Developing SA’s biotech industry

10 March 2003

South Africa’s bid to commercialise biotechnology is forging ahead with the setting up of three new regional innovation centres, the first of which was launched this month in Johannesburg.

The Biotechnology Partnership for Africa’s Development (Biopad) was initiated earlier this year as a collective response, by a community of biotechnologists and other professionals, to the challenges posed by the varied needs of the region and the continent.

According to the Biopad website, the aim of the initiative is to put South Africa among the world leaders in the application of biotechnology, in so doing “stimulating economic development, contributing to job creation, and building world-class skills and technology platforms to sustain and continue development”.

Three regional Biopad biotechnology innovation centres are being set up under the auspices of the department of science and technology, in accordance with the department’s national biotechnology strategy.

The department has allocated R400-million over the next three years towards the setting up of the three centres, in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

The centres will serve as nuclei for the development of biotechnology platforms, from which a range of businesses offering new products and services can be developed. The centres will promote research and development, entrepreneurial services, technology, intellectual property management and business incubation.

Each centre will focus on specific areas of biotechnology that fit with the country’s development imperatives, use local expertise and have commercial potential.

The biotechnology innovation centre in Gauteng, which aims to become self-funding after three years, has been given R135-million by the department, and will focus on animal health on the one hand, and industrial, mining and environmental biotechnology, on the other.

Both these focus areas are strategically important for South Africa and the region. Animal production comprises around 35% of total agricultural turnover in the country. Projects focusing on this area will include developing vaccines for tick-borne heartwater disease and bovine pneumonia, and combating psittacine beak and feather disease.

According to a Business Day report, a further 25 projects are being funded by the Gauteng centre, including initiatives to “produce fine chemicals from aloes, identify microbial enzymes to help extract the flavour and medicinal compounds of Rooibos tea, and produce natural flavours and fragrances from micro-organisms”.

The biotechnology innovation centre to be developed in KwaZulu-Natal will focus on human health, industrial bioprocessing and plant biotechnology, while the Western Cape centre will also focus on human health and industrial bioprocessing.

Egoli BIO incubator
The opening of the Gauteng Biopad centre was not the only boost biotechnology in the province has received this year. A separate initiative, the Egoli BIO life sciences incubator, was launched in February.

Egoli BIO is a business incubator which aims to help grow small, medium and micro-sized biotechnology enterprises in the country. The company works closely with Biopad to nurture and prepare small, medium and micro enterprises (SMMEs) for commercialisation.

According to the website, Egoli BIO seeks to act as a “development conduit for the commercialisation of life sciences research, products, services and technology platforms” in South Africa.

“It seeks to attract and nurture the highest quality tenants in this niche area, providing business infrastructure, strategic guidance, financial and legal advice, and to create an environment of learning and sharing in which information, experience and ideas are freely exchanged.”

Egoli BIO is a joint initiative between the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, the Innovation Hub – one of the project’s of the Gauteng government’s Blue IQ initiative – and AfricaBio, South Africa’s biotechnology industry association.

Funding for Egoli BIO is being provided through Godisa, a joint initiative between the department of trade and industry, the department of arts, culture, science and technology, and the European Union.

SouthAfrica.info reporter