A seed planted for science at DuBiotech
It took Debayan Ghosh and his team six months to transform the empty shell of a warehouse at DuBiotech in Dubai into a sanitised laboratory.
The lab now includes five steel bioreactors for enzyme research on the ground floor, and labs and office space on the first floor. Here, protein molecules are altered to produce enzymes for industrial uses such as stone-washing of jeans or increasing the yield of existing oil drills.
Another idea: finding materials that could eventually be converted into biofuels.
"We try using date palm leaves, which is abundant here and cannot be used as animal feed," said Mr Ghosh.
Epygen Labs, where Mr Ghosh is one of the two founders, has increased its revenue by more than 70 per cent since 2006, when the company moved into DuBiotech, a life-sciences free zone. Previously, the company was in Al Quoz industrial area.
The company now employs 16 people apart from Mr Ghosh and his business partner, Ariyarathenam Manickam.
Good infrastructure and the capacity for efficient operations were two of the reasons that Mr Ghosh and Mr Manickam chose to set up their research facility at DuBiotech in preference to facilities in places such as Singapore and Bangalore.
Epygen Labs is among 10 companies that have set up a manufacturing and research presence at DuBiotech. The others include ventures in paints, fragrances and food colourings. The National Reference Lab, which conducts blood counts and cholesterol tests as well as diagnostic services on genetic conditions and rare diseases, is also located at DuBiotech's 23,783-square-metre nucleotide lab complex.
DuBiotech has invested Dh1.5 billion (US$408 million) since 2005 to develop the facility. It grew 33 per cent last year. More than 85 life-sciences companies now operate in the park.
Despite this industry's growth in Dubai, it remains at a nascent stage, as is the case in other parts of the Gulf that have planned to create biotechnology hubs. A change in investor attitude along with more partnerships between industry and local universities on research may provide the impetus needed for greater development.
"The challenge is to convince investors to invest in an idea that can fail," said Marwan Abdulaziz Janahi, the director of business development at DuBiotech.
Successful biotech hubs have long gestations that develop with investments from sources such as venture capitalists and alternative markets, and with research support from local universities along with government backing for the development, protection and commercialisation of biotech products, according to a 2010 report from Grant Thornton.
In February, DuBiotech created a unit dedicated to industrial biotechnology. It already has one company in that field - a German paint manufacturer called BYK.
BYK has a laboratory at the new facility from where it provides technical support to its clients. Previously, the BYK lab's two scientists visited clients to work on BYK's formulations, which are developed in Germany. Since it moved to DuBiotech, BYK has received more requests for technical support, says Cyriac Mathew, the company's area sales manager for the Middle East and East Africa.
While BYK and Epygen praise DuBiotech for having the right infrastructure, this is not the only factor that can help to boost the growth of an emerging biotech hub.
A home-grown scientific community that can use this infrastructure is also key.
"To create such a hub and make sure it is sustainable, you need to build up Dubai's science community," said Mohammed Yahia, the editor of Nature Middle East, an online science magazine. "You need to have a robust scientific culture in place, and that is not created overnight."
Mr Janahi acknowledges that a chasm exists between the amount of scientific talent the marketplace needs and the number of students taking the right kinds of university science course.
"We are trying to bridge this gap," said Mr Janahi, who noted that some companies, including pharmaceutical firms, could hire local scientists and work with universities in the Emirates on research and development.
It can take years, if not decades, to create original formulations, such as in medicine. Meanwhile, the scientists at DuBiotech continue to build on what they have achieved.
"We keep getting researchers [coming] here from the region and the world," Mr Ghosh said. "We also have multiple patent applications pending."
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Updated: May 8, 2012 04:00 AM