By: Wan Izzuddin Sulaiman

A decade ago, then-Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi ushered Malaysia into the biotech era with the opening of the BioMalaysia 2005 conference, aimed at making the country a global player by  building a conducive environment for R&D through leveraging existing strengths, particularly in biodiversity and bio-resources.

But that policy lies in a shambles, having eaten up huge amounts of money and having produced almost nothing of value. The 15-year master plan (2005-2020) crafted by the late  Jamaluddin Jarjis, then the Minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (MOSTI), who unfortunately was killed on April 4, 2015 in a helicopter crash, has almost been abandoned.

Among the main biological processes that catapulted the biotechnology revolution worldwide are the genetic manipulation of microorganisms for the production of new drugs, the cloning and manipulation of selected genes in animals and crops to introduce improved varieties, the sequencing of the entire genome including the human one to better understand diseases, and the use of stem-cells in curing chronic diseases. These technologies were mainly originated in laboratories operated by leading universities and research institutions, mostly in the developed countries.

Universities and laboratories are the fertile grounds where the seeds of biotechnology are grown, and scientists are the workhorses that plough these fields. Without the hard work and ingenuity of these scientists, there is no biotechnology. But these scientists do not work in silos. They work very closely with entrepreneurs. The biotech industry is fundamentally built brick-by-brick through tightly knitted collaborations between academia (education & research) and the private sector.

Malaysia wanted to be part of this biotech revolution and wanted to do it quickly even it was already a latecomer. Thus the government launched a biotechnology development agency, Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation Sdn Bhd., under the purview of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation with a strong mandate to steer and expedite the growth of the industry.   

In the Ninth and Tenth Malaysia Plans, Biotech Corp was allocated a total of RM300 million to boost the industry through its Bionexus commercialization grants, technology acquisition programs and other industry facilitation apparatus. Two biotech institutes, one in pharmaceutical and another in agriculture were completed in the 11th Malaysia Plan. A biotech industry park was established in Nusajaya, Johor, ostensibly to rival Singapore’s Biopolis.

After hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding were poured into securing Malaysia’s place as an advanced country in biotechnology,  where are we today?  In order to gauge our ability to build biotech businesses, let’s take a look into three government-owned enterprises that were supposed to pave the way. They preluded the National Biotech Policy as both were incorporated before 2005.

The first is NineBio Sdn Bhd, a company established in 2003 under the purview of the Ministry of Health to spearhead the development of local pharmaceuticals particularly in halal, or Muslim dietary rules, vaccines. A budget of RM350 million was initially allocated to the company and a piece of land in Enstek Park in the university town of Nilai southeast of Kuala Lumpur was purchased for the vaccine project. The Auditor General’s Report in 2008 highlighted gross mismanagement of the company and the Ministry of Finance tried to revive the project in 2010, but to no avail. The company is now as good as defunct and the halal vaccine project suffered a premature death.

The second is Inno-Biologics Sdn Bhd, a company wholly owned by the Ministry of Finance, incorporated in 2002 with a paid-up capital of RM93 million. The company was targeted to be the national center for the commercialization and skill development in bio-manufacturing. Inno-Biologics was  supposed to lead the country into the field of bio-pharmaceuticals  — block-buster billion dollar drugs — such as erythropoietin and human insulin.