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Promising beginning

Competitiveness Forum is going to structure national policy for biotechnology

On September 14, the federal government installed the Competitiveness Forum of the Biotechnology Chain, one of the areas regarded as a priority in industrial policy and foreign trade, announced last May. Created by the ministries of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade (MDIC) and of Science and Technology (MCT), the forum is going to bring together public and private sectors, besides universities and research institutes, to structure the national policy for biotechnology, to make it possible to consolidate a competitive industry with international prominence. The new policy should have as its focus the study of genes and proteins, whose advances are promising to consolidate the innovations that will dominate the market within a few years, in the federal government’s expectation.

The ceremony for installing the forum drew over 70 researchers to the MDIC. The fact that the meeting was at the MDIC was emblematic: it signposts that the area of biotechnology is opening up business opportunities for the country”, commented José Fernando Perez, FAPESP’s scientific director, who took part in the meeting. The notable expansion of biotechnological researches in the country in the last few years and the vigor of the still small national bioindustrial park motivated the installation of the forum. In 2001, 354 biotechnology companies were in operation in Brazil over half of them small in size, with sales estimated at between R$ 5.4 billion and R$ 9 billion, according to a survey by the Biominas Foundation. Summing up, these companies created a total of 27,825 jobs.

In the research area, Brazil is the second largest contributor of human gene sequences in international databases, and research is advancing rapidly in the identification of genes responsible for diseases that jeopardize the production of oranges and sugarcane, heavyweights on the list of Brazilian exports. Also under way is a functional analysis of genes, whose goal is boosting the productivity of the pulp and paper industry and beef production.

“Brazil is one of the countries that are in the front line of biotechnology, but our capacity in the generation of benefits in the economic area and in jobs creation is still very limited”, explained the Minister of Development, Luiz Fernando Furlan, during the installation of the forum. The forum has an ambitious target. “We want to create conditions for the country to be amongst the five world leaders in the biotechnology area in the next few years”, summed up Cylon Gonçalves, the secretary for Research and Development Policies and Programs of the MCT.

The forum is going to assess, as he said, the “three pillars” to sustain the future national biotechnology system: the availability of human resources, the needs for public and private investments, and regulations that will make it possible to implement industrial production. These themes will be debated in three working groups, set up at the installation of the forum. Gonçalves will be coordinating the human resources and infrastructure group, and the secretary for Information Technology of the MDIC, Roberto Jaguaribe, will coordinate the group responsible for the regulatory marks. The first meeting is scheduled for November. The expectation is to define the course and prospects for biotechnology at the end of the first year’s work.

The definition of regulation is regarded as strategic for attracting private investments and interests. “Demand has to be generated, because supply, we have always known how to offer it. To do so, the country needs to adopt clear and friendly rules, compatible with those of other countries”, Gonçalves explains. The approval of the Law on Biosafety by the National Congress, an example he quotes, can help to consolidate and to expand researches with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), since it will easier to license them and will authorize the marketing of transgenics. The text of the draft law approved by the Chamber of Deputies was regarded as restrain of investments, and it should undergo modifications in the Senate. In this case, it goes back to the Chamber for a further vote.

Access to biodiversity
Another fundamental point for the creation of a regulatory environment favorable to private participation is the definition of a legislation on access to the genetic patrimony that will govern the production of phytotherapics and natural products. The national biodiversity is currently protected by a provisional measure, published in 2001, which makes difficult almost to the point of banning the collection of natural assets for research purposes or for commercial exploitation. At the end of last year, a resolution from the Ministry of the Environment made more flexible the access of researchers to natural resources, while the federal government is preparing a replacement for the bill to genetic resources that is in process in the Chamber of Deputies.

“We need a legal mark for the biotechnology industry in Brazil”, observes Gonçalves. In the assessment of the Minister of Science and Technology, Eduardo Campos, funding is one of the most delicate points in the structuring of the system, because the profile of the biotechnology companies involves high costs and risk. According to Perez, this characteristic makes enterprises dependent on venture capital and calls for a series of government actions to replace the angel investor, the independent investor who bets on the success of the technological enterprise.

Campos revealed that the National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) should present, in 90 days, a finance model for the sector, involving resources from the sectorial funds and finance lines from the bank itself. “The BNDES should seek a creative and innovative way of fostering the biotechnology sector, not with traditional instruments that do not adapt themselves to this kind of demand, but participating in shared risk”, Perez observed. “This is an area that responds to the geoeconomic characteristics of the country, and Brazil has proven potential for competency. It can generate excellent opportunities for business, provided that innovative finance mechanisms are created.”