The Korea Herald


[Herald Interview] Blazing Samsung Biologics’ trail into new territory

John Rim, Samsung Biologics’ Korean American executive, emphasizes human resources, helping CMO clients provide public with better drugs

By Lim Jeong-yeo

Published : Jan. 31, 2020 - 10:45

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Describing Samsung Biologics, the biotech arm of the mammoth Samsung Group, as a “startup,” Executive Vice President John Rim is confident that the company’s competitive edge will bring Korea’s footprint forward in the biologics drugs field.

Armed with 34 years of experience working at multiple global pharmaceutical companies, Rim joined Samsung Biologics in September 2018.

“Korea has to find technology and competitive advantage where it can survive for the long haul, and I think biotech is that area just like semiconductors and electronics have been,” he said in a joint interview with The Korea Herald and The Korea JoongAng Daily. 

John Rim (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald) John Rim (Lim Jeong-yeo/The Korea Herald)

Samsung is well poised to take on the new challenge of biotech, as the group’s comprehensive expertise gives it an edge over competitors with longer histories in the space, he said.

Samsung’s EPCV -- engineering, procurement, construction and validation -- capability is like none other, thanks to its experience in the semiconductors and electronics industry, he added. Even the biggest pharmaceutical companies outsource their facility designing, whereas Samsung does all of it internally.

“We’re the only company that has done three plant designs within a 10-year period. We can build facilities faster than our competitions and design it in a fashion that has our needs,” Rim said.

Established in 2011, Samsung Biologics has contract-manufactured for clients 47 biologics drugs that are approved by the US Food and Drug Administration and European Medicines Agency.

Directly before joining Samsung Biologics, Rim was with Roche at its San Francisco and Basel, Switzerland offices from 2010 to 2018, and prior to a merger, with Genentech in San Francisco from 2004 to 2009. Many former Genentech people, or “Genentech Ex-ers” as they call themselves, are now scattered across other biologics companies in leadership roles.

What drew him to Samsung Biologics, Rim said, was the chance to help direct Korea’s search for a whole new industrial drive.

“Samsung was starting up a whole new industry. Samsung Electronics has been successful, but biotech is relatively new for Korea. I thought I could help given my experience,” Rim said.

In Samsung, Rim saw what he did in Genentech. Samsung had a focus on customer satisfaction, capable and passionate employees and competitive advantage in terms of technology and the overall culture itself.

“How (Samsung Biologics) CEO Kim Tae-han built the organization from scratch really impressed me as well. A leader I can learn from,” said Rim.

Rim is one of about 100 expatriate employees at Samsung Biologics out of some 2,800 in total.

He sees further sustainable growth of the business in its younger employees. The average age of employees at Samsung Biologics is 29 years old.

“We want to help them grow, gain more experience and take on additional leadership roles in the company,” Rim said.

“Samsung Biologics has a short and long history if you think about it,” Rim said, pointing out that the company is part of the bigger Samsung Group, but has only existed less than 10 years.

“In some ways, we’re a startup. We’re a big startup but a startup. And that means there’s always opportunity for improvement,” Rim said, offering that one of those improvements could be in the maturing of the employees. The average age of the employee is a reflection of how young Korea’s biologics industry is.

“Ultimately, it’s the people, not the plants, that make business,” Rim said.

Samsung Biologics started out as a contract manufacturing organization, which manufactures clients’ finished pharmaceutical products. This is a smart strategy for newcomers in biologics, as it circumvents the risk inherent in novel drug development that potentially requires trillions of won in investment and an average 10 years of research and development to commercialization. This strategy works only for those with deep enough pockets to build plants, however.

Once Samsung Biologics found itself sure-footed, with three plants that meet Good Manufacturing Practice standards, it began to diversify its business portfolio to contract development and contract research in 2017, which are the phases before and after CMO.

Still, its core strength is in CMO, where Chinese competition so far is dismissible.

Chinese facilities have yet to catch up with GMP compliance, with one of the few exceptions being contract development business WuXi Biologics.

But while WuXi can leverage resources and head count for its global deals, the company does not have the stainless steel capability to scale up its production capacity for CMO, Rim said. Its manufacturing output is at batch sizes of 1,000 liters and 2,000 liters through single-use, disposable materials.

Samsung Biologics has a single-use facility for clients who seek it, but its competitive advantage is its technological capacity to run its 5,000-liter and 15,000-liter stainless steel bioreactors.

When asked if his board member seat at Samsung Bioepis does not conflict with his executive role at Samsung Biologics, Rim said the ultimate focus is Samsung itself.

Samsung Bioepis is a biosimilar developer set up by Samsung Biologics in a joint venture with American biotech firm Biogen.

“Not the specific areas, specific departments or specific plants, but how do you move Samsung forward. If you have that mindset then it’s easy,” he said.

At Samsung Biologics, Rim’s responsibilities include the overall management of CMO 2, which encompasses facility plant No. 3 and subsequent facilities that will be coming, such as plant No. 4 and the contract development organization research lab that’s going to be built in Brisbane, California, within the first half of this year.

By Lim Jeong-yeo (