ViroMed CEO to Leave 26-year Academic Career
to Focus on Commercializing New Drugs
August 28, 2018, Seoul, Korea - “Leaving academia doesn’t mean that I’m quitting research. I can now devote myself to the research and development of novel medicines at the company,” affirmed Sunyoung Kim, DPhil, CEO and the founder of ViroMed, whose retirement ceremony from Seoul National University (SNU) will take place on August 31st. After 26 years at the university, Dr. Kim will step down from his position at the School of Biological Sciences more than two years before the mandatory retirement age of 65. He does so in order to fully focus on his work at ViroMed, whose lead product VM202 is in the last stage of clinical trials in the US.
It is rare that a faculty member voluntarily leaves SNU before reaching retirement age. His early retirement makes Dr. Kim ineligible for the title of Professor Emeritus granted to faculty who retire at 65. However, he has expressed his firm belief in the importance of shifting his full attention to ViroMed at this crucial juncture, stating: “My ability to take the technology and research know-how accumulated over the past decades and translate them into desperately-needed medications will contribute to society no less than my academic research.”
Two years after joining the SNU faculty in 1992, Dr. Kim founded ViroMed at the College of Natural Sciences lab along with two other researchers. It was the first on-campus startup in Korea. With aggressive investment in R&D, ViroMed grew into Korea’s largest gene therapy company in just over 20 years, with market cap standing at KRW 3.5 trillion (approximately USD 3.15 billion). The company now employs 100 people and holds the most patents of all the biotech companies listed on KOSDAQ while continuing to invest tens of billions of won in R&D each year.
Dr. Kim’s first goal as full-time CEO is to commercialize the company’s flagship product VM202 for the treatment of patients with painful diabetic peripheral neuropathy (PDPN). One of the many complications of diabetes, PDPN is caused by nerve cell death which leads to excruciating pain that affects more than 2 million individuals in the US alone. A meaningful cure is yet unavailable and many patients do not respond to currently prescribed pain medications. The new PDPN treatment developed by Dr. Kim and the ViroMed team directly injects therapeutic genes into the human body. Once inside the body, the genes induce the production of proteins that are effective in treating the target disease. This is a markedly different approach from the majority of gene therapy medicines on the market, which use proteins like antibodies and enzymes already produced from gene expression.
“After the clinical trials are successfully completed in the US in the first half of 2019, we will be able to launch the world’s first gene therapy targeting PDPN. The US FDA has advised the company to schedule a meeting for multidisciplinary comprehensive discussion about plans for clinical trials and drug manufacturing, which shows the agency’s interest in and appreciation of our product and technology,” said Dr. Kim.
Dr. Kim’s establishment of ViroMed was the precursor to many other on-campus biotech startups in Korea. Industry heavyweights like Genexine and SillaJen also started out as university startups conducting research in gene therapy and later reached the top tiers of KOSDAQ. “Although their numbers are increasing,” Dr. Kim points out that “startups founded by Korean academics are still uncommon in comparison to other countries. I hope more academic researchers warm up to the idea of commercializing their research outcomes.”
“Professors in this country are reluctant to start businesses out of fear of being labeled mercenary or money-grubbing. If, however, we consider that at the end of the day it is taxpayers’ money that funds most of the basic science research, bringing the research outcome to the market is in fact one of the best ways to give back,” he added.
Translated by English Editor
Original Korean text from The Chosun Ilbo