Friday, December 17, 2010


Right now, biotechnology is still widely regarded as an up-and-coming industry in developing countries, despite the fact that the industry has experienced three "waves" (green, red and white). In developed countries, it is an established, but fast growing sector, with governments having long promoted the industry, especially in the US and continental Europe.Curious little proteins called enzymes are the engine for the growth of white (industrial) biotechnology. Firms like Novozymes have recognzed this, and set up operations all over the world.

In the US, the main hub for biotechnology is the state of California. As with Silicon Valley, businesses and government have united to create a highly conducive atmosphere for biotechnology firms. For example, the Stem Cell Initiative promises 3 billion USD over 10 years (beginning 2006) from the Californian government for stem cell research in the state. The voters also seem enthusiastic about biotechnology: several public referendums on banning GM crops in California were rejected by the public with wide margins (61-39% in Butte County).

The third biggest biotech hub in the US, North Carolina, benefits from its educational excellence designed towards science careers, particularly biotechnology. While the state has invested about 1.2 billion USD over the past 10 years in biotech, biotech firms like the state because of the research triangle formed by North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina and Duke University. But its not just a fanciful name, the triangle is home to the North Carolina Biotech Center.The community college system prepares students for technician jobs, and short courses in specific skills are also offered.
Duke University in North Carolina is one of the reasons why the state is such a thriving biotech hub. Countries wishing to expand their biotech industries should learn from this.

The US federal government has also been keen on biotechnology. While President Bush didn't exactly hold science in high esteem, President Obama has reached out to scientists, overturning stem-cell funding restrictions by executive order. The US stimulus programme allocated 8 billion USD to 12,000 research projects nationwide. A significant portion of the money has gone to keeping researchers salaries paid, but let's not underestimate that. There is no benefit to scientists going jobless, especially when they're trained in such a useful field.

Europe, meanwhile, really supports its' biotechnology sector. There are a total of 234 biotechnology parks in Europe; the UK alone has 56, France, 51. As of 2005, the 27 European member states invested 1 .208 billion Euros in the sector. While the recession did affect the industry, governments were quick tor respond: Norway gave the biotech industry a 300 million Euro bailout fund. On top of that, major business-enzyme players are present in Europe, while renewable raw materials are abundant in the continent.
The citizens of Europe have a misguided and irrational view of GM crops, which is holding back the sheer potential of Europe to contribute to new crop varieties and greater farm yields.

In Europe, white biotech is best known, partly because green biotech has a bad rap with the public. Part of the reason is the environmental effects of white biotech, which Europe seems very keen on; noting that carbon emissions could be cut by 17-65%.

Asia does not want to be left out of the field. India, while having instituted a moratorium on BT Brinjal, remains hopeful that biotech will help it pull off a second Green Revolution. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently set up a working group to look into ways to reduce food inflation; one of the group's recommendations was increased biotech investment. China, meanwhile, sees double digit growth in biotech, with the sector projected to reach a size of $ 9 billion by this year. The Chinese government, meanwhile, has given tax incentives (50% tax deductibility) and invested in quasi venture capital companies, causing total venture capital investment to rise by 22% from 2005 to 2006.

Other parts of Asia, like Malaysia, have immense natural potential for biotechnology research; after all, there are lush tropical rainforest throughout Asia, which provides raw materials for medical and industrial biotech. Malaysia, for example, is one of the 12 Mega Biodiversity sites in the world, and is working to capitalize on that.
Southeast Asia's lush tropical rainforests provide abundant source materials for biotechnology research. It is a great pity, then, that governments do little to check logging.

All in all, countries are seizing the exciting new opportunities in the field, although numerous obstacles remain. Some are plagued by hostile public reception to biotech, others by cumbersome bureaucracy, corruption and low intellectual-property protection.

However, it will not be good if the government meddles overmuch in the sector, this kills competition and is wasteful. Governments should provide the proper support mechanisms for science based businesses, and step back so innovation and competition set the field on fire.

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