The Philippines as an Emerging Biotech Cluster

This article is by Ryan Bethencourt and Samuel Jay Calvo. Edited by Sandhya Sriram.

The Philippines, Megacities and Biotech

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As President Obama arrived in the Philippines for the APEC summit, I was reminded of my recent trip to Manila, which left me thinking about global megacities and the future of biotechnology.

In the Philippines, these ideas emerged during my visit to the Global Forum 2015 conference in August, which was hosted by middle and low income countries, for and by them. After attending many of the talks (and giving two), I was really impressed with the strides that many emerging countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa had made, especially the Philippines, in science and technology.

I was delighted to have had the opportunity to meet with the Secretary for Science and Technology, Secretary Montejo, and his team during my visit and it became clear that the Philippines has a huge capacity for bio-innovation and a real hunger to develop their biotech industry, which was music to a biotech entrepreneur and investor’s ears!

During my trip, I visited the University of the Philippines and I was impressed with the quality of the students and the science during their first biotech startup pitch night which reimagined biotech suited for Asian markets. I talked with a few of my long time friends who had moved back, Rey Garcia and Maoi Arroyo and they were incredibly passionate about continuing to support the emerging and homegrown biotech industry which they’d helped build.

There were many exciting insights during my visit but I thought I’d highlight a few, which were new to me and I think will not only continue to fuel the Philippines incredible turnaround from the “sick man of Asia” to it’s new tiger economy status with 6% GDP growth, but also make it a powerhouse in biotech and healthcare:

Healthcare

Previously, world famous for exporting doctors, nurses and other health professionals, the Philippines has made a concerted effort not just to retain their talented medical professionals but to expand healthcare coverage with the majority of it’s population covered through a range of private, public and Barangay health centers (a type of rural health center). However point of care is mostly given by private health providers; the aim is for 100% coverage, which means the need to build an effective healthcare system for 100+ million people from the ground up.

Agriculture

The Philippines relies heavily on the agricultural sector which is divided into: farming, fisheries, livestock and forestry making up 20% of the country’s gross domestic product. In 2012, the government increased the agriculture and agrarian reform budgets by over 50% to boost food production, allocated funding for irrigation, farm-to-market roads and passed the Agriculture and Fisheries Modernisation Act of the Philippines which encourages private sector to invest in new technologies which have paid dividends.

One of the largest opportunities lies in agricultural biotech, in the development of high-yielding crops, pest-resistant, as well as flood & drought-resistant grains and vegetables with the government embracing a pro-business and pro-GMO stance matched with government research funding.

Positive Biotech Regulations

The Philippines is the first ASEAN country to initiate a biotechnology regulatory system by establishing the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines (NCBP), which has become a model for member-countries of the ASEAN seeking to become producers of agricultural biotechnology crops.

The Philippines started its biotechnology programs in 1980 with the formal creation of the National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños (UPLB). In 1995, three other biotechnology institutes were established within the University of the Philippines (UP) System.

They are located in:

  • UP Diliman campus which focuses on industrial biotechnology,
  • UP Manila which focuses on human health,
  • UP  which focuses on marine biotech.

Increased Investment in R&D

There is no doubt that biotechnology has helped boost agricultural sector of the Philippines” – Dr. Reynaldo V. Ebora, director of National Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (BIOTECH) at the University of the Philippines Los Baños.

Conventional biotech bio-fertilizers and Bt have helped farmers increased their yields dramatically and helped the Philippines achieve self sufficiency for corn and the government is investing heavily in genomics at the University of the Philippines for both agriculture improvements to high value crops like sugarcane and also when applied to human health. Outside of some initial legal challenges to the use of GMO crops, the government and people of the Philippines have embraced new farming technologies which include engineered crops.

An Economic growth Engine

The Philippines has emerged as one of the world’s largest centers for business process outsourcing which is setting the stage for the next evolution of the work force, from financial stability to startup risk taking, increasing the pool of startups in major cities like Cebu and Manila (a mega city of 20+ million).

The Philippines with over 100m+ people, a young, well educated, english speaking workforce, that’s currently booming, with a target 6% GDP growth rate for 2015, seems set to continue in its upward trajectory. Expect to see a lot more startups and a couple of emerging biotechs, you never know, a few might be funded by IndieBio!

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