PlantBio Trust: Balancing Global Opportunities and Local Needs in South Africa




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Video title: PlantBio Trust: Balancing Global Opportunities and Local Needs in South Africa
Released on: December 09, 2009. © PharmaVentures Ltd
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In this episode of PharmaTelevision News Review, Fintan Walton talks with Antonio Llobell, CEO at PlantbBio Trust.

Filmed at AusBiotech 2009, they discuss:

• how biotech has developed recently in South Africa
• innovation as one of South Africa's primary objectives
• bridging the gap between research and commercialisation
• what's profitable in South Africa
• South Africa as the gateway into the mainland
• the flourishing relationship between South Africa and Australia
how biotech has developed recently in South Africa
Fintan Walton:
Hello and welcome to PharmaTelevision news review here in Melbourne, Australia. On this show I've got Antonio Llobell, who is the CEO of a company called PlantBio Trust based in South Africa. Welcome to the show.
Antonio Llobell:
Thank you Fintan Walton.
Fintan Walton:
Antonio Llobell, you're from South Africa and you're in the area of biotech, could you let us know little bit more about what's actually happening in biotech in South Africa and in particular what we were looking at is what's really happened in the last 15-years?
Antonio Llobell:
I am not sure about the last 15-years, but can give you an idea of what has happened in the past probably five to seven-years, government decided that biotech is an essential rather for economy development in the country and in 2001 there was implementation of national biotech strategy where the government decided to put in place specific innovation centres to develop the biotech sector and some of them have been placed in different regions and some of them have national school and the sectors basically to look at have been human health bioprocessing and agro-biotec.
Innovation as one of South Africa's primary objectives
Fintan Walton:
So, so obviously what's really important within any country when you are trying to develop a biotechnology industry is the basic science?
Antonio Llobell:
Yes.
Fintan Walton:
So how normally is basic science funded in South Africa?
Antonio Llobell:
South African research is strong and quite competitive globally, basically the academic research has been funded through the NRF, The National Research Foundation, which again has been funded through the government using the Department of Science and Technology as the agent for that funding. But the problem in South Africa was that although academia, well academic research is strong the innovation part of it was not really developed at its real potential. And that's why the Department of Science and Technology included in relation as one of its main objectives and that's why we're operating in that area.
Bridging the gap between research and commercialization
Fintan Walton:
So you described the changes, well so the some of those, bring in us [ph] some more detail about how the government is actually transforming that innovation capability?
Antonio Llobell:
Yes. As I said the idea was to find mechanisms to bridge the gap between research and the market, that value of debt that people talk about. And to do that, the lets say conventional or traditional of funding research was probably not the best way. The government at that point I think in a very creative way decided to initiate independent trusts that were using tax payer money, but the money could be used in a more flexible way, without having to go through all the processes that government institutions are need to" to use to process the money. And, and that basically was at the beginning of the story. The other part of it is really the system in South Africa has a big lack of venture capital understanding the biotech sector. So we've been spreading ourselves from a very early stage all the way through to VC activities and the other important idea there was that we needed to focus because limit of the resources require to prioritize specific areas. So in the different sectors we looked at what was already existing, where we were competitive and how to from that base to develop commercialization of research.
Fintan Walton:
So what, what was left then from that, that focus, what where is the focus now?
Antonio Llobell:
Let me take you through the different areas infectious diseases, we cannot forget in South Africa the issue of biotech is not only about business and profit it's also about improving the quality of life of people and especially looking at the issues of previously disadvantaged communities and individuals which constitute probably half of the population of the country, so we tried to keep a balance between those two lets say aspects of biotech in South Africa, so infectious diseases, AIDS, TB, Malaria for example are important focus areas, vaccine production, new drugs of course, bioprocessing is important for industry the wine for example is an important issue in South Africa and in agriculture food production and recently another important area is energy crops or in general the industry of biotech.
Fintan Walton:
Right. So in the end the focus for biotech is really down to the local needs of South Africa?
Antonio Llobell:
It's a balance.
Fintan Walton:
does that differ?
Antonio Llobell:
It's a balance between global opportunities and local needs.
Fintan Walton:
Right.
Antonio Llobell:
In some cases these, these match between the two of them in some other cases not necessarily.
Fintan Walton:
Right.
Antonio Llobell:
But I think also important looking at the continent and how South Africa is spearhead of Africa, how we can also not only develop South Africa but the rest of the continent.
Fintan Walton:
Right. So there are biotech companies emerging within South Africa?
Antonio Llobell:
Yes, if -- I can basically mention the beginning" that was 2003, 2004 of the activity of the biotech innovation centers was basically starting from scratch. There was very little activity especially in terms of start-ups. At these point after four to five-years of activity there are more than 30 new start-ups operating, some of them already viable at least a third of them selling already and probably two or three of them in profit break even, which now we will make them sustainable at medium term at least.
what's profitable in South Africa
Fintan Walton:
So what products are they selling to be profitable at?
Antonio Llobell:
There are all sort of things. There are some products for the pharmaceutical sector like Microbicides that can be used for the control of AIDS. There are some new drugs moving into probably clinical trials also and in, in the agricultural sector we have a few things moving around, some of them are production of flowers, let's say conventional biotech not just only GM approaches.
Fintan Walton:
Sure.
Antonio Llobell:
So we have ornamentals based on our biodiversity which is one of the big capital that South Africa has.
Fintan Walton:
Yeah.
Antonio Llobell:
Some of those products are already been sold to Europe, we have bigger [ph] new varieties of crops that have been commercialized world wide through some of our investments, we have biocontrol agents as well in the market already, a few different things.
Fintan Walton:
now you mentioned venture capital, and in terms of venture capital generally within South Africa it's reasonably well developed, but is it, how developed is it towards biotech?
Antonio Llobell:
Venture capital in general, general terms in South Africa is not very well developed. And in fact private investors in South Africa tend to look more at already well established sectors like mining, agriculture or manufacturing, that provide with better returns and less risk and a biotechnology, so in that sense I think we are basically pioneers and the government is trying to use us as a catalyst to develop the VC, and I must say that at this point we can already offer some good opportunities to VC. And we probably be able to engage in the next future in trying to partner with VC's to try to move those projects even forward and closer to the market.
South Africa as the gateway into the mainland.
Fintan Walton:
Sometimes South Africa is described as a gateway into, into Africa itself. So is part of the focus for biotech not just South Africa but also the rest of Africa?
Antonio Llobell:
It is, and especially starting from the Southern African region which includes countries like Mozambique, Angola, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia where there are clear opportunities to expand the biotech activities that we are already developing. In terms for example of industrial biotech and production of feed stock for biofuels and bioplastics for example, they are great opportunities in some of those countries as well.
The flourishing relationship between South Africa and Australia
Fintan Walton:
You're currently here at AusBiotech in Melbourne, and you are looking at this, this conference talking place which is a biotech conference, what pieces of information and knowledge you are going to bring back to South Africa as a result of coming to AusBiotech?
Antonio Llobell:
It's, it's been a great experience, must say we went Brisbane for a few days before meeting some of the biotech players there and we have already identified probably three, four priorities that we would like to start to develop for collaborations between South Africa and Australia. And even today we have identified two more potential good ideas to develop. And I am sure that by the end of the Congress we'll have probably more than what you can deal with [ph]. So I think, it's been a great, great trip, it's going to be probably very useful for us.
Fintan Walton:
Antonio Llobell, thank you very much indeed for coming on the show.
Antonio Llobell:
Thank you.
Antonio Llobell
Chief Executive Officer
Antonio Llobell is the Chief Executive Officer of PlantBio Trust, having joined in April 2004 as the Chief Operations Officer. Antonio Llobell has played and integral role in building the PlantBio team and growing the portfolio of projects funded by the trust. He has been instrumental in establishing the wide base of strategic initiatives, both locally and internationally. With more than 12 years of senior management experience in research in the plant and microbial biotechnology field, Antonio Llobell was a professor of Plant Biotechnology at the African Centre for Crop Improvement, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg before joining PlantBio . He has also been a Professor Titular at the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and Institute of Plant Biochemistry and Photosynthesis, University of Seville and CSIC Spain. Antonio Llobell has a strong entrepreneurial background and was co-founder and scientific consultant in Newbiotechnic, S.A. (NBT), a biotech company specializing in the development of applications for the agri-food and industrial sectors, and in NBT Diagen, S.A., a biotech company commercializing molecular diagnosis services for the medical sector. Antonio Llobell has published more than sixty scientific articles in books and first rated peer-reviewed international journals and more than one hundred communications to national and international congresses. He has also been referee for a number of international journals and is the inventor of six Spanish patent applications and four international patent applications on anti-fungal genes and proteins, gene expression systems and biocontrol formulations.
PlantBio Trust
PlantBio Trust is a National Innovation Centre for Plant Biotechnology, initiated by the Department of Science and Technology as part of the National Biotechnology Strategy for South Africa. PlantBio Trust was registered on the 25th March 2004 and officially launched on the 12th October 2004. To date PlantBio has received Non Profit Organization status and our NPO Registration Number is 041-184 and has a vision To serve and lead South Africa towards developing a sustainable Plant Biotechnology sector that is competitive and world class in specific areas and address poverty alleviation. PlantBio has identified the following areas of strategic importance 1. Focus Areas Biocontrol/Biofertilization, Plant Breeding, In vitro Propagation, Plant Transformation and Genomics. 2. Thematic Areas Food Security/Poverty Alleviation Biofuels and Industrial Crops Exploitation of South African Bio-resources Environmentally Friendly Agriculture Technology Platforms Genomics and Proteomics Biosafety In vitro propagation