By Dheepak Maharajh, Cluster Head of BioCiTi.
If you have been following the progress of the biotechnology sector in South Africa for any amount of time, you will have come across one recurring phrase used over and over again: that word is ‘nascent’, which is defined as ‘just coming into existence and beginning to display signs of future potential’. I’m so tired of that word. We’ve been coming into existence for over twenty years now, and it’s time for the biotech sector to rise and become the force we all know it has the potential to be.
‘South Africa has the potential to develop niche health products for global markets, drawing on its R&D base, expertise in first-generation biotech (the use of wild-type or natural organisms to produce a product) and great biodiversity’, says an article from back in 2009. Those were true statements then, and they are still true today a decade later. Yet somehow, we are still not reaching our full potential. There are many complex reasons for this, and the country has endured a very restricted playing field for the last decades but once again, we’re starting to see green shoots emerge. That’s one of the reasons I’m so excited about the emergence of our biotech incubator called BioCiTi Labs.
If you don’t yet know BioCiTi, then let me fill you in. BioCiTi is a biotech incubator designed to support businesses in the biotech space as they grow from conceptual to market-ready and, with the involvement of the Cape Innovation and Technology Initiative (CiTi) as well as Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), it’s poised to be a pivotal player in developing the emergence of the sector in the Western Cape. The Western Cape Biotech sector received a massive boost in the arm recently from the selection of two Cape-based companies, Biovac and Afrigen, to produce Covid-19 vaccinations for Africa.
This incubator can build on that foundation to create something dynamic and long-lasting. The heart of biotechnology in South Africa has traditionally been Gauteng but it seems that now it’s growing faster in the Western Cape and we need to leverage that to create a springboard into the rest of South Africa and Africa.
I predict you’re going to see a mushroom effect around Biovac and Afrigen of other businesses that will be started to support their mission. For example, the production of vaccines requires single-use bioreactors. There might be a need for a business to produce single-use bioreactors “bags”, and perhaps businesses focused on disposing of them. Everyone benefits from that and the whole biotech cluster grows. These are just a few examples of businesses that could grow out of an incubator environment like the one we’re creating.
Typically, incubators just provide finance, marketing mentorship and biz mentors. Where we differ is with our world-class laboratory facility in the dynamic suburb of Woodstock, Cape Town, which is operated on a shared access model alongside shared access office space and resources. This is the kind of hub and the kind of real-world momentum that the industry needs so desperately to move beyond nascent. As a country, we already have a bio-economy strategy crying out for execution. It’s designed to make biotech a major contributor to the economy of South Africa. But 10 years after we developed it, we must honestly admit that it still hasn’t realised real benefits.
Funding continues to be a major issue, and our companies are trying to compete with international players who receive millions more in multiple rounds of funding. We know how to do more with less in South Africa and over the last year or two, it’s been encouraging to see the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) create an executive portfolio specific to the bio-economy. BioCiTi is the only shared access model laboratory currently in the country, if not the continent.
At BioCiTi we are not focused on taking a stake in the businesses intellectual property or equity, we are driven by helping them transition into the marketplace and grow the bio-economy. A business accesses our labs and co-working space on a rental basis and we work with them to grow their businesses and position them to investors. We receive partial funding from certain government agencies and our goal is to build a viable sector that grows businesses, creates jobs and adds to the GDP.
We know that one of the most important success factors for any biotech endeavour is the existence of an ecosystem, as noted by Dr Reinhard Hiller who writes that ‘Biotech start-ups require eco-systems to thrive, a fact noted by 100s of hubs across the world, who compete for talent and investment, in their own endeavours to advance bio-economic development.’
Our unique structure and partnership with local and national governments give BioCiTi the freedom to invest in great ideas at an early stage. It means we make a bigger impact, help at a crucial phase of any business growth and contribute to growing and retaining human talent in the country and it’s already working. Within the last two years, we’ve supported companies like Mzansi Meats, who are developing lab-grown meat, CapeBio who are developing Covid_19 test kits, Afrobodies who produce custom antibodies that detect previously ‘hard to find’ substances with speed and precision or SK Botanicals that are producing cosmetics from natural botanical extracts. The list goes on and on….these are businesses that only require a little support to become massive drivers of the local economy and that’s what BioCiTi is all about.
One of our immediate challenges is to build the brand so that more young entrepreneurs know that we are here to lend them support. Dr Heather Sherwin of Bioventures is on the record as saying that ‘the South African entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well. The fact that this spirit has not been translated into many more start-up companies has more to do with other blockages in the system than any lack of people willing to take risks,’ and I couldn’t agree more.
There are many key stakeholders required to build a successful biotech sector as Dr Hiller points out in his article; universities, scientific councils, technology transfer offices, public funding agencies, government, incubators and venture capitalists. These are complex webs that need to be mapped and used efficiently.
Looking back on the history of biotech in South Africa, it’s sad to see many initiatives that started out as hi-tech ending up lo-tech. AECI Bioproducts, where I started my career, is a perfect example. The plant was built in Durban in 1994 at a cost of around R300 million. It was the first high tech biotech production plant and was created around a technology that produced lysine from a genetically mutated strain of bacteria. This product was an ingredient for animal feed to provide a more balanced amino acid profile for pig and poultry diets. They started with a lot of technical challenges which were rapidly overcome and by 1999 the design production capacity of the plant was exceeded. Due to fluctuating exchange rates, and the global price-setting for Lysine, AECI decided to exit Biotech and sold the business to a Saudi based investor. The production plant still exists in Umbogintwini in KZN and belongs to Anchor Yeast, who are using a high-tech designed facility to produce yeast. These are the kinds of challenges we want to address and turn around.
Our lab is an ideal space to develop prototypes and refine concepts and we need to provide scale infrastructure to allow our incubatees to develop processes and reduce operating costs. That will ultimately enable these start-ups to produce market entry products earlier in their business lifecycle. To enable this we are going to collaborate with other institutions. To that end, we also provide business incubation services to improve the entire value chain. After all, many of these startups are led by scientists and may lack the entrepreneurial training which is so vital for success. When a series of interconnected businesses, suppliers, and associated institutions in particular fieldwork together, they increase the productivity of everyone and help them to compete, nationally and globally and grow.
That’s what we are here to make happen so that we can drive biotechnology in South Africa out of its endless ‘nascent’ phase and into a mature sector that is of great benefit to the whole country.
About the author:
Dheepak Maharajh is a science and engineering specialist with over 24 years of experience in the implementation of large projects. He has been involved in developing concepts at lab scale and transferring these to pilot and commercial scales. He has served as a leader of many high performance and highly skilled teams of scientists and engineers. At CSIR and Mintek, Mr Maharajh has delivered on multiple projects funded by both private and public sectors. He is a registered Professional Natural Scientist (Pr.Sci.Nat) and holds an MSc.Eng degree (cum laude) and an MBA at the Gordon Institute of Business Science (GIBS).
Dheepak has led numerous projects during his career, some of which included the implementation of the Biomanufacturing hub at the CSIR. In this project, he oversaw the procurement, installation, and commissioning of a state-of-the-art biotechnology facility. He has further led the development of an Agripark at Idutywa, Eastern Cape. Dheepak has also been involved in the development of aquaculture biocontrol agents for the production of ornament Koi, Epoxide Hydrolase Enzymes, Beta Carotene from algae amongst other products. These products have been successfully transferred to commercial partners and are being sold in the open market. He has also driven the bioenergy focus areas for CSIR and have led bioenergy projects in biodiesel, biogas and bioethanol production and has served as Vice Chairman on the board of MMI Biodiesel Incubator.
He has published over 15 scientific papers and book chapters and presented at numerous international scientific conferences. He has supervised 3 Masters students and numerous BTech and National diploma students. He has a passion for developing people and a track record of facilitating HCD through project implementation.
Dheepak joined BioCiTi in 2021 and believes that BioCiTi fills a critical gap in the national system of innovation where it plays a key role in helping start-ups and entrepreneurial scientists translate their blue-sky research into tangible products. “I see BioCiTi as being the number one Biotech incubator in SA, catalyzing the creation of jobs and stimulating the bio-economy through robust business and technical incubation programs”.
To learn more about BioCiTi’s work or to collaborate, contact us here.