Mainly based on the (information) technology and energy sectors, previous research has mapped a detailed picture of the knowledge diffusion and technological catch-up in four East Asian regions, namely Japan, (North) Korea, Taiwan, and Mainland China. Generally, pioneering scholarships summarise more or less the same route, ie. from the USA to Japan, to Korea, to Taiwan, and then to Mainland China. Together with other existing diffusion models like the ‘flying geese’ development model, e.g., Japan–NIE4 economies (Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong)–ASEAN4 countries (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand)–late comers–latest comers, a clear (but sometimes idealised) and relatively ‘linear’ route of knowledge diffusion and technological catch-up is sketched.
Is the a cross-sectoral or universal route for knowledge diffusion and technology diffusion in East Asia? While the knowledge diffusion of the technology and energy industries in East Asia has long been verified, similar evidence from the pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors is still blank in the spectrum of existing literature through the decades, especially from a regional-level diffusion perspective. That is probably, in part, because the appreciable transnational diffusion of pharmaceutical technologies has not broken out until the recent biotech boom or the so-called ‘biotech revolution’. Consequently, while technology patent databases have been used to outline the global knowledge flows from 1980s to present, the typical pharmaceutical licensing databases only include licensing projects from the 2000s and hence have not been fully utilised so far.
Fortunately, the booming transactions of license-in/out projects in recent decades enable us with enough samples to locate this appealing issue of technological diffusion in the context of the pharmaceutical sector. Especially in the East Asian context where developed, newly developed and developing regions co-exist, the licensing projects can normally reflect more valuable information on technological diffusion, catching-up, and leapfrogging. Therefore, the following study would focus on verifying the universality of the previously assumed route (USA–Japan–Korea–Taiwan–China). Further insights and theoretical reflections would also be formed for benefiting technological catch-up and transnational collaboration in the pharmaceutical sector.
The preliminary findings allow us to gain a comprehensive understanding of the diverse focuses of licensing-in/-out projects within East Asian regions over the course of several years. This would be further divided into [A] license-out projects initiated by major stakeholders (USA, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Mainland China) into four East Asian regions, namely Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China (including Hong Kong and Macau) and [B] license-in projects initiated by four East Asian regions from major stakeholders (USA, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Mainland China). With the above principles, statistical comparison, time-series analysis, and participant observation are utilised. Data-driven results are presented to map a long-term landscape of pharmaceutical technology diffusion in the last two decades.
As for the potential real-world implementation, reflective discussions and theoretical analysis may guide pharmaceutical corporations in the decision of licensing and collaboration strategies. Especially for multi-national pharmaceutical giants, they normally prefer to locate their strategic focuses of external innovation and transnational cooperation into developed regions. This finally leads to their conservative performance and will leave the emerging market in developing regions to latecomer firms. As such, evidence-based foresight on the geographical evolution of licensing projects in the next few years could remind pharmaceutical corporations to re-adjust their licensing focus in advance. This would further assist pharmaceutical corporations in dealing with the competitions raised by latecomer firms and avoiding inefficient licensing transactions. While there are numerous in-depth lessons regarding latecomer firms’ success in mainland China’s technology sector, practical strategies for traditional pharmaceutical giants to cope with latecomer biotechnology firms remain under-explored but desired.
More generally, further reflections also highlight the critical role of drug licensing in benefiting biotechnology diffusion and improving health outcomes, especially in developing countries/regions. Throughout the decades, the need for frontier technologies has long been a major source of healthcare concern in the global south. Worse still, the applications of licensing to regional diseases and rare diseases are always overlooked. The analysis just maps a long-term transformation of licensing focus from newly developed regions to developing regions. The application of this East Asian experience should be further encouraged to facilitate medical advancement worldwide and manifest corporate social responsibility. In short, the long-term analysis of pharmaceutical diffusion in East Asia could not only enlighten real-world innovation practise but also benefit technology policy decisions.