A robot that monitors the elderly, a vaccine against haemophilus influenzae type B (HIB), state-of-the art facilities for pre-clinical testing of bio-pharmaceuticals, and a race to produce the world’s first dengue vaccine. These are not breakthroughs that one might associate with Thailand, better known for its tourism sector than scientific expertise, but they are indicative of the coming of age of Thailand’s nascent life sciences sector.

“Nothing I have done is a normal fit for Thailand,” says Chalermpon Punnotok, the founder and CEO of CT-Asia Robotics. “I was born in the wrong country.”

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Mr Chalermpon’s firm has developed a small robot designed for home use for the elderly or post-surgery patients which fields telephone calls with doctors and relatives, reminds patients to take their medicines and sets off alarm bells if the patient falls down. “We are about to inject the mould to make about 1000 robots,” says Mr Chalermpon. “We already have an order from a Thai hospital for 200.”

While its existing prototype is stationary – to avoid accidents – CT-Asia Robotics is working on a bigger, mobile robot model that uses a sophisticated laser navigation system, developed by a local Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate currently employed by a Thai university. “There are many Thai engineers who get scholarships, which they have to pay back by working for the government,” says Mr Chalermpon, explaining his recruitment strategy. “So I search for geniuses who sit around doing nothing.”

Getting to market

There has been a big disconnect between Thailand’s scientific community and the commercial sector, which the government is now trying to bridge. For instance, the government recently relaxed the regulations that forced scholarship students to work at public universities or in the civil service for several years to pay back their scholarships: a recently implemented 'talent mobility' policy has unshackled the graduates. “Talent mobility is about unlocking the potential of the Thai talent,” says Nares Damrongchai, CEO of the Thailand Centre for Excellence for Life Sciences (TCELS), a government entity. “Now they can go to work for a private company."

TCELS, which acts as a multi-tasked facilitator to promote life sciences, recently recruited a PhD graduate from the California Institute of Technology to help CT-Asia Robotics with product development. With TCELS support, the company is also trying to market its robots in Japan and Sweden.

Thailand’s effort to promote life sciences, a broad category of life standard-enhancing technology that includes bio-pharmaceuticals, medical devices, cosmetics and a range of support services, is relatively new. It is in keeping with recent government policy to encourage FDI in higher tech, value-added industries as the country’s labour costs rise compared with its less-developed neighbours. Past policies have promoted FDI in labour-intensive industries such as garment and shoe manufacturing to generate employment, or medium-tech industries such as automobile assembly, electronics and electrical appliances to generate exports.

Even without government assistance, a fledgling life science community has emerged over the past decade. BioNet Asia Company, for instance, started investing in a factory for the production of upstream and downstream bacterial and viral vaccinations in 2008 in Ayutthaya province, just north of Bangkok. With little government support, and financial backing from only one Thai bank, BioNet has succeeded in developing a vaccine for HIB, the leading cause of bacterial meningitis in children, which could be used for pre-natal maternal immunisation in Asia. The vaccine has passed the first phase of clinical testing and is expected to be licensed and launched on the market by 2017.

“We can say that today we are one of the leading biotech companies in south-east Asia,” says Vitoon Vonghangool, president and founder of BioNet Asia. Remarkably, few people in Thailand have heard of the company and their pioneering work. “Very few people know what we are doing, but TCELS knows,” says Mr Vitoon.

Missing link

One of the roles TCELS plays is matching up foreign firms with Thai partners or services that many do not know exist. The organisation has helped connect BioNet with potential clients seeking to develop vaccines against dengue or HIV/AIDS for the south-east Asian region. BioNet’s factory, with a capacity to produce 10 million vaccine doses a year, could theoretically develop a new vaccine to the commercial stage, if an investor was willing to pay for R&D, pre-trials and clinical trials: a long and expensive process.

“We support manufacturing, mostly with R&D, but even if it is manufacturing without local R&D, as long as it is part of the life science value chain,” says Mr Nares. Although manufacturing facilities such as BioNet’s are few, Thailand has acquired a strong reputation for conducting clinical trials, or tests of new drugs on sample populations, a crucial step before commercial production. “We have a big population, we have good medical doctors and we have patients with certain tropical diseases such as dengue, malaria, thalassemia or HIV/AIDS,” says Mr Nares.

There have been a few missing links in Thailand’s life sciences value-added chain, such as a lack of local facilities to conduct pre-clinical trials up to international standards. Although there have been R&D discoveries by Thai scientists in the past, these breakthroughs have not made it to the market due to the lack of pre-clinical trial facilities. Now, such facilities exist.

The recently completed National Biopharmaceutical Facility (NBF) at King Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT), now offers state-of-the-art laboratories to conduct pre-clinical trials up to good manufacturing practice (GMP) international standards. “The NBF focuses on this GMP component, because it has been the missing link between the laboratory research and commercialisation,” says Solot Suwanayuen, director of biochemical engineering at KMUTT. The facility is currently being used to test whether Thai-developed vaccines against dengue and Japanese Encephalitis can pass GMP standards.

A helping hand

Research on a dengue vaccine has been under way in Thailand since 1980, when Thai scientist Dr Natth Bharmarapravati developed a life attenuation in dog kidney cell culture technique to successfully tackle the elusive virus, which has four strains. Sutee Yoksan, director of Mahidol University’s Centre for Vaccine Development, recently perfected Mr Natth’s procedure for all four dengue strains, while the National Vaccines Institute is pursuing a genetic engineering approach against the mosquito-borne virus. “It is a race that is going on,” says Mr Nares. “What TCELS does is make sure the infrastructure is available for everyone.”

TCELS also makes sure that foreign investors know what sort of infrastructure is available in Thailand. “I think that without TCELS's help we wouldn’t be here,” says Walter Gunsburg, chairman of Austrianova Thailand Company, which opened a GMP facility at the Thailand Science Park in December 2014 to facilitate its production of encapsulated living cells for therapy.

Austrianova started in Munich, Germany, before moving to Singapore in 2007 to reduce production costs. It now has a GMP facility in Thailand, where overheads such as laboratory rentals are even cheaper than in Singapore. “It’s [difficult] to know what’s happening in Thailand because most websites are in Thai,” says Mr Gunsburg. “We were lucky, because TCELS introduced us to the right people and basically took us by the hand and guided us.”

The costs of this report were underwritten by the Thailand Centre for Excellence for Life Sciences. Writing and editing were carried out independently by fDi Magazine.