Australia and New Zealand have joined forces to create one of the world’s strongest biotech partnerships: the Australia-New Zealand Biotech Alliance. Its goal is to encourage the two countries to combine R&D projects in sectors such as biosecurity, to share investment leads and technological advancements, and to boost the region’s identity.
Australia and New Zealand together represent a A$13bn ($10bn) biotech market, providing about 10,000 jobs. With 370 core biotech companies and more than 500 products under development, Australia is ranked sixth in the world for the number of biotech firms. New Zealand invests more than 25% of its R&D budget in biotech and has world-class research teams working in biomedical science and bioengineering.
Australia’s Victoria province launched the Biotechnology Strategic Development Plan for Victoria in 2001 with the aim of becoming one of the top five global biotech locations by 2010. By 2005, the Victoria government plans to have invested more than $500m in projects to strengthen the sector by building leading-edge science infrastructure, developing dedicated biotechnology precincts and backing the commercialisation of biotech research in the province.
At least five new research or investment partnerships have been formed already with a combined project value of more than $120m with local or international biotechnology related companies, including Schering AG, Merck, Eli Lilly and ChemGenex Therapeutics. Last year, for example, one of Victoria’s leading biotechnology companies, AGT Biosciences, merged with US-based ChemGenex Therapeutics to create ChemGenex Pharmaceuticals. The merger creates a major international biopharmaceutical company with a fully integrated research platform from early discovery through to compounds in phase two clinical trials for cancer.
A gap to fill
As the US federal government is limiting funding in embryonic stem cell research, Australia is hoping to help fill the void. In 2002-2003, the National Stem Cell Centre (NSCC) was established in Victoria with grants of A$43.5m from the Australian government and A$11.375m from the provincial government. The Australian government announced a further $57.9m in new funding in 2004 to support the centre’s activities until 2011. The NSCC is a collaborative initiative, uniting academic researchers with the international biotechnology industry.
Biotech companies in India are focusing on developing high-end technologies and products. The large pool of scientific talent available at a reasonable cost, a wealth of R&D institutions, rich bio-diversity, strong IT skills and an English speaking population put India in a strong position in the global market.
Analysts contend that although biotechnology in India contributes only 2% to the global market, the country is on the threshold of colossal growth in the coming decade. Support from the Indian government via the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), various centres of excellence and entrepreneurship initiatives are laying the foundation for advancement. Emphasis is being placed on public-private partnerships and streamlining the regulatory regime.
Singapore, which is already one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical locations, aims to double its biotechnological production in the next 10 years. Although a lot of global biotech has been focused on acquisitions, Singapore has been successful in attracting large amounts of investment.
In July, Novartis announced the opening of the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases (NITD) in Singapore’s new two million square foot Biopolis research facility. The institute focuses on advanced biomedical research for neglected diseases. It is a public-private partnership between Novartis and the Singapore Economic Development Board.
In September, GSK announced plans to invest S$62m ($37.5m) to establish its first Asia Pacific pre-clinical research facility for neurodegenerative diseases in Biopolis. “This new facility builds on exciting links with research in Singapore and represents a significant step forward in enabling us to continue to identify the best new drug candidates for clinical trials,” says Dr Jackie Hunter, senior vice-president and head of GSK’s neurology and gastro-intestinal drug discovery unit.
Local officials regard the GSK facility as key to strengthening Singapore’s drug discovery capabilities. “This investment will deepen GSK’s long-standing partnership with Singapore,” says Philip Yeo, chairman of the Agency for Science, Technology Research and co-chairman of the Singapore Economic Board for Biomedical Sciences. “It will also be another boost to Singapore’s position as a global biomedical sciences hub.”
But the big boost may come from a fund that the Singapore government has established to invest in start-ups that are engaging in embryonic stem cell research and other cutting edge life science projects. Singapore has already provided funding toward ES Cell International, a Biopolis-based company that owns six stem cell lines and is focusing on developing treatments for diabetes.
Business Week magazine recently cited other Asian countries as making “astonishing progress” in stem cell research. Among them are China, Japan and South Korea. Beijing and Shanghai house major stem cell centres, and Seoul National University in South Korea has developed 36 stem cell lines, one of the world’s largest. But, as the article points out, the big question is whether local universities in Asia can produce enough top-notch researchers rather than relying on imported scientists. Asian locations may face a run for their money from California’s $300m commitment to the science and ample sources of alternative funding.
Biotechnology is creating a new industrial revolution around the globe. In that light, economic developers will continue to place a priority on biotech investment because many of them regard the technology as key to economic growth and the future.