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Sidebars : Apr 1, 2009 (Vol. 29, No. 7)

Initiatives Advancing Chilean Life Sciences

Reducing the Country’s Dependence on Natural Resources Is a Primary Goal
  • Robert Yuan, Ph.D.

The Chilean government has pursued a policy of technological innovation in order to move the economy away from a dependency on natural resources. As such, the country has focused its efforts on building up its scientific infrastructure and using biotechnology for agricultural and industrial development.

Chile’s biotechnology program involves a number of agencies in key ministries—the four most influential are CONICYT, CORFO, FIA, and Millenium Initiative. These programs are coordinated through the National Innovation Board for Competitiveness, which reports to the President.

CONICYT (Chilean National Commission for Scientific and Technological Research) supports basic research and promotes commercialization and development of resources. As Chile’s scientific agency, CONICYT has an annual budget of roughly $50 million. Of this, 79% is dedicated to science and technology.

The agency has two competitive funds—FONDECYT, which supports basic research principally at the universities, and FONDEF, which finances collaborative projects between academic institutions and private firms. 

There are 61 universities in Chile. Their  principal function is education, very few of them possess the facilities and investigators necessary to carry out basic research. Leading institutions include the University of Chile and the Pontifical University of Chile, both of them in Santiago, while the University of Concepcion, one of the regional institutions, has been building up its capabilities.

CORFO (Chilean Economic Development Agency) promotes the commercialization of new technologies and products. This agency has a leading role in stimulating innovation in the private sector. It established the InnovaChile program to strengthen innovation infrastructure through matching grants, technical support, and the creation of collaborative networks.

According to CORFO, the Chilean biotechnology industry consists of 70 firms, 56% of which are linked to natural resources (42% agriculture, 8% fishing, 6% forestry). The other major business areas are human health (22%) and industrial biotechnology (22%). At present, the principal products are diagnostic kits, biological control agents, and genetic manipulation platforms for the improvement of particular crops or processes. The majority of the organization’s effort is directed toward the Chile Genome Initiative, the establishment of technological consortia (private-public partnerships) and regional R&D centers, and the identification of new markets. 

There is a general consensus within Chile that its biotech industry is limited by the small domestic market and the obstacles to breaking into the export markets. Of late, though, active promotion of Chile has led to an increase in the number of foreign participants in the InnovaChile projects.  

FIA’s (Fund for Agrarian Innovation) principal responsibility is to support agricultural research and to transfer new technology to the agricultural industry. This Ministry of Agriculture agency has a budget of about $6 million. One of its funded programs is developing new fruit strains that will be more competitive in export markets, allow cultivation into new areas of the country, and are less vulnerable to pests and diseases.

Millenium Scientific Initiative’s (MSI) major objective is to strengthen the science and technology infrastructure of the country through the creation of centers of excellence in collaboration with universities.

This program, which receives funding from the World Bank, is dedicated to fundamental research and the training of young investigators. MSI’s mission is  accomplished by establishing institutes or nuclei of researchers. There are now five MSI-founded institutes operating, including the Millenium Institute for Advanced Studies in Cell Biology and Biotechnology, the Center for Scientific Studies, and the Millenium Institute for Fundamental and Applied Biology.

Institutes typically have 10 associate researchers and an annual budget of $1.2 million, while the nuclei have three associate researchers with an annual budget of $270,000. Though the mission of the organization is the creation of knowledge, there have been major research findings that have had important commercial applications, including a vaccine against a major salmon pathogen and the development of enzymes that are active at low temperatures.

Interministerial Activities

In addition, there are three interministerial initiatives to boost technology commercialization. One of them, GenomaChile, focuses on projects that make use of genomics, proteomics, and metabolomics. From 2001 to 2007, $3.5 million was invested in GenomaChile.

Finally, 15 consortia boast a total investment (public-private) of $55.6 million and the participation of 110 companies and 36 research groups. There are consortia for animal health, fruits, and salmon. The country also has seven regional centers of biotechnology with an investment of $8.48 million.

Chile has two private foundations that play an unusual role in promoting biotech—Fundacion Chile and Ciencia para la Vida. Fundacion Chile was established in 1976 by the Chile government and ITT with two objectives: technology transfer and the creation of new technology companies.

The Fundacion has a technology center that works in five principal areas: agroindustry, marine resources, forestry, environment, and IT. It has a budget of $19 million for five years with a staff of 200 and an additional 500 consultants. The corporate center is dedicated to launching new companies, establishing strategic alliances, providing technology services, and licensing technologies and products.  

The Fundacion business model is self-financing mainly through the sale of its companies once they have come to maturity. R&D grants up to $300,000 are awarded, and seed capital up to $600,000 is also provided. Investment capital can reach up to $3 million. FC now has 23 companies in its portfolio. 

Ciencia para la Vida was founded to advance the adoption and use of science-based innovations by Chilean and international companies. It has developed products and technologies that serve the needs of the agriculture, mining, forestry, aquaculture, and healthcare industries.

In addition, it is building human resources capacities through the training of undergraduate and Ph.D. students in collaboration with local universities. It also  participates in a number of global networks that facilitate scientific collaboration between local and international centers of academic excellence.