Nature Biotechnology | Trade Secrets

The South African government, biotech and growth

South Africa is a country with so much untapped potential. Critics said South Africa would not be able to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup. After one of the most successful football spectaculars the world has ever seen, Spain left with the cup and the country now boasts formidable infrastructures and has exported vuvuzelas to the rest of the world. This shows that South Africa can deliver if its government and people are completely committed to a cause. The challenge now is to transfer this commitment, energy and enthusiasm to address other priorities of the country, such as poverty, unemployment, food security and the burden of diseases like TB and HIV/AIDS.

In addressing these challenges the government has long realized that part of the solution is using science and technology as the pillar to grow the economy. The South African government knows that science, technology and innovation play a critical role in economic growth and socio-economic development, and it knows that technology innovation is one of the critical policy areas required to speed up growth and transform the economy to one that is knowledge-based.

How best can this policy be implemented? The passing of the white paper on science and technology in 1996 led to the establishment of the Department of Science and Technology (DST), which has the responsibility for driving the national scientific research and innovation policy. The DST started by developing its research and development strategy, which was the foundation for technology innovation in the country. South Africa, like many other countries, also developed an interest in biotechnology and the role that it could play in economic growth. This resulted in development of a National Biotechnology Strategy in 2001. 

The guiding principles of that strategy were to ensure that it addressed the national imperatives and contributed to economic growth. To implement this, six biotechnology entities were established (each with a different mandate) to address government needs and priorities across the economy. These innovation centers are LIFElab, Cape Biotech, BioPAD, PlantBio, National Bioinformatics Network and the Public Understanding of Biotechnology Programme.

Over a four-year period, these initiatives yielded the following: establishment of 78 active biotech companies; development and/or commercialization of 1,542 biotech products/services; generation and leveraged revenues greater than $100 million; creation of 2,051 biotech specific jobs and establishment of 16 technology platforms. These institutions have now been amalgamated into one agency known as the Technology Innovation Agency. 

I am the Senior General Manager-Infrastructure and Planning at the Technology Innovation Agency in South Africa. I lead our portfolio to ensure effective support in technology investments and incubation activities. I’ll have more to say on South African biotech and investment in future posts.

Blessed Okole


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    Andrew Marshall said:

    Blessed – thanks for the post. I’m interested, given the constraints on VC funding, whether at the government level, you’ve been focusing particularly on fields of the life sciences where the development timelines and the amounts of investment needed are more manageable than say innovative drug discovery. For example, South Africa’s has a historical strength in transplantation and that opened up opportunities for translating that expertise into device companies. Presumably there are other areas, such as diagnostics, enzymes, biomaterials, reagents supply, contract manufacture, fermentation and bioprocessing, food and agriculture, bioremediation and biofuels, that offer more shorter less capital intensive business models.  I’m also wondering whether at the government level there has been any concerted effort to attract investment from companies that by locating in South Africa could gain freedom to operate from IP preventing R&D in Europe and the US. I believe this was at least one of the reasons why SA startup Kapa Biosystems, a company working on directed evolution, located its facility there.

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    Blessed Okole said:

    Dear Andrew, Thanks for your comments. In the area of drug discovery, it is impossible to work in isolation. In south Africa, we have established centers of competences to find solutions to our disease burden.  These are formalized collaborations between industry, universities and science countils whose main purpose is to find solutions to multifaceted R&D programs.  This is currently going on for TB and HIV/AIDS and its very successful.  In the medical device,bioprocessing and diagnostic area, the government through the Technology Innovation Agency has established platforms with state of the art equipments, high skilled technicians and a well networked infrastructure. These platforms lower the rate of failure and are also used to incubate entrepreneurs for 6months to 1 year. Companies re-locating to South Africa are welcome. There are government incentives, high skilled labour and as you are aware SA is a beautiful country to work .

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    Robert Lu said:

    Andrew: It takes great initiative and entrepreneural leadership to invest in South Africa. We welcome you with open arms. If you looking skilled labour please visit , we are a premier career portal, employing and empowering South Africa!