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SK bets on ‘targeted protein degraders’ as future anchor business in pharma

Korean holdings firm invests $200 million in US’ Roivant technology

SK Holdings CEO Jang Dong-hyun and Roivant Sciences` CEO Vivek Ramaswamy (SK Holdings)
SK Holdings CEO Jang Dong-hyun and Roivant Sciences` CEO Vivek Ramaswamy (SK Holdings)

  SK Holdings on Monday announced an investment of $200 million in a new subsidiary to be founded by Roivant Sciences -- the name of which remains undecided -- that will use its targeted protein degradation technology.

  This is a key step in SK Group’s pivot to biologics business, SK Holdings said, citing its focus on growing markets more than maturing ones, and a search for “disruptive tech” that could create synergy with SK Biopharmaceuticals and SK Pharmteco.

  An emerging concept in medicine, drugs using targeted protein degradation seek to weaken or destroy malicious proteins altogether, unlike drugs of the past, which have sought to inhibit their activity.

  This new approach delivers better efficacy and less development of drug tolerance, according to scientists.

  In addition, American firm Roivant has another card up its sleeve -- being the only firm that pairs the power of artificial intelligence with the targeted protein degradation platform.

  “We believe that AI-powered targeted protein degradation will not only improve inefficiencies in the pharmaceutical industry, but also generate significant social impact by tackling unmet medical needs,” said Jang Dong-hyun, CEO of SK Holdings.

  Including Roivant, the holding company of Korea‘s third-biggest conglomerate has invested roughly 251 billion won ($231 million) in bioscience companies over the past two years. The $200 million, or  some 220 billion won, to be invested in Roivant is by far the biggest commitment SK Holdings has made to a single bioventure.

  SK Group Chairman Chey Tae-won has been reiterating his intent to forge new business opportunities in the biologics field since 2002. So far, the group has made vast advances through central nervous system treatment developer SK Biopharmaceuticals and global contract manufacturing organization SK Pharmteco. However, both of these entities deal in chemical drugs. It still remains a key objective for SK Group to find a sure foothold in the bio field.

  Broken down chronologically, SK Holdings has invested 4.5 billion won in GenEdit and 3.4 billion won in LVIS in 2018, both firms in the US. In 2019, the holdings firm invested 6 billion won in China’s Harbour BioMed, 9.4 billion won in Korea’s Standigm and 4.4 billion won in France’s Visible Patient. This year, SK Holdings invested 7.2 billion won in systems biology antibody researcher Hummingbird Bioscience in Singapore.

  Taken fully, from 2018 to end-2020 SK Holdings allotted an accumulated 34.9 billion won to biotechs other than Roivant. These investments also targeted game changers like the CRISPR gene-editing technology and artificial intelligence-driven novel drug research, but the size of the investment in Roivant has pushed the others out of focus.

  Roivant has received attention from SK Holdings on par with that given to the company’s consolidated global contract manufacturing organization SK Pharmteco, or the initial public offering of SK Biopharmaceuticals.

  In creating SK Pharmteco, SK Holdings has acquired its own subsidiary SK Biotek for 40 billion won; BMS’ Irish CMO for an industry-speculated 170 billion won; and US company AMPAC for another industry-speculated 800 billion won -- amounting to 1.01 trillion won in total.

  SK Biopharmaceuticals, an SK Holdings subsidiary specializing in treatments for the central nervous system, is valued at 13.8 trillion won after making a successful entry on the Kospi stock market this year.

  Targeted protein degradation is a notion first identified in 2001 by professor Craig Crews of Yale University, who later founded Arvinas in 2013. Crews prove the in vivo efficacy of the novel technology for the first time in animals in 2015 and in humans in 2020. Arvinas has five pipelines and was valued at $1 billion as of Dec. 1.

  Other firms involved in the targeted protein degradation technology include Nurix, Kymera and C4, whose combined market value reaches $5.09 billion.

  As for Roivant, the company was founded in 2014 by Vivek Ramaswamy, whose background is in fund management for biopharmaceuticals in New York. In its research, Roivant applies artificial intelligence and data-driven systems biology to dramatically shorten the time and cost needed for novel drug development.

  Roivant has six degrader pipelines designed using the company’s proprietary technology VantAI.

  VantAI is a deep learning-based computational program that addresses modality-specific challenges of designing and optimizing novel degrader candidates. It does in silico drug design, target prediction, interactome mapping and ADMET -- absorption, distribution, metabolism, excretion and toxicity -- optimization.

  Acknowledged for its innovative technologies, Roivant won a $1.1 billion investment from Softbank’s Vision Fund in 2017 -- an amount formerly unseen for a single bioventure.

  By forming a strategic alliance with Roivant, SK Holdings said it seeks to take on a leading position in targeted protein degradation pursuits, and create synergy with SK Biopharmaceuticals and SK Pharmteco in the long run.

  SK Holdings CEO Jang said, “In addition to this partnership, we look forward to working together to innovate on other aspects of health care with a long-term vision.”

By Lim Jeong-yeo (kaylalim@heraldcorp.com)

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