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[Korean Startup Interview] BION LIQUID: Leading the Way in Ionic Liquid Innovation for a New Bio-Ecosystem

2024-06-28 8 min read


[Korean Startup Interview] BION LIQUID: Leading the Way in Ionic Liquid Innovation for a New Bio-Ecosystem

Reading Time: 8 minutes
  • funding Stage : Seed
  • Raising Amount : KRW 2 B
  • Desired Fundraising Timeframe : 2~3Q 2024

People often hesitate to visit hospitals when sick, for various reasons, with fear of injections being a significant deterrent. However, consider the reduced anxiety if medications could be prescribed as oral drugs instead of injections. Similarly, the option to self-administer subcutaneous injections at home, as an alternative to intravenous injections at hospitals, could alleviate many concerns. Many pharmaceutical companies are therefore focused on developing technologies that simplify the process of administering and receiving medications.

BION LIQUID is a biotech startup founded in April 2023, dedicated to addressing drug delivery challenges through the use of ionic liquid technology. Within just three months of its inception, the company was selected for the prestigious Seoul Bio Hub program, highlighting its impressive technological capabilities.

The company’s main focus, ionic liquid technology, has been extensively researched by Dr. Kim Wan-joo, former CEO of the biotech company C-TRI (now HLB). As a diabetic who has long experienced the inconvenience of administering insulin via subcutaneous injections, Dr. Kim researched ways to make drug delivery easier through ionic liquid technology. This research is now being commercialized under the leadership of Jeong Ho-cheol, CEO of BION LIQUID.

Ionic liquids are salts that remain liquid at room temperature, composed of cations and anions. They are characterized by low volatility and high thermal stability, making them suitable for various industrial and research applications.

In the global pharmaceutical market, many blockbuster drugs are peptides or larger protein drugs that are typically administered via intravenous or subcutaneous injections. Transforming these into oral medications is challenging due to initial degradation by stomach acids and poor solubility issues in the small intestine. BION LIQUID tackles this by adding a counter ion that can bind with peptides or protein drugs, transforming the drug into a liquid state. This liquid is then encapsulated and administered orally, ensuring protection from stomach acids and absorption through the intestinal mucosa.

BION LIQUID employs CAGE and SAGE technologies to convert drugs into ionic liquids. CAGE consists of a choline and geranate ion compound, which itself forms an ionic liquid. By substituting one of these ions with a protein drug, a new type of ‘liquid protein pharmaceutical’ is created. BION LIQUID’ proprietary SAGE technology involves substituting choline with serine in the CAGE formulation.

The company is currently focusing on transforming Semaglutide and Tirzepatide, known commercially as Wegovy and Mounjaro respectively, from injection to oral formulations. These drugs are widely recognized for treating diabetes and obesity. Making them available in oral forms could represent a significant breakthrough.

Looking ahead, BION LIQUID aims to apply its ionic liquid technology to antibody therapies and antibody-drug conjugates (ADC), highly sought after in cancer treatment. While the journey is challenging, successful application could draw substantial interest from global pharmaceutical companies.

Additionally, as the patent expiration dates approach, many biosimilar companies are racing to replicate off-patent drugs. For these companies, the ability to offer medications with improved dosability using BION LIQUID’ technology could present a significant opportunity.

Unlike many biotech firms focused exclusively on R&D, BION LIQUID plans to generate revenue by applying its technology to existing industries such as chemical solvents, fuel cells, and liquid crystal displays. This approach mirrors the successful strategy previously employed by Citree’s Dr. Kim Wan-joo, who generated substantial sales across various industries using ionic liquid technology. CEO Jeong Ho-cheol of BION LIQUID emphasizes the importance of building a sustainable research foundation while growing the company through revenue-generating activities.

BION LIQUID is pioneering the future in the novel field of ionic liquids. Supported fully by the Seoul Bio Hub, which is dedicated to creating a Korean bio-ecosystem on par with Boston’s in the United States, BION LIQUID is positioned for significant growth. This is a critical time for investors to focus on the promising future that BION LIQUID is set to shape.

What problem is BION LIQUID trying to solve?

There are various types of injections used in disease treatment, categorized based on the part of the body and the depth of injection, such as intravenous, subcutaneous, and intramuscular injections. Intravenous injections, while suitable for emergency medications that require rapid absorption, have several drawbacks including limited drug dispersion due to poor circulation, infection risks, damage to blood vessels and nerve tissues, high costs, and complex administration methods.

Currently, almost all blockbuster peptide medications (primarily for diabetes and obesity) and antibody and ADC formulations are in the form of intravenous injections, requiring patients to be hospitalized for 5-6 hours under intensive medical care. This not only inconveniences patients but also leads to significant medical expenses. Especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a marked trend towards minimizing hospital visits and stays, increasing pharmaceutical companies’ interest in developing formulations that improve medication adherence and convenience for ongoing administration.

How does BION LIQUID propose to solve this issue?

By converting the currently predominantly intravenous peptide and protein medications into subcutaneous (SC) injections, patients can administer the medication themselves without medical assistance, increasing acceptability and compliance, reducing the frequency of dosing, and avoiding first-pass metabolism (where the concentration and efficacy of a drug are reduced before it reaches the systemic circulation due to metabolism at a specific site). Moreover, transforming these injections into oral formulations would eliminate the need for medical assistance, providing a safe, cost-effective, and non-invasive alternative that significantly enhances patient convenience.

As many blockbuster drugs are nearing patent expiration, the competition to develop biosimilars and biobetters is intensifying, with the convenience of formulation and method becoming a crucial factor. BION LIQUID aims to address this issue by leveraging the high solubility, permeability, bioavailability, and drug delivery capabilities of ionic liquids to establish a new drug delivery system platform for peptide medications, antibodies, and ADCs.

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What are BION LIQUID’s competitive advantages and technological strengths compared to its competitors?

BION LIQUID’s core technologies consist of three main areas: Firstly, the use of ionic liquids based on CAGE and our proprietary SAGE for oral formulation technology (OralionBio™); secondly, exosome carrier technology that incorporates a mixture of ionic liquids and active pharmaceutical ingredients; and lastly, custom production technology of ionic liquids for IT and chemical/biological processes.

Many protein/peptide drugs have become blockbusters post-FDA approval, yet most remain injectables because they are poorly soluble. The reason these therapeutic proteins/peptides remain injectable is that after ingestion, the pH changes in the gastrointestinal tract and enzymes within the lumen alter the drugs, which also fail to penetrate the mucous and epithelial layers of the gastrointestinal tract.

On the other hand, ionic liquids dissolve well even at room temperature without solvents, act as catalysts in reactions with small amounts, and especially show excellent permeability through the mucosal and epithelial layers of the gastrointestinal tract, allowing for effective drug absorption.

What products/services does BION LIQUID offer? What is the current status?

Our primary product/service at BION LIQUID involves converting blockbuster peptide medications and antibody and ADC pharmaceuticals into subcutaneous injections or oral formulations. Our goal is to select highly marketable and valuable drugs, such as the highly acclaimed diabetes and obesity treatments (semaglutide/tirzepatide drugs), as well as antibody or ADC pharmaceuticals, and then develop and patent drug delivery systems based on ionic liquids, with an aim towards technology transfer. Another product/service is the manufacture and sale of ionic liquids for IT and chemical/biological processes. We aim to generate short-term revenue by providing high-purity ionic liquids produced on-demand. We currently have the necessary infrastructure for manufacturing ionic liquids and are optimizing processes to enhance the purity of the high-demand ionic liquids.

What is the target market size for BION LIQUID and who are the key target customers?

According to IQVIA analysis, the global diabetes/obesity treatment market is expected to grow at an annual rate of 35% and exceed $100 billion in global annual sales by 2030. As this vast market forms, the demand for oral formulations will continue to grow. For example, after the main patents for the blockbuster antibody drug Humira expired in January 2023, several biosimilars were launched, but their market share remains very minimal more than a year later. Humira’s global annual sales amount to approximately 28 trillion KRW. The demand for more accessible biosimilars or biobetters is expected to surge, with fierce competition in development anticipated. In this competition, the convenience of the formulation and method will be crucial, and our technology aims to be a game-changer. Additionally, the target customers for ionic liquids aimed at generating short-term revenue for research and development include domestic and international companies, research institutes, and university labs that require applied research in IT, chemistry, and biological processes.

What is the business model of BION LIQUID?

Our business model is B2B, focusing on the technology transfer of next-generation drug delivery system platforms. We develop subcutaneous injection or oral formulation technologies for specific drugs using ionic liquids and, based on in vitro, in vivo, and preclinical trial results, secure patents to then transfer these technologies. Given the platform technology nature, we see potential for application across a broad range of similar substances.

What have been the achievements of the BION LIQUID team so far?

Since its incorporation in April 2023, BION LIQUID was selected as a top-performing entrant in the Seoul Bio Hub’s 2023 company evaluation within just three months and, upon its first anniversary in April 2024, received the ‘Outstanding R&D Award’ at the Money Today’s ‘2024 Best Enterprises of Korea Awards.’ This was in recognition of its achievements in the oral formulation of protein/peptide medications through ionic liquid technology. We have secured a series of candidates that meet biocompatibility, biodegradability, and non-toxicity standards for ionic liquids, filed a patent in January this year for a ‘new drug formulation using ionic liquids or eutectic solvents,’ and are currently preparing to file a second patent focused on ‘drug delivery carriers loaded with ionic liquid-antibody pharmaceutical conjugates.’

What makes the BION LIQUID team competitive?

Dr. Kim Wan-joo, co-founder and senior advisor of the company, founded C-TRI in 1998 and served as its CEO until 2020, exerting significant influence in the development of peptide pharmaceuticals and foundational technology for ionic liquids. He was particularly interested in developing oral formulations for insulin to manage his diabetes. Dr. Kim led C-TRI to a KOSDAQ listing and achieved a market capitalization exceeding $500 million by 2020. He is a legendary figure in the domestic pharmaceutical and biotech industry, recognized for his excellent national research projects and business performance, receiving awards such as the Order of Magnolia, Iron Tower Industry Medal, and the Gold Prize at the Korea Technology Exhibition.

Jeong Ho-cheol, the CEO, was inspired by Dr. Kim’s passion and business ideas, leading to their partnership. Jong-Ho completed his doctoral studies in molecular biology at the University of Utah and a postdoctoral fellowship in pharmacogenomics at UC Berkeley. He currently holds positions as an adjunct professor at Ewha Womans University’s College of Pharmacy and Yonsei University’s Institute for Convergence Science.

The research and development team includes two outstanding master’s graduates specializing in drug delivery systems and organic synthesis, along with two research interns from the 5th and 6th years of Ewha Womans University’s College of Pharmacy. Plans are in place to continually recruit talented researchers as funding becomes available.

Three reasons why we need investment:

Firstly, BION LIQUID’s decades of management expertise, accumulated research experience in ionic liquids, and the comprehensive expertise of our leadership group in chemistry, life sciences, and pharmacy, are augmented by ongoing advice from four national top experts in medicinal chemistry, drug delivery systems, formulation, and preclinical fields.

Secondly, our proprietary ionic liquid technology for converting peptide, antibody, and ADC pharmaceuticals into oral formulations is poised to be highly competitive in the rapidly expanding markets for obesity treatments and biosimilar antibody drugs.

Thirdly, unlike most biotech startups that struggle to generate short-term revenue, BION LIQUID can secure necessary funds for future R&D through the sale of ionic liquids in a wide range of chemical/IT applications including solvents, artificial muscles (electroactive polymers), protein crystallization, liquid crystal displays, lubricants, and fuel cell electrolytes.

Lastly, BION LIQUID has been growing with various benefits since being selected as an occupant enterprise at Seoul Bio Hub shortly after its establishment. We sincerely thank the Seoul Metropolitan Government and the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, who are fully supporting startups at Seoul Bio Hub. We are committed to contributing back to society beyond the benefits we receive.

[Korean Startup Interview]

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