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  • Jul 24, 2014
  • Updated: 11:16pm

Betting on Biotech

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 February, 2012, 12:00am

Betting on Biotech
by Joseph Wong
Cornell University Press

The confluence of mathematics and post-war commercial biotechnology in East Asia provides a more engaging picture to the non-expert than might otherwise be assumed. This is what the reader can deduce from Joseph Wong's unexpectedly fascinating Betting on Biotech: Innovation and the Limits of Asia's Developmental State. The author is repeating the trick he pulled off with his Healthy Democracies: Welfare Politics in Taiwan and South Korea, which came out in 2006.

Don't judge a book by its stolid title and boring cover.

Wong's prose has a staccato quality, indicating a scholarliness and keen attention to detail. This is apposite. Wong is Canada research chair in political science and director of the Asian Institute at Toronto University.

In the preface, the well-travelled professor includes pages of thanks to colleagues, friends and students of his, across a wide pan-Asian arc that curves through South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. There's a nice touch here when he thanks his peers for 'the many opportunities to discuss my ideas, my arguments, and my field research over dinner and drinks in Wan Chai and [the Spanish city of] Valencia'.

In Betting on Biotech, Wong takes on three of the four 'Little Tigers' of yesteryear - Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore - and examines how they have fared in developing their biotech sectors. He also explores how factors such as rigid state control, 'smart-investment' strategies, reverse-engineering and a reliance on turnkey projects have affected the matrix.

Wong started work on the fastidiously researched book in 2002 and has crisscrossed the region about 20 times in order to interview more than 200 industry insiders and state officials.

His findings are not particularly startling, but do provide food for thought.

The three economies Wong examines have invested billions of dollars in biotech industries in the past two decades, but no commercial supernovas have appeared for East Asia's biotech star-gazers. The uncertainties and fallacies that Wong reveals have forced these three states to pursue an unfamiliar logic of development that involves throwing resources at long shots, rather than selecting players, projects and products, and then turning them into winners. The old ways certainly appeal to the Confucian mindset, but they are now outmoded, Wong explains.

Wong's supercomputer-like mind keeps the reader glued to the pages, just as one cannot help but be captivated by a particularly charismatic speaker, regardless of how much you can really know about the topic at hand.

If you have more than a passing interest in mathematics, economics and games of chance, you are likely to find Betting on Biotech a riveting read.

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