Aiming for new heights in bioeconomy development

IN LINE with efforts to create greater international visibility for Malaysia’s bioeconomy, Science, Technology and Innovation Ministry (Mosti) is participating in this year Expo Astana 2017 in Kazakhstan.

Mosti’s theme is “Green Innovation, (for) Powering Your Future”, where emphasis is on building innovation-based collaborations to foster economic growth. Its participation will be centred on exploring collaborative opportunities and to attract investments from institutions and companies located in the Central Asian region.

The dedicated session on bioeconomy will further discuss the sustainability component of utilising renewable resources and its conversion into value-added goods in the form of food and feed, chemicals, energy, medicines and wellness products via green and bio-based technologies.

The path towards the development of the biotechnology industry began in 2005 with the establishment of the National Biotech-nology Policy (NBP), a 15-year plan aimed at making biotechnology a key contributor to national economic growth.

 
 

Since then, the Government has widened its scope to include bioeconomy, an economic structure based on activities that are derived from the continued commercial applications of biotechnology and bio-based technologies.

This resulted in the establishment of the Bioeconomy Transformation Programme (BTP) in 2012, making Malaysia the first Asean country and the second in Asia to initiate a comprehensive plan for bioeconomy.

The Malaysian Bioeconomy Development Corporation (Bioeconomy Corporation, formerly known as Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation) is responsible for overseeing the implementation of initiatives and programmes that will propel Malaysia towards a green and sustainable future.

BIOTECH, BIO-BASED TECHNOLOGY AND BIO-BUSINESS

Biotechnology consists of many integrated techniques based on our increased understanding of life sciences. It could be a simple procedure like extraction and tissue culture, or involve more advanced techniques with genomics and molecular applications.

In the context of bioeconomy, a total dependence on biotechnology methods itself is insufficient.

Bio-based technologies include supporting technologies that are key to facilitating production and bringing products and services to the market. These include processes in engineering, chemical processing and conversion technologies. In efforts to commercialise technologies, each of these has its own value to add to the success of bio-business such as high-tech farming, bio-fuel production and manufacturing of biotech drugs.

Strategic investment is a key component that will contribute to the growth of the bio-based sector. As of 2016, RM22.7bil worth of investments were recorded by BioNexus companies, high-impact FDIs and other companies nurtured by Bioeconomy Corporation. Of this, RM8.7bil has been realised on the ground.

Realising the benefits of these investments will be the focus of Bioeconomy Corporation in the coming years. For FDIs, emphasis has to be placed on having spin-off and local sourcing, which include the participation of locally-based SMEs. For bio-based SMEs, there are BioNexus companies.

The BioNexus status, initiated in 2006, is a special status awarded by Bioeconomy Corporation to qualified international and Malaysian bio-based companies undertaking value-added biotechnology and life sciences activities. The status bestows guarantees such as fiscal incentives and funds, among various facilities, that assist growth. BioNexus companies are also assured a list of privileges as stipulated in the BioNexus “Bill of Guarantees.”

To date, Bioeconomy Corporation has built a network of 283 companies with the BTP serving as a dedicated platform for the Government and industry players to work in tandem to deliver economic and societal impact.

At the end of December 2016, a total of 61 BTP projects had been attained, which consisted of 31 projects under BioIndustral, 22 under AgBiotech and eight under BioMedical.

These BTP Trigger Projects will collectively contribute an estimated GNI of RM6.22bil in 2020 as well as the creation of 26,550 employment opportunities and RM18.6bil in investment by the same year.

On the other hand, the Bioeconomy Community Development Programme (BCDP) is borne out of the need for bioeconomy to be inclusive, and therefore its emphasis is geared towards the development of rural farmers and communities.

The programme is designed to elevate the household income of the lowest 40% group (B40) to a higher level and to increase their skills as bio-agropreneurs.

BCDP has the potential to provide additional income of RM4,500 per month per farmer. As of May, 34 projects involving over 2,700 participants have been implemented in various stages and are expected to have an impact on more than 12,150 lives.

BCDP is part of the National Blue Ocean Strategy (NBOS) initiative, as it has high-impact, low cost, rapid execution and sustainability.

SYNERGY IS KEY TO SUCCESS

Malaysia’s bioeconomy agenda is spearheaded by Mosti and strategic approaches are taken to match long-term goals and adapt to new challenges. Mosti and other public institutions facilitate and coordinate implementation plans, in addition to supporting and regulating key programmes.

Implementation agencies such as Bioeconomy Corporation facilitate and implement programmes as outlined by national policies. Other agencies such as SME Corporation Malaysia (SME Corp) and economic corridors in Malaysia provide infrastructure development and industry support through the provision of fiscal and non-fiscal incentives.

Universities and research institutions are crucial for generating knowledge through basic research in order to develop new innovative technologies, processes and IPs.

More recently, Bioeconomy Corporation has collaborated with the Academy of Sciences Malaysia for the Bioeconomy Innovation Award (BIA), giving universities, research institutions and private bio-based companies a platform to pitch their products and services directly to the industry.

To enhance commercialisation and market access, institutions such as venture capitals, banks and other financial bodies are able to provide funding and financing for scale-up, industrialisation and commercialisation needs of the private sector.

Currently, government infusion of financial support for technology and product development, innovation and commercialisation is available in the forms of grants, loans, venture capital and private equity.

Malaysia Venture Capital Management Berhad (MAVCAP), Malaysian Technology Development Corporation (MTDC), Malaysia Debt Ventures Berhad (MDV), SME Corp and Bioeconomy Corporation have specialised life science and biotechnology funding available for startups, early stage companies and SMEs in Malaysia.

The announcement in 2014 Budget that offsets tax for corporations that invest in biotechnology companies also provide an alternative funding source for the industry.

Bioeconomy Corporation has collaborated with Crowplus.Asia to launch Asean’s first social and environmental impact equity crowdfunding offer, as well as with IAP Integrated Sdn Bhd and Malaysia Digital Economy Corporation Sdn Bhd to help bio-based companies to raise funds.

In January, Bioeconomy Corporation launched the Biotechnology Commercialisation Fund 2.0 (BCF 2.0) under the 11th Malaysia Plan to assist BioNexus SMEs and matured companies in growing and expanding their businesses. The Government has allocated RM100mil for the BCF in the form of soft loans. It is expected that 30 to 50 companies will receive this soft loan assistance by the end of 2020.

CREATING JOBS FOR THE YOUNG THROUGH BIO-ENTREPRENEURSHIP

Bioeconomy Corporation and UMP Advanced Education Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Universiti Malaysia Pahang (UMP), are working together and have developed an MBA with specialisation in Bioeconomy.

The MBA, already accredited by the Malaysian Qualification Agency (MQA), integrates theory, real-world practices and direct interaction with industry to groom leaders who are able to address complex challenges systematically and creatively to improve business and management practices.

Bioeconomy Corporation has supported the growth of bio-enterprises and entrepreneurs through developmental programmes, equipping biotech professionals with core competencies in business negotiation, technology as well as financial due diligence, and business management skills.

Emphasis is placed on promoting R&D and commercialisation through strategic technology acquisition as well as improving the infrastructure and ecosystem that will nurture budding entrepreneurs.

It is currently working with the University of California’s Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3) to create a more robust bio-based incubation ecosystem in Malaysia. Personnel from QB3 are invited to mentor local incubators as part of the strategy to generate more enterprising biotechnology companies.

In a nutshell, strategies to position bioeconomy as a new engine for national economic growth is on track and expected to contribute to an increasing portion of the economic pie.

-Published in The Star Online.  See original article link 24here.

March for Science: Agony and ecstasy of a Malaysian agricultural biotechnology science communicator

What can be more challenging than slogging in the laboratory, burning the midnight Bunsen burner, changing the methodology a few times, dealing with contaminated cell cultures and losing them, not having the transferred genes express themselves, and mining large genomics data in the terabytes?

It is communicating the science behind the research, repackaging it into plain language and dispelling the misinformation created by technology skeptics to ensure that viable science projects that help address food security and sustainable agriculture practices are commercialized, approved and reach the farms and our forks. This is no small task. Science communication is a complex field requiring special skills, training and experience. The heterogeneity of the public makes science communication both challenging and exciting. There is no cookie-cutter approach. Every audience, topic and concern must be approached differently. Each one is unique, requiring a customized communication strategy.

I have been a science communicator for 14 years and I have enjoyed every one of them, although it is not a bed of roses all the time. It requires patience and the ability to learn from our past mistakes and to perfect our techniques. Here I am sharing my agony and ecstasy.

The agony

Why is it that when scientists speak up for genetically modified (GM) crops we are immediately labeled as industry advocates and as recipients of industry money? In contrast, those who evangelize about organic products are seen as angels and saints? Yet, many of the critics of GM crops receive financial support from the organic industry and this industry has been no angel to science. Scientists who collaborate with agri-companies or receive funding from them are also demonized and their credibility trashed by critics. But, industry collaboration is not new in research at universities. The organic industry widely funds research. Why are only agribiotechnology scientists singled out?

Mahaletchumy Arujanan

Critics create myths about organic foods; instill guilt in mothers who don’t feed their families with organic foods; and force consumers to pay hefty premiums in the pretext of serving more nutritious and sustainably grown foods. The claims that organic foods are more nutritious have been debunked many times. In spite of all this, GM crops and those who support them are painted as evil. For these reasons, I avoid organic foods like the plague – it simply goes against my conscience.

Why is our job made so difficult while critics of GM crops have it easy? They create fear, doubts and myths. But those who embrace science take years to challenge the myths and doubts created by others. It takes years of research. Every time a doubt is created and turned into an unnecessary regulation, farmers pay the price in terms of economic losses. A good example is the failure to approve and commercialize insect resistant Bt brinjal in the Philippines (note the benefits were publicly acknowledged seven years ago but opponents successfully blocked its approval) and GM mustard in India.

It is not easy fighting ideology and hypocrisy with science. The opposition to GM crops has become a cult that no amount of science can dispel. I feel helpless when powerful tools are confiscated from farmers (see how EU “Urges the G8 member states not to support GMO crops in Africa”—clause 72). They are deprived of technological innovations that could help them practice agriculture sustainably, prevent occupational hazards that are caused by the use of pesticides, increase their income and reduce their loss and costs.

A common accusation by critics is that GM seeds are patented by big agri-companies. But they fail to acknowledge that organic products are patented as well. Another favorite of scaremongers is that GM crops are dangerous and can even kill. Yet, since 1996 not a single GM-related health hazard has been reported. Not one. We can’t however, say the same for organic produce. Read here, here and here to see the reality of safety of organic foods.

In spite of the mounting evidence on the benefits of GM crops, critics confuse the public with cooked-up “evidence” demonizing GM crops. For a science communicator backed by science, this is agonizing and makes my job extremely difficult.

The Ecstasy

When Malaysia was developing its Biosafety Act, I was involved in creating awareness about the need for a balanced, science-based regulatory instrument. I faced character assassination, accusations and sarcastic remarks.They were agonizing moments. But the agony turned to ecstasy when the act, and later the regulations and guidelines, became more science-based. Today, I sit in many meetings with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment to help implement the regulations in a balanced manner.

There have been other moments of ecstasy as well. Years ago, I waded into untested waters when I tackled issues related to Islamic principles (Shariah compliance) and GM foods. As a non-Muslim, I took a risk in handling such a sensitive topic but there were many countries that were contemplating a fatwa (decree) against GM crops, i.e. to declare GM foods and crops as haram (non-permissible). I didn’t want the misinformation to spread among Muslim countries so I organized a dialogue between religious scholars and scientists.

The first meeting collapsed halfway through with many accusations hurled at me by GM opponents. I took a break from this topic for a while and analyzed my mistakes, found new credible partners and organized another high-level dialogue with top Islamic scholars from the Muslim world. It was a huge success. Here is the resolution that is used as a reference in many countries today that resulted from the discussion. Philippines became the first country after the dialogue to reverse its anti-GM rules, where initially they had a blanket decree claiming all GM foods were haram.

In 2010, I took a creative approach to educating a  group that otherwise wouldn’t take a second look at biotechnology  – fashion students, and through them a wider women’s group. I engaged a university and got its fashion students to design outfits based on biotechnology themes and organized a fashion show. This was part of a bigger event called “Bio Carnival” with poster drawings, coloring, public speaking, debate, quizzes and spelling competitions for students, and exhibitions and hands-on sessions for the public. It was a rewarding experience when the university later introduced biotechnology as a special project for fashion students after realizing how it inspired fashion designs through its colors and unique patterns. With this approach, all the students had to search for information on biotechnology and we educated them about science and innovation.

Then there is my favorite project. I was long frustrated with the amount of space the mainstream media devoted to science issues. I tried making friends with journalists and organizing media training for scientists but it really did not effect much change. So, I decided to create my own playing field, The Petri Dish – the first science newspaper in Malaysia. It is now seven years old and this year it graduated to become a digital portal to reach a wider audience.

The Petri Dish reaches all key stakeholders in Malaysia – academia, researchers, policymakers, politicians (all cabinet members receive a copy), students, industry and the general public. We make it available at shopping malls and Starbucks outlets. I know a number of ministers who read it, and once a topic was fiercely debated at the cabinet meeting after being reported in The Petri Dish.

This is our initiative in bringing science to the headlines. It is aimed at creating awareness among all stakeholders on biotechnology so the public will be more receptive to emerging technologies and policymakers will be able to make informed decisions on regulations and funding. It also encourages young people to pursue STEM education and careers. Every time, I receive positive feedback on Petri Dish, I feel a rush of ecstasy. It is a struggle to sustain a science newspaper but the feeling of inspiring people about science is rewarding.

Another area I enjoy is talking to students – both at schools and universities. These are uncorrupted minds and they are receptive to information backed by science when it is presented by a credible person. Every year, I reach out to more than 2000 students who are inspired by science and believe it offers solutions to many global problems.

The biggest lesson I have learned is that we need to build trust with our audiences before we start communicating with them: Connecting first and then communicating.

I believe the agony and ecstasy will continue, with exciting new developments in synthetic biology, gene editing and gene drives.

Mahaletchumy Arujanan is the Executive Director of Malaysian Biotechnology Information Centre (MABIC) and Editor-in-Chief of The Petri Dish – the first science newspaper in Malaysia. She is also an Adjunct Lecturer at Monash University Malaysia. She has a degree in Biochemistry and Microbiology from Universiti Putra Malaysia, Masters in Biotechnology and PhD in science communication from the University of Malaya. She is an active science communicator who addresses policies, regulations, ethics, religions, STEM and other areas pertinent to biotechnology development. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter @maha_mabic.

-Written by Mahaletchumy Arujanan in Genetic Literacy Project website.  See original article link here.