotech industry – but how? By Sunny Um, South Korea correspondent, Maritime Fairtrade
With the spread of the COVID-19 virus, the biotech industry has sparked many people’s curiosity and interest. Biotechnology, a type of biology that uses living systems and organisms to make products, such as virus vaccines, has long been expected to contribute to the growth of the medical and pharmaceutical industry.
Biotech researchers from many countries used materials that can be obtained on land, as they are more accessible than marine materials.
However, with over two decades of use, the number of land materials has started to run out. Some of them were also found to be no longer useful with change in the market’s demands.
Thus, some scientists started to study and use marine materials instead. There also is less concern for marine materials running out as only one percent of the 330,000 marine materials in the world are being used for applied research and making products currently.
One of the countries in the lead to adopt marine materials for use in biotechnology is South Korea. The country has devised various plans to accelerate the development of the industry for the past few years.
The government’s plan to increase market share
On January 14, the Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries announced the intention to increase market worth of its marine biotech industry to 1.2 trillion won (US$1.6 billion) by 2030. The current worth is less than half of the target amount.
The ministry plans to reach the target by providing a streamlined, fast and systematic approval process for marine bioproducts. The ministry will also invest in promising research and development projects and help to commercialize the end products.
Yun Se-hwan, who leads the marine biotech team at the Wando County Office, says that South Korea wishes to hold a more prominent position in the international marine biotech industry with its grand plan.
“An Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s report projected the marine biotechnology to be a driving force in the economic growth of many countries,” Yun told Maritime Fairtrade.
“The United States and European countries have already started to increase the investment and give more assistance in building the marine biotech infrastructure and obtaining more marine materials. South Korea is also introducing various support packages to occupy a leading position in the global market.”
However, South Korea has been falling behind the growing global competition in the marine biotech industry. Currently, South Korea does not have the technologies to reproduce substances extracted from marine materials and there aren’t many research projects to be tested in real life.
While there are more than 390 South Korean companies in the marine biotech industry, most of them are small-sized enterprises suffering from lacking funds.
Nevertheless, Yun says it is still not late for South Korea, as many countries’ marine biotech industries are still at an early stage of development.
“Since it became necessary to possess new technologies and make new substances using marine materials before other countries do, the government introduced a series of plans to promote the industry,” he said.
Business incubator: First, but most important step
With the central government on their side, some of the seashore counties in South Korea have decided to establish business incubators in their areas.
Wando, South Jeolla Province, for example, aims to establish a business incubator and a research center named the Marine Biotech Cooperation Research Center by 2022.
The center is expected to provide working space to 10 company-affiliated research centers and 30 start-ups to support their businesses and facilitate their networks.
Yun from the Wando County Office explains that the center will be studying marine plants, as the county is well known for its rich marine plant field.
“Wando holds nearly 40 percent of South Korea’s annual marine plant production, which makes the county the biggest producer of marine plants and the best place to research marine biotechnology of plants,” he said.
“We expect the research center to increase the local community’s earnings and benefit the local industry.”
Another seashore city, Taean, South Chungcheong Province, is also planning to make an incubating center for marine biomedicine businesses.
The incubator, which is set to open for business by 2023, aims to provide working spaces for marine biotech companies and give training and consulting opportunities to them. The county is currently running pilot projects of marine biomedicine with pre-recruited participants.
Some seashore cities are just getting prepared to join the competition.
On March 10, Siheung, Gyeonggi Province, held a policy forum on how to promote the marine biotech industry in the city.
While the forum will be discussing development plans, backgrounds, current conditions and demands, the Siheung government said that they will take into account the recommendations and opinions from the forum in drafting actual policy plans.