SA launches third biotech innovation centre

Cape Biotech, South Africa’s third government-funded Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centre (BRIC) has been launched in the Western Cape, confirming the country’s commitment to biotechnology.

Two other BRICs – EcoBIO and BIOPAD – are already operational. Although the BRICs are regionally focused, they are not going to operate independently. There is a process of facilitating collaboration across all BRICs to create a national cohesiveness between all three centres.

Cape Biotech has been awarded R12.5m for 2002, R32 million for 2003, R39 million for 2004 and R52 million for 2005. The funding has been committed to establish the Western Cape’s BRIC under the auspices of the SA National Biotechnology Strategy. The funding across all three BRIC's is about R140 million per annum. As indicated in the SA country strategy document, biotechnology is a cross-cutting technology with wide application, across sectors and biological boundaries. The biotechnology industry is a research-intensive industry spending between 40% and 50% of revenue on Research and Development (R&D). This is much higher than the average research intensity of about 5% of revenue on R&D, or even the pharmaceuticals industry’s average research intensity of 13%.

The development and application of biotechnology requires a convergence of skills from a variety of disciplines. It requires appropriate combinations of biochemistry, genetics, information technology, engineering and several other areas of expertise. It is truly a multi-disciplinary field and development in this sector requires the establishment of links or partnerships between science, engineering and technology institutions (SETIs) and private companies. Biotechnology is thus a highly-networked endeavor. Cape Biotech has two major functions: industry stimulation and capacity creation; and disseminating and managing government funds by investment in commercially promising projects. 

Through a portfolio of projects which are regionally focused, the Cape Biotech will act as a centre for the development of a range of businesses and new product offerings, as well as have the capacity to support these. This will, in turn, contribute to the development of world-class skills, economic development and job creation in the region. With an interest in capacity creation, portfolio and knowledge management, Cape Biotech is therefore a cluster development initiative in addition to a funding body.

It is estimated that 60% of SA Biotechnology start-ups approaching venture capitalists for funding originate in the Western Cape and the region has well-developed expertise in medical, environmental, pharmaceutical, industrial and agricultural biotech, as well as in bioinformatics and genomics. In addition there is a rapidly developing business support network, including several globally competitive biotechnology companies. The region is known for its rich plant biodiversity which is a unique source of novel molecules.

The aim is to create as many commercially viable life sciences entities in the Western Cape as possible. Cape Biotech has been through two proposal call processes, which resulted in the short-listing of 16 projects. Approximately three quarters of the short-listed projects relate to human health and the balance to industrial bioprocessing. Plant biotechnology will not be funded by Cape Biotech but PlantBIO, managed by Mark Laing's group in Durban, will service this area nationally.

Cape Biotech also has a mandate from government to become operationally self-sustaining and the objective is to use the funds in the most ‘value-effective’ manner for the recipient parties. The money allocated to Cape Biotech is not intended to replicate grant-funding bodies but rather to stimulate a need to commercialise through the conditions for funding. In addition, Cape Biotech aims to define a regional branding and marketing strategy to develop global alliances with other similar initiatives and potentially attract other donor investment. - A Harvest


July 2003