Bringing Biotech to Hong Kong

Joseph Tam and his wife Kwai-Ting Tam stand surrounded by three of his most talented former students at DiagCor’s 10th anniversary celebration

Bringing Biotech to Hong Kong

UC Davis alumnus has developed diagnosis technology for SARS and other deadly illnesses

By Benjamin Ginsburg

Joseph Tam Ph.D. ‘69, the man responsible for bringing biotechnology to Hong Kong, says his time at UC Davis gave him more than an education: It gave him a new way of life.

“UC Davis taught me that the most important learning you do at a university is not at all related to your field of study; it’s about how you analyze and understand new concepts and ideas,” said Tam. “You can apply that to anything you want to learn.”

Now a CAAA Lifetime Member and donor to UC Davis, Tam earned his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 1969, and he returned to Hong Kong to teach at Hong Kong University in 1974. At the time, the most prevalent genetic disease in Hong Kong was thalassemia, a genetic disorder that affects the amount of hemoglobin in the blood. Tam began researching how globin gene expression affected occurrences of the disease and identified new mutations from Chinese thalassemia patients. His work eventually led to precise diagnoses and sparked more research into DNA in Hong Kong. Despite having no training in DNA or biotechnology, he learned by doing and found success.

“I tell my students that I’m an amateur,” he said. “I didn’t study biology or DNA; I started into this field because of curiosity, and my success is thanks to the lessons I learned at UC Davis, which helped me become a critical thinker. I’m a lifelong learner because of my time there.”

In 2003, during an outbreak of SARS in Honk Kong, Tam and a colleague used his patented Flow-through hybridization technology to rapidly develop a test for definitive genotyping of the disease-causing virus. Tam went on to found DiagCor Bioscience Incorporated with the intention of providing a place for graduates to work and excel and create the biotech industry in Hong Kong. The company is dedicated to providing DNA diagnostic services and developing DNA diagnostic products for international sales. To date, DiagCor has over 100 employees and, headquartered in Hong Kong, DiagCor has now positioned itself as the gateway for China and the West.

“I say that Hong Kong has a motto: ‘Hi-tech, hi-yay; low-tech, low-yay.’ It’s a Cantonese pun, but it basically means that hi-tech business is a big risk in Hong Kong and therefore will make you lose money, while low-tech like real estate will make money,” he explained. “I wanted to change that dichotomy, and DiagCor was the first exception to that rule, showing the world that an alternative was possible and that taking these risks could pay off. We built a profitable medical technology company, giving other people the motivation to do the same, and helping to convince the government to support these kinds of ventures.”

DiagCor just celebrated its 10-year anniversary, and, now that Tam owns four medical technology businesses, it is becoming a group. At all of his businesses, one of Tam’s central goals is to be a role model and mentor for his student interns and employees. Many DiagCor employees start companies of their own after they leave the company, and Tam considers this trend a huge success.

“I’m helping to build the science industry in Hong Kong,” he said. “My employees all get to play a part in that. And this is part of the UC Davis spirit that I try to emulate: No matter how small your effort, if you have good intentions, you will make a difference. If we all make small contributions, we can make the world a better place.”

In addition to infusing his workplace with pride for UC Davis, the university is also an important part of Tam’s family identity. He courted his wife Kwai-Ying Tam ’67 while they were both students at UC Davis, and their love the university inspired their son Francis Tam ’94 to study here as well. Francis, who graduated with a degree in landscape architecture, has been the director of Bell Collen and is now joining his father’s company as vice president.