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Empowering our bio-entrepreneurs
Published on: Sunday, January 08, 2017

By Datuk Seri Madius Tangau
Successful entrepreneurs know how to turn ideas into commercial products and make them profitable.

Silicon Valley, for example, is regarded as a commercial and economic success.

Pulsed by the thousands of technology companies and startups it houses, together, these entrepreneurs are bringing impactful changes to the world, and more so to their economy.

In Malaysia, we have long moved from an agriculture-based economy to become an industrialised nation.

Since our economic diversification in the 1970s, the government has been steadily promoting private enterprises and ownership in the country. That direction would continue to stay course as we transition towards the knowledge-based economy, or more so the Fourth Industrial Revolution, because in the bio-based sector, opportunities are aplenty for entrepreneurs to explore.

Malaysia began laying the foundation for a competitive biotechnology industry during the Eighth Malaysia Plan.

A significant milestone was achieved with the launching of the National Biotechnology Policy (NBP) in 2005, and more recently, the Bioeconomy Malaysia initiative in 2012.

The Ministry of Science, Technology & Innovation (MOSTI), through efforts undertaken by Bioeconomy Corporation, now focuses on attracting investment, sourcing partnership opportunities and to support local bio-based entrepreneurs in setting up their businesses.

Support for entrepreneurs comes in various forms, to equip biotech professionals with competencies in business negotiations, technology and financial due diligence, and business management skills. We are placing increasing emphasis on promoting Research and Development (R&D), and commercialisation, strategic technology acquisition, and building the requisite infrastructure and ecosystem.

As bio-entrepreneurs create new businesses, they result in new employment, producing a cascading effect in the economy. The bio-based sector would be able to generate new wealth and income for rural and urban populations, improving the socio-economic status of the people.

Our universities for example, are able to produce spin-off companies that translate research and development into commercialisation and to bring novel and value-add products and services to the market.

Entrepreneurs play a crucial role and therefore, getting researchers to commercialize their bio-based technologies is a priority, more so if we want to realise the bioeconomy agenda and to advance the role of science, technology and innovation (STI) in the country.

In the United States, the story of how Genentech was founded is a classic inspiration of how an innovative partnership has advanced a new era of technological change and created a multi-billion dollar industry.

Genentech was founded in 1976 by Bob Swanson, a venture capitalist, and Dr Herbert Boyer, a biochemist, at the University of California in San Francisco. The company is hailed to be the first biotech company in the world.

Licenses on its technologies generated more than USD 250 million in royalties over 20 years for two universities – The Stanford University and the University of California San Francisco. Today, Genentech has more than 30 medicines in the market, generating over USD 14 billion a year.

The path towards successful commercialisation of biotechnology and bio-based products is met with a myriad of challenges such as funding, market positioning, regulatory requirement, intellectual property rights management, resources availability and technical expertise. They do not necessarily fall neatly under the purview of the public or private sector; instead, they require collaborative efforts. An innovative and synergistic public-private partnership (PPP) is the key.

Just last week, the Biocon Academy in India saw 110 students graduating from its “Biocon KGI Certificate in Biosciences” programme. Biocon, India’s largest biotech company, initiated this program with Keck Graduate Institute, an applied life sciences graduate school in the U.S., to develop industry-ready talent for the country’s rapidly growing biopharma sector.

More countries are recognising the potential of bioeconomy and an increasing number of players are forging partnerships to accelerate the effective dissemination of new technologies from the confinement of a laboratory into the expert hands of business people and eventually the consumers.

There is no need to build a Silicon Valley for Bioeconomy from scratch here. We work towards a comprehensive ecosystem, fueled by strategic partnerships. Bioeconomy Corporation has been collaborating with two prominent organisations to help build a conducive ecosystem that would complement Malaysia’s bio-entrepreneurship initiatives. The University of California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) and The Larta Institute, have a proven track record for successfully advocating life sciences and biotech businesses.

QB3 is a partnership between the state of California, the industry, venture capital and the University of California, propelling the state economy through research and innovation in life sciences. It is based on a collaborative model that revolves around providing mentorships, professional development, funding and partnership to empower budding entrepreneurial scientists. A number of Malaysians have pursued their postdoctoral training and created start-ups under the QB3 Biotechnology Entrepreneur Programme.

To improve the viability of these startups, a Train-the-Trainer programme themed “Customer-Driven Technology” was held to provide trainers with a real-life context of commercializing existing technologies and tools for decision-making. Entrepreneurs, universities and companies learned how to validate their expectations before building products or licensing their technologies.

The other organisation, Larta Institute, preaches the “Network-Centric” approach to address entrepreneurs’ technology and business hurdles. They bring together the government and support organisations, entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, research institutions and the industry to ensure successful and impactful commercialisation.

The Larta Institute has an extraordinary track recording of translating more than 3,500 innovations into commercial successes.

We aim to see three bio-based spinoffs from each university every year. We are also hoping to increase the number of BioNexus status companies, a special status awarded to qualified biotech companies that would grant them fiscal incentives and other forms of development aid, from 274 today to 500 in four years’ time.

These strategic partnerships would help bridge the gaps faced by many aspiring bio-entrepreneurs, by facilitating their access to opportunities in the bioeconomy ecosystem. Talents and professionals in the bioeconomy industry should seize these benefits offered by the state (http://www.bioeconomycorporation.my).

Through these programs we hope to see more bio-entrepreneurs in the second wave of Malaysia Commercialisation Year (MCY 2.0).

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