Australia's Biotech Challenge

Business Asia, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Australia's Biotech Challenge

Australia's biotechnology industry is at the forefront of international development and research, but do we have the nous to make this industry a commercial success? NADIA CAMERON looks at the changing face of Australia's biotechnology sector.

A LACK OF commercial skills could cost Australia a position as a future biotechnology leader, industry experts say.

According to the country's leading biotech authorities, Australia has the research skills and talent to outshine the competition, but when it comes to establishing viable, commercial products, we're well behind the eight ball.

Australia's tack of commercial finesse could be the greatest hurdle in its quest to secure a position in the global biotechnology sector. Although still a relatively new industry, global biotechnology companies are finding that success depends not only on the ability to develop and research, but also on the ability to market findings into useful, commercial products. And with the world biotech industry estimated to be worth US$200 billion ($393 billion), Australia cannot afford to miss out.

Biotechnology is being heralded as the next big knowledge industry. In its broadest sense, it encompasses a group of technologies based on improving biological processes. Biotechnology has a diverse impact across several sectors, including human health, agriculture, food processing, manufacturing and environmental management.

Companies involved in biotech are also widely varied, and can be anyone from those who conduct research and development of products and processes, to the suppliers for these firms. In Australia's case, efforts are concentrated in five main areas, with human health the main study of 34 per cent of biotech companies. Agriculture is the second highest, with 23 per cent of Australian companies directing their research into this area in 1999. Australia's other areas of expertise are in equipment and services (12 per cent), environmental (11 per cent), and food production and processing (10 per cent).

Australia's contribution to the global biotech sector, while small, is well respected through the achievements of internationally recognised companies such as Cochlear, Biota and CSL.

The total revenue of Australia's biotechnology industry was estimated at $965 million in 1998/99, with just over $800 million direct from product sales.

There are approximately 150 dedicated biotech companies now operating in Australia, with 47 listed on the Australian Stock Exchange and contributing to a combined $12 billion in market capitalisation. This is significantly less than in the US or Europe, which both now exceed 1000 companies each and generate over US$22 billion in revenue combined.

Despite the massive size differences, industry representatives say Australia has the potential to become a global leader in the future, provided it nurtures its biotech industry and develops its commercially.

Dr Tim Littlejohn, chief scientific officer at Entigen, has confidence in Australia's biotechnology sector. He says there are plenty of opportunities for the industry to develop.

"My view of Australia's biotech industry is that it is full of dynamic players," he said.

"We've got tremendous life research and a good health care sector, and if you couple all of those together in conjunction with our position, our life sciences, our information technology expertise and our linkages to the rest of the world, we're ripe for a booming biotechnology industry."

Entigen, who specialise in the field of bioinformatics, are well aware of Australia's need for capitalising on its research. The role of bioinformatics, Littlejohn says, is to take the "wash of raw data" which stems from biotech research and turn it into information which is both manageable and accessible. By doing this, he believes his company is helping to push biotechnology development into a viable information technology industry. …

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