How South Korea hopes to foster innovative healthcare

Seoul is upping its ambitions to become Asia's top biotech powerhouse through collaboration between the government and private firms.

South Korea's ambitions as a global leader in biotechnology are shifting up a gear, or so the government hopes after it unveiled a new initiative aimed at expediting the development of the innovative healthcare industry.

The initiative, known as Smart Healthcare 4.0, is an extension of the South Korean government’s broader 'fourth industrial revolution' push, which will see new technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data introduced in various Korean industries over the coming years.

“Through Smart Healthcare 4.0 we aim to create an ecosystem for the healthcare industry led by the private sector, where these companies can grow, make profits and reinvest the money into the sector,” said Cho Haekeun, a member of the country's Presidential Committee on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

As head of general affairs and planning on the key government advisory body, Cho was speaking last month at Korea Investment Week 2018, an event in Seoul organised by the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency.

Private sector participation is, arguably, particularly important to the healthcare sector since most drug discoveries, research and development, and clinical trials are spearheaded by private enterprises.

The government, in turn, supports them with infrastructure funding, reviews policies around project approvals, and acts as a regulator to oversee the process.

“The private sector plays an important role in innovation, whereas the government provides full support as a partner,” Cho said.

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South Korea’s government has invested heavily in the biopharmaceutical sector over the last decade, hoping to turn the country into Asia's Switzerland — which has nurtured some of the world's largest healthcare companies, such as Novartis and Roche.

And the strategy has taken another step forward under the current president, Moon Jae-In, who has singled out healthcare and biochemicals as one of five emerging and innovative industries alongside future automobiles, new energy, Internet-of-Things-based home appliances and semiconductors.

Under the country's long-term plan, the government will expand R&D support to these industries by 50% by 2020 and support testing and pilot projects across the country.

In the case of healthcare, the government will spearhead a number of projects designed to support innovation by private enterprises.

One of them is a national-level project on healthcare information. Under this project, the government plans to establish a big data test board to analyse comprehensive healthcare data upon receiving the consent of patients, and use the result of analysis to develop relevant technologies and improve healthcare-related policies.

The Seoul administration also plans to establish a smart clinical trial centre that aims to increase the chances of successful drug development, as well as save time and cut down on costs throughout the process. This smart clinical trial centre helps drug makers apply information and communications technology (ICT), such as artificial intelligence, in clinical trials.

There are also plans to establish a management system for in vitro diagnostics – tests done on samples such as blood or tissue that have been taken from the human body – and encourage more private firms into this burgeoning sector.

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