By Richard Gordon 

At the inaugural BIO Africa Convention recently hosted in Durban, a number of local and international delegates affirmed that three key ingredients are required for a bioeconomy to flourish.  These are (i) an enabling environment, (ii) a strong academic system, and (iii) an engaged private sector.  All three of these factors are important; if any one of them is absent, progress will be limited.

 

In South Africa, the latter two elements are evolving.  The country has some of the best academic institutions in the world, with pockets of excellence in the life and health sciences.  And regarding the private sector, local and international companies are exploring a range of business models as they seek to understand how best to work in Africa.  The continent is very different to the US and Europe when it comes to conducting business.

 

With regard to the first element, what is actually meant by "an enabling environment"?  Can one quantify it?  Is it a global standard, or is it something that is customised to different countries or regions?  From 15 years' experience in the field of global health innovation, I would like to suggest that there are some essential fundamentals that, blended with certain unique traits of each region, make bio-innovation possible.  Simply put, one cannot just replicate a US or European bio-innovation model and apply it in Africa.  The continent is unique.  So how is it doing comparatively?

 

A thriving bio-innovation environment needs three things, namely a cohort of skilled scientists and business entrepreneurs, sustained funding for projects, and infrastructure underpinned by a sound legal and predictable intellectual property framework.  Driven by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and supported by the Departments of Health, Trade and Industry (DTI) and Higher Education and Training, the South African biotech environment is unrecognisable from a decade ago.  So, what has happened?

 

The DST's health innovation team has systematically initiated programmes to address some of the fundamental enabling requirements, which deserve mention.

 

Capacity development

 

Whereas European and US research hubs often have a surplus of the skills required to build a bioeconomy, in Africa these skills are in relative short supply.  The DST and the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) have taken the lead on a number of programmes to build this capacity.  These have taken many forms and include the following:

  • The Centres of Excellence programme, under which 15-year grants are provided to leading scientists in their field to establish core national competencies and cohorts of researchers.
  • The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI), which was established by the DST and the National Research Foundation (NRF) and gives recipients 15-year grants to build and retain scientific research and innovation capacity at the country's public research institutions.
  • The research scholarships that are made available through the NRF.
  • The capacity development grants provided by the SAMRC to various institutions in a number of disciplines.  This includes the prestigious National Health Scholars Programme.

Project and infrastructure funding

 

Once-off, short-term research and infrastructure grants do little to build a bioeconomy.  This is best achieved by sustained funding over a five to 10-year period.  Qualified personnel are then required to operate and implement the innovative programmes.  The DST, SAMRC and Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) are very active in this area, running the following programmes:

  • The South African Research Infrastructure Roadmap (SARIR) is a flagship DST programme which aims to fund key infrastructure capabilities in the country over a 10-year period, in fields including omics, population health demographics and nuclear medicine.
  • The TIA funds a number of national platforms, technology stations and technology clusters which help local entrepreneurs to bring ideas to fruition.  The agency also provides grants, loans and equity investment in a number of scientific areas.
  •  The Strategic Health Innovation Partnerships (SHIP) unit at the SAMRC has a portfolio of more than 50 projects to develop new drugs, vaccines and medical innovations.  In addition to SHIP, the SAMRC funds 150 research projects focusing on health care using locally and internationally sourced funding. These range from seed grants to funding for clinical studies.
  • The SAMRC, TIA and NRF have initiated a number of research and capacity development programmes with international partners such as the Newton Fund, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the US National Institute of Health.  It is expected that this area will increase in size. 

There have also been a number of advances in the intellectual property (IP) arena.  The Intellectual Property Rights from Publicly Financed Research and Development Act (IPR Act) has provided clarity to researchers and funders on IP benefit sharing and commercialisation.  The DTI is also actively addressing the broader IP framework and how it applies in South Africa.

 

So, how are we doing?  Are we the finished article?  The South African government has made great strides in catalysing an enabled bioeconomy for South Africa and Africa.  Driven largely by the DST, the South African landscape is unrecognisable from a decade ago and is "open for business".  

In my opinion, we will need to make the following major strategy shifts over the next decade in order to take the South African bioeconomy to the next level:

  • Making the bioeconomy system function as a whole by breaking down existing silos and ensuring that the key stakeholders are working in unison.  This is starting to happen, as evidenced by recent partnerships between the SAMRC and the TIA on the one hand, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) on the other.  However, this needs to happen on a national scale.
  • Making the bioeconomy more inclusive through non-traditional approaches.  It is vital that a new set of initiatives is developed in this arena, and that request for application (RFA) sourced programmes are not the only source of funded programmes.
  •  Focusing on the private sector, which is by far the largest funder of global innovation funding.  South African levels of funding are modest, ranging between 0.1% and 0.7% of GDP.  The bioeconomy needs substantially more investment, which is most likely to come from the private sector.

Bring on the next decade! 

Richard Gordon is the Executive Director of the Grants, Innovation and Product Development Unit at the South African Medical Research Council.