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Hanmi Pharmaceutical founder dies at 80

Hanmi Pharmaceutical Chairman Lim Sung-ki (Hanmi Pharmaceutical)
Hanmi Pharmaceutical Chairman Lim Sung-ki (Hanmi Pharmaceutical)

Hanmi Pharmaceutical’s founder and chairman, Lim Sung-ki, died of a chronic disease Sunday at dawn after devoting his life to the South Korean bio industry. He was 80.

Lim was the owner of Hanmi Pharmaceutical Group and the largest shareholder of Hanmi Science, the group’s holding company.

Born in 1940 in Gimpo, Gyeonggi Province, Lim graduated from Chung-ang University’s college of pharmacy.

He opened the Lim Sung-ki Pharmacy in Dongdaemun, Seoul, in 1967 and went on to found Hanmi Pharmaceutical in 1973, hoping to grow the firm into a pharmaceutical powerhouse. Today Hanmi sees annual sales of more than 1 trillion won ($839 million).

Until the 1990s, Hanmi Pharmaceutical sold generic drugs, which are chemically identical to brand-name drugs whose patents have expired, to strengthen the firm’s growth base. But he judged that the way forward for the company lay in an intensive research and development strategy. In the short term, the firm developed incrementally modified drugs. In the long term, it developed first-in-class drugs by investing 20 percent of sales in R&D.

Under this strategy, Hanmi became the first Korean pharmaceutical company to introduce incrementally modified drugs such as amosartan and amlodipine. Both drugs are used to treat high blood pressure.

In 1989, it exported technology to the multinational pharmaceutical company Roche to improve the antibiotic ceftriaxone, another first for a local pharmaceutical company. In 1997, it transferred its microemulsion medication technology worth $63 million to another global company, Novartis.

In 2013, Hanmi’s Esomezol was approved for sale in the US as a treatment for reflux esophagitis. It was the first incrementally modified drug from Korea to be marketed in the US. In 2015, the company made $7.6 trillion from technology exports -- a feat that has been described as a miracle for a Korean pharmaceutical company.

Despite the company’s huge growth, there was also pain.

In 2018, Hanmi Pharmaceutical decided to stop developing and selling the new lung cancer drug Olita, which it had ambitiously pursued, due to tough competition and other difficulties.

When its development was stalled, the late chairman encouraged executives and employees, saying, “There are difficulties and risks in developing new drugs, but please trust me and focus more on R&D.”

Lim also shared the company’s good fortune with executives and employees. In 2016, the company donated shares to 2,800 executives and employees after achieving outstanding results the previous year.

The bereaved are his wife, Song Young-sook, sons Hanmi Science CEO chong-yoon and Hanmi Healthcare CEO Jong-hoon, and Hanmi Pharm Vice President and daughter Joo-hyun. The funeral will be held quietly for family only, in accordance with the wishes of the deceased and his family. 

By Shin Ji-hye (