Science in Society Archive

Biotech Fever Burning, Burning Out?

Biotechnology is a risky business, according to a new study in the United States, the nation that leads the world in biotechnology. Nor is there likely to be a biotech boom resembling that of information technology. Chee Yoke Heong and Dr. Mae-Wan Ho ask whether it is wise for Third World governments to be caught up in the biotech fever.

As South-East Asia is in the grip of the biotech fever (box 1), the question uppermost in the minds of both policy-makers and the electorates must be: what does it take to create a thriving and financially successful biotechnology centre?

The answer is far from comforting, according to a new study carried out by Brookings Institution, a policy research institute based in Washington DC.

Biotech Fever Grips South East Asia

India's Karnataka trying to engineer biotech boom

Karnataka, whose capital is Bangalore, has 72 biotechnology companies employing around 3,500 scientists. Eleven new firms started last year.

The bulk of the new investment would come from Europe's second largest drugmaker AstraZeneca , which will invest one billion rupees, while Aurigene Discovery Technologies, a unit of New York Stock Exchange-listed Indian drug maker Dr. Reddy's Laboratories plans to invest 500 million.

But a good deal of Bangalore's ambition to build homegrown companies rests on infant start-ups that mainly focus on contract research for global corporations, or combine software skills with biotechnology to tap the emerging field of bioinformatics.

Singapore's 'Biopolis'

Singapore, whose economy is reeling from a slump in technology exports is moving into biotechnology in a big way. It wants to build the research expertise needed to position itself as the life science "hub" for South-East Asia in order to support the development of a lucrative biomedical/pharmaceutical industry. It is constructing a 'Biopolis', an 18 million square foot biomedical sciences hub housing public research institutes, corporate research and development centres and start-ups - due to be completed in 2003. In addition, a Biomedical Research Council is to be established and a Biomedical Grid, a high-security network enabling the biomedical research information to be shared and distributed between interested parties.

To make up for the lack of home-grown expertise, it has recruited foreign talents, including Dr. Edison Liu, Director of the US national Cancer Institute's Division of Clinical Sciences, and Alan Colman from PPL Therapeutics, the Scottish company that helped create Dolly the world's first cloned sheep.

Singapore has around 30 life science start-ups. Around half working in the biomedical sphere and half in agriculture and environmental sphere.

The country has attracted some pharmaceutical giants. Eli Lilly is spending US 140 million on research over the next five years and Novartis is spending US£119million over five to 10 years.

China's spending spree on agbiotech

China is developing the largest plant biotechnology capacity outside North America, according to a report in Science.

Research in agbiotech in China began in the mid-1980s. A research program on rice functional genomics was started in 1997. Fifty plant species and more than 120 functional genes are now used in plant genetic engineering.

Government funding predominates. Plant biotech funding increased eight-fold from 1986 to 1999. The total budget is estimated to be $112 million. About 9.2% of the national crop research budget was allocated to plant biotech in 1999, up from 1.2% in 1986, far exceeding the 2 to 5% level of other developing countries. India's budget is about 20% that of China, China accounts for more than half of the developing world's expenditures on plant biotech. But it is less than 5% of the total annual expenditure in industrialised countries, estimated to be about $2 to $3 billion, 45% of which is public. Thus, China supports more than 10% of publicly funded agbiotech.

In early 2001, China announced plans to raise plant biotech research budgets by 400% before 2005. If that is achieved, it could account for nearly one-third of the world's public plant biotech expenditure.

Malaysia's 'Bio-Valley'

Malaysia too, sees biotechnology as one of the five core technologies that will transform it into a highly industrialised nation by 2020, and is investing up to 4 billion RM (about £800 million) on a 'Bio-Valley'.

A National Biotechnology Directorate (BIOTEK), headed by Dr. Abdul Latiff Ibrahim, was established in 1996 to promote and coordinate biotech R& D activities in the country, and to encourage private-public sector participation in the national biotechnology programme. Dr. Ibrahim has said publicly that the Malaysian government would at least match the billions of dollars that Singapore plans to invest in providing world-class research facilities for companies. He hopes to secure between US $10 billion and US $12.2 billion worth of investment from companies in the are within the next 8 to 10 years.

At the 1st National Conference on Life Sciences held in Selangor in May, Malaysia's Minister of Health, Chua Jui Meng told the delegates that the 21st century is the "century of life sciences", when scientists will look to the "internal universe of life itself instead of outer space". The "thousands of meters of blood and nerves" could be the source of "untold wealth" and "untold possibilities".

Dr. Ibrahim gave a sketch of the Bio-Valley project, complete with artist's impression. It would be built on a lake, with three National Institutes of Biotechnology, for Agricultural biotechnology, Genomics and Pharmaceuticals respectively. ". There would also be a special institution to look after intellectual property rights and financial exploitation. And most importantly, luxury lake-side housing for scientists to attract the best.

Sources: "Indian state sees jump in biotech investments" Reuters Business, April 15 2002, Bangalore

"Biopolis or Bio-Bubble? Asia's Choice" Ian Ferguson, Business on Line Special Report May 2002, 20-25

Huang J, Rozelle S, Pray C and Wang Q. Plant biotechnology in China. Science 2002, 295, 674-7.

"Biotechnology in Malaysia" Briefing paper, Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment, Malaysia.

The study looks at the growth and decline of biotech centres in the 51 major metropolitan areas in the US. It finds that the industry is highly volatile (half of the biotech companies formed in the 1970s have folded or merged with other companies). The process of setting up a successful company is protracted, requiring substantial funding. The uncertainties in product development and economics are so great that most small biotech companies have failed over the last two decades.

"The apparent scale of research funding required for becoming a biotechnology center may be beyond the reach of most metropolitan areas," the study concludes, adding that most biotech firms operate at a loss, spending large amounts on research and development for several years in advance of earning any sales revenue. The typical biotech firm spent about $8.4 million on research and development and earned revenues of just $2.5 million in 1998.

Biotechnology activities are highly concentrated within those metropolitan areas that combine a strong research capacity with the ability to convert research into substantial commercial activity. These are places with a high concentration of capital flow, a critical ingredient in the development process, as well as leading universities and research institutes as sources of intellectual and human capital.

Only nine of the 51 metropolitan areas surveyed contained the necessary ingredients, with Boston and San Francisco emerging as the two established and dominant centres of the US biotech industry, which also has the largest density of biotech research firms in the world.

Government financing, a criteria that would be taxing especially to developing country governments, is also required to boost growth. The study notes that the biotech centres in the US receive heavy support and subsidies from the government; for example, the National Institutes of Health provide substantial research funding, totaling US$229 million in 2000 to the biotech centres with three-fifths going to the nine key areas.

The study concludes that it would be a mistake to believe biotech centres would take off like those of the computer technology centres. Unlike the boom created by the personal computer and internet, biotechnologies are often quite expensive and most biotech products are applicable to only a narrow fraction of the population.

Another shortcoming of the biotech centres is that even the successful ones do not contribute significantly to the economies in terms of job creation. Most biotechnology firms are quite small: nationally only 44 have more than 1,000 employees. Biotech firms typically contract with global pharmaceutical firms to produce, market, and distribute successful products rather than attempting to create their own capacity to do so. In the two largest concentrations of biotech activity, Boston and San Francisco, none of the largest biotech firms is among either region's 25 largest private employers

Article first published 22/06/02


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