Tuesday December 4, 2007

Where is Malaysia’s biotech industry heading?

News Analysis: By FINTAN NG

YESTERDAY, the Selangor government hosted a biotechnology conference, BioSel 2007, to promote the state as an ideal location for biotechnology investments and to provide the latest information on industry opportunities to the attending sundry academics, business executives and media.

On the same day, S. Iswaran, Singapore's Trade and Industry Minister, announced at the opening of the Nanosymposium 2007 that a nanoscale measurement facility had been set up which would enable “ultra-precise” industrial measurements to be made that would meet international standards.

There are simply not enough skilled personnel to act as support staff for bio-tech firms
The minister said the facility was the first of its kind in South-East Asia and was part of the island-republic's push in nanotechnology-related research and development (R&D), which in some areas converges with biotechnology.

Singapore, between 2001 and 2010, would be investing as much as S$12bil in all aspects of high technology-intensive fields, including human capital management.

On this side of the border, a number of initiatives have been taken in conjunction with the aim to “move up the value chain”, which included investing or encouraging investment in high technology-intensive industries such as biotechnology.

In fact, under Budget 2008, there are incentives provided for the nurturing of the industry as well as RM236mil in funding.

The government, at federal and state levels, has provided the infrastructure, which included state-of-the-art labs, encouraged links between industry and research universities and set up agencies to facilitate investment or to act as resource centres.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry also awards companies BioNexus status, which is the industry equivalent of Multimedia Super Corridor status.

At present there are over 40 companies with this status.

One important aspect in nurturing the biotechnology industry is the management of human capital.

There are simply not enough skilled personnel to act as support staff for these companies or for foreign companies that see the country as a potential location for an R&D centre.

There are not enough people with the right knowledge in the universities.

According to Datuk Iskandar Mizal Mahmood, chief executive officer of Malaysian Biotechnology Corp Sdn Bhd (Biotechcorp), market capitalisation of biotechnology and biotechnology-related healthcare companies listed on Bursa Malaysia has reached RM3bil, with investment in new biotechnology firms including foreign direct investment of close to RM1bil.

Iskandar told a media briefing last month the National Biotechnology Plan (NBP) for capacity building was on track although work still needed to be done in providing a climate conducive to investment as well as developing human capital.

Developing and retaining human capital is related to whether or not universities could act as a support for biotech firms in R&D as well as having the necessary skilled personnel to staff these companies. The NBP was launched in 2005.

But where are these skilled Malaysians? If they could be found nearer home, Singapore would be the most likely place. Otherwise, they are found in the labs, research centres and universities of the Western world, in search of higher salaries and academic freedom.

Without these people, where would the industry be heading?

The point is not to place blame but something is not right when Malaysians prefer to work abroad and usually, pay is but one of a number of issues.

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