HONG KONG – South Korea's latest push to move away from traditional heavy manufacturing could drive the growth of 3-D bioprinting, a nascent but rapidly growing industry.
The South Korean government is looking to foster new, innovative industries by laying out financial support schemes for both small and medium sized companies (SMEs) and conglomerates. The latest proposal from the South Korean Ministry of Strategy and Finance provides a series of tax deductions of as much as 30 percent in R&D related tax for SMEs and 20 percent for larger conglomerates, known as chaebol, that make up much of the country's economy.
"Regardless of the company size, we're trying to give benefits to those taking risks. In a difficult economic situation with a lack of growth drivers, this could be come a breakthrough in terms of taxation," Choi Sang-mok, South Korea's vice finance minister, told the media.
Starting next year, companies operating in 11 sectors will benefit from these deductions, including 3-D printing, artificial intelligence, flexible displays, hyper-plastics, robotics and the aerospace sector that are seen as economic growth engines.
A key subsector is likely to benefit from this push is bioprinting. The South Korean government is exploring the possibility of providing fast-track that would allow 3-D printed medical devices to reach the market faster.
The government's plan should give a lift to companies such as Rokit Inc., which are smaller in size compared to conglomerates such as Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. and LG Electronics Inc.
Rokit Inc. was founded in 2012 and now has a staggering 80 percent share in the country's 3-D printing market. The company is South Korea's leading 3-D printing enterprise with one of the largest domestic market shares as well as one of the biggest 3-D printer manufacturers in Asia.
"In South Korea, the 3-D printing market is big. As the population is ageing quickly, markets such as mechanical organs, cartilages, stencils, drug screening, cosmetic testing in vitro disease, dentistry, etcetera are growing bigger than before," Ahra Kim, manager of the R&D department at Rokit told Medical Device Daily.
"There will be potential to globalize 3-D bio printing technology as long as we [Rokit] are strong in the medical personnel, that are up to global standards," said Kim.
In the med-tech space, the company released in February its first multifunctional bio 3-D printer, Invivo. The 3-D bioprinter was first launched in South Korea this June
Invivo has been developed as a multifunctional bio printer for bio-fabrication and has received positive domestic feedback from some of the country's most prestigious health care institutions such as the Seoul National University Hospital, Korea Institute of Science and Technology, and the Pohang University of Science and Technology.
What gives Invivo an edge is that it is a hybrid printer. It can print both solid scaffold for hard tissues and liquid bio inks for soft-tissue at the same time. It uses all existing curing methods with multiple types of bioinks to make scaffolds and prevents contamination.
The company is now examining the potential of Invivo in Germany and England.
Rokit CEO You Seok-hwa said "bio-printing technology effectively resolves problems in transplantation."
For instance, there is limited supply of products for traditional skin grafting. Preparing for the product requires a long time and the process can, at times, be unusable when it is most needed. In addition, transplantation comes with a number of potential side effects that may require another round of surgeries.
"South Korea is among the best in terms of building the foundation for 3-D printing, bioinks, as well as medical applications. Five years from now, the amount of investments will decide the future of the industry," said Kim.
Globally, the 3-D printing industry is very much in its infancy. Standards have yet to be harmonized, with the growth of applications for bioinks as well as developing new uses in the health care space.
South Korea's largest tech giants, such as Samsung Electronics and LG Electronics, have already pumped billions into R&D in the 11 sectors and virtually all of them are looking at bioprinting in one way or another.
Still, the new tax code revisions could incentivize smaller and more specialized companies to carry out more R&D.
"Mass production models, such as heavy industries, automobiles, electronics and so on are going to reach their limits, which is required to go forward to cultivate bio industries of high value, including bio devices, stem cells and new bio medicine development," said Kim.