Hong Kong makes belated bid to build biotech business

As Hong Kong belatedly wakes up to the benefits of biotechnology, Singapore streaks ahead.
More than a year after Singapore announced it would invest $1 billion to cultivate start-up biotechnology companies and make life sciences one of the main pillars of its economy, Hong Kong is finally taking action to catch up.

The government's Innovation and Technology Commission has put together a team headed by Sir Colin Dollery, senior consultant to SmithKline Beecham, to study Hong Kong's resources and make recommendations on how it can best take advantage of the genetic revolution.  

It's late to the game. Over the past six years, the government has invested just $100 million in biotechnology-related projects. Those funds have yielded almost nothing in the way of infrastructure or new products. Hong Kong's life scientists have had to rely on scattered government grants and charitable donations from the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

"So far we haven't seen any visible or tangible movement on the biotech front, but we have come to the view that biotechnology will be the next wave after information technology and Hong Kong cannot afford to be a bystander," says Francis Ho, Hong Kong's commissioner for innovation and technology."

In the meantime, Singapore is beginning to reap the commercial benefits of its early investment. In 1993, its Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology entered a joint venture with Glaxo Wellcome, a UK pharmaceutical company, to use molecular technology to screen natural products for drugs. And in 1995 it established the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology which last year formed a joint venture with US-based agricultural biotechnology company Monsanto to commercialize the use in China of Monsanto's genetically modified, insect-resistant cotton.

That Monsanto and others are working in Singapore to develop products for use in Hong Kong's back yard is galling to both Hong Kong and the mainland. For China, agricultural biotechnology has become critically important as it struggles to feed a 1.3 billion-strong population with a shrinking agricultural landmass. China has 7% of the world's arable land but 22% of its population. Biotechnology promises to increase yields and improve the nutritional characteristics of crops and food.

"Production is going down but consumption is going up." says Prof. Samuel Sun, chairman of the department of biology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "This is potentially a major problem. For China, agricultural biotech is a life and death matter."

While China is tripling its investment in biotechnology and encouraging the development of private companies, its budget is limited. According to Prof. Hui Yong-zheng, China's former vice minister of science and technology and current chief executive of the Shanghai Innovation Research Center for Traditional Chinese Medicine, China can only afford to support 30 genomics projects.

Yet China is one of the best places in the world to conduct research. It has collected and formed a data bank of more than 250,000 species of plant, one of the richest seed banks in the world. And its human population contains some 56 different ethnicities.

"China's population has historically not migrated very much so its genetic structure is very stable and relatively pure," says Prof. Hui. "This makes it a very good place for studying functional and pharmaco-genomics."

China is also the world's leading supplier of raw material for herbal medicine. Now it's trying to develop a means of standardizing dosages so that it can manufacture and export products itself. There are some 12,000 species of herb that go to make up 200,000 herbal remedies. But Chinese doctors each have their own recipe and though they may know the remedy works, they don't know why.

Hong Kong could play a key role in helping China exploit its natural resources, industry observers say.  Hong Kong has the trading know-how and financial clout to act as a middleman for Chinese scientists seeking access to foreign capital and for overseas companies seeking to transfer and modify their technologies for the China market. China's legal system and corporate disclosure regulations will take years to reach international standards, analysts say. Hong Kong  is ideally placed to transfer its historical role as commodities broker to knowledge broker.

"For Hong Kong to develop its own industry it must do technology trading and transfer," says Ming-Wei Wang, director of Shanghai East Best Biopharmaceutical Enterprises - a company that is helping fund and develop new biotechnologies. "It doesn't have its own market but it can provide services to mainland China."

Hong Kong hasn't yet decided what form its participation will take. It's considering several options, says H.K. Chang, president of the City University of Hong Kong and chairman of Hong Kong's biotechnology council. Whatever it decides, it needs to move fast, experts say. Once China enters the WTO it will become easier for overseas multinationals to snatch patents and gain control of the country's resources.

"Time is important," says Prof. Lawrence Lee, former director of Hong Kong's agriculture and fisheries ministry. "If the government doesn't move now this native treasure may disappear."

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