Biotech plan needs a rethink


  • Letters
  • Thursday, 10 Nov 2016

epaselect epa05576258 Owen Collumb of the Britain team NeurcoCONCISE competes at the Brain-Computer Interface Race (BCI) during the first Cybathlon in Zurich, Switzerland, 08 October 2016. The first Cybathlon, a platform for the development of novel assistive technologies that are useful for daily life, is organised by the ETH Zurich. Individuals with physical disabilities will compete side by side in six demanding disciplines, using the latest assistive technologies. EPA/ALEXANDRA WEY

IT was more than two decades ago when Malaysia first became serious about biotechnology and looked at it as another avenue for growth. Many around the world were also hailing the sector as the new economic wonder.

Concern over climate change and the search for greener solutions were some of the factors driving global interest in biotechnology.

Many world economies were bought over by the idea, including us. In our case, a Directorate of Biotechnology was established under the then Science, Technology and Environment Ministry to chart the directions for the nation’s bioeconomy ambitions.

In 2005, the National Biotechnology Policy was launched to drive the nation’s biotech agenda. The endgame was to make the biotechnology industry another key economic engine of growth.

The nation’s Biotechnology Corporation was given the task to implement the goals articulated in the policy. It was responsible for sowing the seeds to spur the nation’s biotechnology industry.

The strategy adopted then was to attract and use foreign direct investment to catapult the growth of domestic biotech firms. Incentives included giving bionexus status to recognised biotech companies as well as the usual tax breaks.

Bionexus entities also enjoyed access to some grants and other soft financing provided by the Government.

It all started well. Many foreign investors announced keen interest and some promised to invest billions in the country.

Many Malaysians became convinced of the bright career prospects in biotechnology and the promise of lucrative jobs. As expected, students were coaxed by their parents to take up biotechnology.

Universities, both public and private, took advantage of the growing interest and the number of programmes on biotechnology saw a noticeable increase.

The number of biotechnology graduates in the country soon witnessed a big rise. Combined with those returning from overseas, it was no surprise that the number of graduates looking for the promised jobs in biotechnology literally ballooned.

Unfortunately, that demand for jobs could not be matched by an industry still in its infancy.

The growth of the local biotechnology industry did not materialise as planned. Much of the promised foreign investments were not delivered and many of the bionexus firms did not make much headway either.

As a result, many of the biotechnology graduates ended up working elsewhere. Many, in fact, ended up selling credit cards!

Notwithstanding that misfortune, biotechnology is still seen as a discipline which promises new business opportunities for the world. What is needed is a rethink of the nation’s strategy to build and sustain the biotechnology industry.

We need a new approach. We need an integrated national programme to build not only business leadership but also technology strengths in the field.

In the past, the focus was concentrated on the business side of the equation while the technology development aspect was largely ignored. We were also overly dependent on foreign investment and there was no concerted effort to build our own indigenous capacity for both technology and business.

Take the project on biomass for example. Duplication is rampant. No less than four government entities are involved in the oil palm biomass project. And they do similar things. No wonder the progress has been poor.

What we need is a national programme involving the many relevant institutions working together to build global leadership not only in the biomass business but also in the biomass technology which we can later export.

It is not impossible. South Korea has done it for electronics, ship building, nuclear technology and many more. Biotech Corp can be the driver but this time it must involve the others, especially the universities, the National Institute of Biotechnologies Malaysia, MPOB and other relevant technology centres.

The national programme should not be limited to biomass. We must look at other potential business areas including plant-based biopharma, insect biotechnology and even bioreactor technology for producing palm oil, rubber and cocoa.

Yes, it is long term. Existing entities which struggle to be relevant such as Innobiologics can be partners.

A new strategic plan is needed to effect this overhaul. Only then can we truly deliver the promised jobs in biotechnology. Only then can we truly harness biotechnology as a new economic growth engine for the country.

DR AHMAD IBRAHIM

Academy of Sciences Malaysia

UCSI University

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