In October I was in Yokohama to attend BIO Japan 2009 – a major Japanese life sciences partnering event.  This was my second visit to BIO Japan.

The event attracted 15,000 visitors over three days, drawn mostly from major Japanese pharma companies and biotechs and also a sizeable contingent from Western and Asian small-to-medium sized companies and institutions.

Japanese companies are, correctly or incorrectly, perceived as rather conservative when it comes to dealmaking with Western firms, but this year there was a tangible sense of urgency to find new products and technologies and gain a competitive edge. Indeed, there has been a wave of mergers between Japanese pharma in recent years and more recently they have been acquiring Western companies and products (e.g. Dainippon Sumitomo’s acquisition of Sepracor, Takeda’s co-development deal for Amylin’s obesity drugs).

The event afforded the opportunity to have one-on-one meetings with top tier Japanese pharma companies and present the most attractive life sciences technologies and products arising from MaRS client companies.  What was surprising was the high level of interest in our rather early stage technologies.  Already two of the Japanese companies have made follow-up visits to MaRS to learn more.

One other important highlight of the event was a joint session with Dr. Shinya Yamanaka – the Kyoto University physician-researcher who created the iPS cell method (generation of pluripotent stem cells from adult skin).  Dr. Yamanaka was “pre-awarded” his Gairdner Prize for scientific excellence in a packed session with Dr. Janet Rossant (Sick Kids) and Dr. John Dirks (Gairdner Foundation).  In his acceptance remarks, Dr. Yamanaka took pains to emphasize the strengths of Ontario in the stem cell field.  This was significant since Dr. Yamanaka has “rock star” status in Japan and the crowded hall of Japanese bio-pharma executives were left with little doubt about Ontario’s capabilities in this burgeoning field.

Lesson: if you are developing bio-pharmaceutical products you cannot ignore Japan.  The nation is open to partnering and has the resources to speed development.  Given the current funding crisis for life sciences we need to seriously consider international alliances to maintain growth.

I would like to thank Robert Ulmer and Hiromi Sawaki of the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo for their tireless efforts to ensure a smooth and productive trip.

John McCulloch

John provides assistance to life sciences entrepreneurs in business strategy, management, intellectual property, financing and licensing. See more…