Pharmaceutical firm founder Grace Yeh becomes 1st ITRI female fellow

11/17/2021 08:18 PM
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Grace Yeh speaks at the 10th ITRI Laureates award ceremony on Tuesday.
Grace Yeh speaks at the 10th ITRI Laureates award ceremony on Tuesday.

Taipei, Nov. 17 (CNA) Grace Yeh (葉常菁), founder of Taiwan-based PharmaEngine Inc., became an Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) laureate on Tuesday, the institution's first female fellow since it started electing laureates 10 years ago.

At the 10th ITRI Laureates award ceremony on Tuesday, ITRI Chairman Lee Chih-kung (李世光) said that 50 laureates have been elected to the institution over the past decade, but this year was significant since it saw the first woman to be conferred with the ITRI laureate title.

Yeh said she was surprised to know that she was the first ITRI female fellow.

Taiwan has many outstanding female leaders in the technology field who have been ignored by the ITRI's laureate selection committee, Yeh said, suggesting ITRI and other institutions pay attention to them.

Although women are not necessarily stronger than men they help make society more diverse, she said. "Woman usually have different thoughts and backgrounds, which allow them to be more tolerant."

Yeh thanked her parents for their upbringing and her husband for his support and encouragement.

She also gave thanks to Center Laboratories Chairman Lin Rong-jin (林榮錦) for persuading her to come back to Taiwan and establish PharmaEngine, a biopharmaceutical company that works on developing drugs for treating cancer, in 2003.

Yeh said that after she stepped down as president and CEO of PharmaEngine in 2019, she went to Switzerland where she set up Onward Therapeutics, a development stage oncology company, focusing on the development of new drugs to treat hematological and solid tumors.

Though her core business is now concentrated in Europe, Yeh noted she also serves as the vice chairperson of Taiwan Bio Industry Organization where she hopes to help make Taiwan's biotechnology industry more international.

As a business chairwoman, Yeh said she hoped to focus attention on gender equity and that more ITRI female fellows could be selected.

Yeh received her Ph.D. in immunology from the Medical University of South Carolina in the United States.

Yeh created and adopted the "no research, development only (NRDO)" and "networked pharma (outsourcing)" business models for new drug development as the head of PharmaEngine.

She said NRDO seemed particularly suitable for Taiwan-based biotech companies when she set up PharmaEngine in 2003 because such companies were in their initial stage and had limited capital at that time so the model enabled them to skip the lengthy research and marketing process.

Under the "networked pharma" model, pharmaceutical firms could outsource work to contract manufacturing organizations and contract research organizations for new drug development, she said.

Utilizing this model, PharmaEngine successfully developed two drugs -- Onivyde for treating pancreatic cancer and a novel radio-enhancer PEP503 (NBTXR3) for the treatment of soft tissue sarcoma.

In 2015, Onivyde (irinotecan liposome injection) was approved by the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for intravenous use as part of a first-line combination for the treatment of advanced pancreatic cancer. This made it the first Taiwanese cancer drug to receive U.S. FDA approval.

PharmaEngine was listed on Taiwan's over-the-counter stock market in 2012 and after receiving the FDA's approval, its market capitalization exceeded NT$30 billion (US$1.08 billion) in 2015.

The company had only 22 employees which meant each employee's average output at that time was NT$1.4 billion, indicating the pharmaceutical industry was a profitable one, Yeh said.

(By Jackson Chang and Evelyn Kao)

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