HONG KONG – In order to keep up with the biopharmaceutical industry’s rapid growth, South Korea is stepping up efforts to attract and nurture more research and development talent.

“The pharmaceutical companies in [South] Korea are pulling more people out of the factories and adding more people to R&D,” said Jung Hwan Lee, a data analyst at the Korea Health Industry Development Institute (KHIDI), a public organization focused on the development of the health care industry in South Korea.

There are no South Korean companies among the 50 largest pharmaceutical or biotech companies in the world, even as officials and entrepreneurs step up the search for a new global blockbuster from South Korea.

Among the current pipelines in the country’s pharmaceutical companies, about 26 percent of the products in development are biologics and biosimilars while another 68 percent of pipelines are incrementally modified drugs, generics or biosimilars. Some 124 different products could be marketed over the next three years.

KHIDI forecasts that R&D investment into innovative pharmaceuticals will reach $3.5 billion by 2020, an annual increase of 13.2 percent.

According to a survey by KHIDI, companies in the country will be looking to fill an additional 1,278 research positions, which would see the workforce in this space grow to 3,387 in total.

Clinical testing will need an additional 502 people, about half the current workforce. Similar numbers are visible in marketing and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) sectors, whose staffing demands have dropped respectively from 1,075 and 1,647 to 324 and 268.

On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies need more people in areas linked to commercialization, where they will need 2,931 people in 2015, up from 2,883 in 2012.

The total number of employees in the pharmaceutical industry in South Korea was 62,468 in 2010. It increased 2 percent in 2011, reaching 63,496.

“We think this year the number will continue to increase though pharmaceutical manufacturers need fewer people to control the production process,” said Lee. “The workforce will constantly increase within 2020.”

South Korean pharmaceutical companies also are looking to international markets for experienced experts to support them.

The “PB 300 Project” initiated by KHIDI aims to hire foreign experts on a short-term basis to provide support for technical alliances, marketing and other areas. There have been five overseas experts hired by South Korean pharmaceutical companies since the project launched last year.

KHIDI also has set up a “PB 8000 project” to nurture pharmaceutical talent over the long term. It includes the opening of a Specialized Pharmaceutical Graduate School where students will be trained in high technical management. It also provides short courses for current employees at pharmaceutical companies. There were 810 people attending the courses in 2013.

“We want to expand the number of specialized pharmaceutical schools, (South) Korean universities have medical faculties but they are not majored in pharmaceutical management,” said Lee. “We plan to open a undergraduate school in the near future.”

“There are more and more students wanting to join the biotech industry; they think the industry is growing just as many other countries,” said Hesung Yang, an administration officer at Seoul National University’s College of Pharmacy. “The high salary is one reason, but the students choose biotech mainly based on their interests.”

The course at the college was a four-year program five years ago. Now the school has added two more years and switched the focus from theory to practice.

“The course was very theoretical in the past, but the professors think being practical is more important as the industry develops,” said Yang.

The program includes an internship at hospitals, but the college hasn’t been able to achieve any internship at biotech companies due to the lack of experience among students.

“Almost no companies want that because they think the students are not really interns,” said Yang.

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