Jumpstarting the Industry
Malaysia still has far to go in integrating its R&D infrastructure and government programs to promote the use of biotechnology in existing companies and the creation of new firms. The slow progress has led the government to take further action. BioNexus status has been conferred on the following seven institutions: Asiatic Center for Genome Technology, Inno Biologics, Kosmo Biotechnology, KL Biotech Manufacturing, Malaysia BioDiagnostic, Nova Laboratories, and Vivantis Technologies.
The Malaysian government also has three major initiatives to increase R&D capacity, expand the pool of biotech manpower, and stimulate commercialization. One of them, the Malaysia-MIT Biotechnology Partnership Program, is a research collaboration that is bringing together 200 researchers in Malaysian institutes and 27 researchers at MIT. This is a five-year plan that focuses on medicinal plants and palm oil.
The second initiative is a $6.7 million program established by Malaysia Biotechnology at the California Institute for Quantitative Biomedical Research (QB3), which is a consortium of the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and biotech companies.
The program includes visits by senior Malaysian scientists and administrators for training in advanced skills and also for participation in UCSF’s Center for Bioentrepreneurship. It also provides opportunities for students to do their Ph.D. thesis work or postdoctoral research in California.
The third initiative, The Malaysian Life Science Capital Fund, expects to raise $200 million and will be jointly managed by Malaysian Technology Development and Burrill & Co. The plans are to use $140 million for investment into some 20 companies with an average outlay of $7 million. The balance of the funds will be invested in the Burrill Life Science Capital Fund.
Malaysia still needs to focus on certain priorities to improve its biotech industry: increasing the value of its agricultural products, the development of halal pharmaceuticals and food products, and exploiting biodiversity to generate new medicinal products.
Most of Malaysia’s agricultural biotechnology revolves around government institutes and large plantations. Whether the agricultural sector will be changed by the partnership with MIT remains to be seen. Though there has been much publicity about the MIT and QB3 initiatives, these projects seem unlikely to increase the technological competitiveness of local companies.
Malaysia has 208 licensed pharmaceutical companies, but it still lacks a major market leader, particularly one that takes advantage of the market for halal pharmaceuticals. The same is true of the local market for herbal products, which was estimated at over $700 million.
To date, there are still few partnerships and investments with foreign companies and multinationals, and Malaysia is still short of the scientific and managerial manpower needed to grow its biotechnology R&D and industry. In the end, there are limitations to what any government can do on its own.