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May 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 9)

Emerging Biotechnology Clusters

Experienced Management and VCs and a Serial Entrepreneurial Culture Provide Critical Keys to Success

  • Brazil

    Belo Horizonte, São Paulo, and Rio de Janeiro are the three leading biotech clusters. Generic manufacturers are currently predominant, but they realize the need for innovative new compounds, according to Sarah Frew, Ph.D., research associate at McLaughlin-Rotman Centre for Global Health at the University Health Network and the University of Toronto.

    The biotech sector is dominated by small to medium-sized companies that are focused on agriculture, although some small innovative drug firms exist. Collaborations tend to be with Brazilian universities and with foreign companies, but not with other Brazilian companies, and usually are for services like marketing or for access to information. Private financing remains challenging, and public funds are limited.

    Belo Horizonte, in the northern part of the country, is the capital of Minas Gerais, and was Brazil’s first planned city. It has three universities, including the University of Minas Gerais, which is known for its science and technology. The Biominas Foundation also is located in Belo Horizonte. The Foundation has helped 33 biotech companies generate business opportunities since its inception in 1990, and its Incubator of Companies program has introduced 21 start-ups to the market since 1997. Biominas is an active lobbyist for the biotech industry, and its officers have close ties to the government and to the venture capital community.

    São Paulo is home to the Butantan Institute, which is one of two vaccine suppliers to the Brazilian Program for National Immunization (PNI), universities, and to Intrials, which claims to be the largest full-service clinical trials research organization in Brazil.

    Rio de Janerio has the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, which plays a major role in developing healthcare products. The Immunobiologicals Technology Institute, known as Biomanguinhos, is the other vaccine supplier to the PNI and is located in Rio.

  • Canada

    Both Toronto and Vancouver have good, small companies, but they’re struggling for capital. They have the benefit of government support and strong universities, particularly the University of Toronto, the University of Guelph, and the University of British Columbia. Entrepreneurship skills need to be honed, however.

    In the heart of Toronto, the MaRS Center incubates a host of companies within about a mile of five teaching hospitals, the University of Toronto, the provincial parliament, and the financial district. The local government takes a close interest in the Center’s success, and several promising research projects are moving toward commercialization.

    Vancouver, on Canada’s west coast, consistently ranks as a fast-growing cluster, attracting more than 90 companies, some with late-stage trials. The University of British Columbia has an active tech-transfer department that has spun out several companies.

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