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Checkbiotech: Biotech enthusiasm spurs global competition
Posted by: DR. RAUPP ; madora (IP Logged)
Date: June 23, 2005 07:46AM ; ;

It might be easier to find life on Mars than to locate a region on Earth
that does not aspire to become a biotechnology hub, June 2005 by Jon Van.

From Australia to Toronto and Singapore to Amsterdam, everyone has big
plans-and hefty government subsidies-to attract biotech firms. The obvious
lure is well-paying jobs, which average more than $60,000 a year, but even
the most enthusiastic biotech boosters agree that most efforts are long
shots to produce big profits.

At the Biotechnology Industry Organization's annual meeting this week in
Philadelphia, the enthusiasm is virtually worldwide.

Chicago, too, has its eyes on a biotech bonanza. The biotechnology group's
annual meeting will be held in Chicago next spring, and that will help put
the spotlight on the Midwestern technologies being developed.

Until recently, the U.S. dominated biotech, accounting for 80 percent of
investment, but that is changing.

On Tuesday, Wyeth BioPharma announced a partnership with Dublin City
University to create more efficient cell production. The effort will be
financed in part with $5 million from the Science Foundation of Ireland,
part of some $210 million Irish taxpayers will spend on life-sciences

A day earlier, India's science minister said his country aims to create and
support at least 10 biotech parks to develop new businesses in the next five
years. And officials from South Korea described plans for 25 biotech

"When you look around at all the competitors, you know we're not all going
to make it," said John Cook, director of a biotech centre operating in
downtown Toronto.

It was five years ago, shortly after scientists said they had completed
mapping the human genome, that executives started calling biotech a
candidate for the next big thing, said Caroline Kovac, general manager for
life sciences at IBM Corp.

"We anticipated that biotech is approaching a tipping point, much as what
happened to information technology in '94 with the advent of the World Wide
Web," said Kovac.

IBM predicts a convergence of information technology and biotech as life
scientists depend more upon computers to analyse the mounds of data about
genetics they are amassing.

As the Internet has opened new opportunities for businesses big and small,
many countries believe they can find biotech niches to elevate their
economies. Politicians are eagerly buying into the message.

In Amsterdam, where academic scientists turn out top research that seldom
gets developed into commercial products, it was the mayor who pushed the
idea of building a biotech centre to turn the research into products, said
Ada Kruisbeek, tech transfer director for VU University Medical Centre.

The European Union spends about $1 billion a year promoting biotech, and
that is in addition to the money that individual countries and cities spend,
said Christian Patermann, EU director of bioagriculture.

"After information technology, biotech is the next big wave," Patermann

While political leaders embrace biotech, some of their constituents do not.
In Europe, disdain for genetically modified crops--often called
"Frankenfoods"--is great enough to severely restrict agricultural biotech
progress, Patermann said. But Europeans generally support biotech
health-care advances, he said.

Opposition to agricultural biotech was central to a demonstration Tuesday
outside the Philadelphia convention centre, where hundreds of protesters
clashed with police. Demonstrators carried signs denouncing use of humans as
"guinea pigs" and carried skull-shaped placards opposing bioweapons.

Some demonstrators were taken away in an ambulance after altercations with
police who were herding demonstrators away from the entrance to BIO 2005.
During the demonstrations, a police officer collapsed and died of an
apparent heart attack, according to The Associated Press.

Protesters aside, most of the world seems more focused on the promise of
life-science research rather than any downside.

In Australia, few people even used the term biotechnology five years ago,
said Mikael Hirsch, director of Australia's biotech trade organization.

"Now we've put $5 billion into research and commercialization," he said. The
Australian delegation to Philadelphia numbers more than 400, "including 10
of our most important politicians."

Chicago's goal of becoming the capital of a Midwestern biotech powerhouse
will become more clear next year when BIO 2006 unfolds. But Robert
Rosenberg, a University of Chicago assistant vice president, said
development will hinge on the spread of biotech tools from health care to
industry, agriculture and beyond.

"Health care is still very much the focus," Rosenberg said of the
Philadelphia meeting. "It will be very different in Chicago. We'll have a
much broader definition of biotechnology."

Chicago faces intense competition, but it competes from a position of
strength, said Michael Hildreth, head of Ernst & Young's biotech practice,
who presented an industry analysis to the meeting Tuesday.

"Chicago has the academic centres of excellence that biotech needs," he
said. "It also has experience in knowing how to make and sell things, which
is also important."

Yet, as the nations scrambling to build a biotech industry are showing, a
country may not need such a concentration to thrive.

Scotland began focusing on biotech about 10 years ago, with emphasis on
agricultural research. It began with some 50 companies doing life-sciences
work and today has more than 100, said Neil Guthrie, life-sciences adviser
to Scotland's economic development agency.

Traditionally, Scotland relied upon shipbuilding to bolster its economy, he
said. When that declined, the country turned to electronics assembly. Those
jobs are now migrating to Asia, so Scotland embraced biotech.

Motivations in Canada are similar, said Toronto's Cook. The country
traditionally has relied upon natural resources such as timber, oil and gas,
but those industries don't promote an entrepreneurial culture, he said.
Canada "feels a sense of urgency to create an innovative economy," said

Just as enthusiasm for the Internet led to a bubble that eventually burst,
biotech almost certainly will eventually disappoint its backers. But no one
can say just when that may happen.

"At some point, you'll see excess capacity," said Glenn Snyder, a partner in
Deloitte Consulting. "But that could take 20 years."

If biotech's burgeoning bubble bursts sooner, investors may lose money, but
they should be used to it, said Matthew Hudes, also with Deloitte.

"Biotech has been volatile ever since it started," he said.


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