New strategy lays foundation for encouraging growth in SA’s biotech industry

Dr Joe Molete- CSIR Biosciences Executive Director and ACGT Advisory Committee Member
Dr Joe Molete- CSIR Biosciences Executive Director and ACGT Advisory Committee Member

South Africa’s emerging bioeconomy will receive a significant boon through the recent approval of the CSIR’s Biosciences strategy. Spearheaded by Dr Joe Molete, ACGT Advisory Committee member and Executive Director of Biosciences at CSIR, this development is yet another indication of high-level commitment to addressing gaps so as to build national competiveness through science and innovation.

According to Dr Molete, the new strategic direction revolves around moving toward a more product-development-centred approach. “The old strategy was more research-based and we found ourselves essentially competing with universities instead of supporting them”. He goes on to add that the previous model also left some gaps in the CSIR’s knowledge of the market dynamics. This spurred the development of an additional strategic thrust; namely, the incubation and support of entrepreneurs in bioscience-related fields. “The entrepreneurs will have better access to research infrastructure and critical mass of scientists and the CSIR will gain through champions to drive its research output to make impact”, he explains.

The eight-month process of developing this new strategy involved an intensive situational analysis on a global, local and institutional scale in order to devise the most suitable alignment path. Among the significant trends that Dr Molete highlights is the fact that, around the world, biotechnology companies are struggling for financial survival and as a result, many of them fail. “However, they still have their technologies and are willing to negotiate licenses on reasonable terms. This told us that perhaps we should not be so focused on developing new technologies if there are so many of them that already exist out there; but rather focus on implementing what is already there so as to make an impact quicker,” he says.

It also came to light that South Africa, in reality, does not have much of a biotechnology industry to speak of. The opportunity then was for the CSIR to step into that gap and create and assist in developing the industry. “We also know that Government has prioritised job creation as a national imperative. By focusing on manufacturing of pilot products, and training product development specialists, we would be in an ideal position to support that priority”, he adds.

However, Dr Molete does believe that in order for these new objectives to be met with any measure of success, there is a need for more openness and collaboration. In addition to building on technologies emanating from various spheres, the new strategy also takes into account the roles of other current and potential players in the market with the outlook of strengthening synergies where they exist, “We want to be able to support others so that together we can drive a common agenda. If agencies like the ACGT have a defined niche then we would like to engage to see where they fit and how we can all put the puzzle together.”

The approval of the new strategy is due to be followed by a process of internal structure redesign, with the final step being implementation of the approved changes. The implementation will involve consolidating and moving the Modderfontein staff to Pretoria to attain more synergy. The full CSIR Biosciences restructuring process is expected to be completed by the end of September 2011.