The National Biotechnology Policy was launched almost four years ago and will enter into the second phase in two years time. Where are we and how far are we from achieving our goals and targets? Much effort has been channelled into realising our dream of making a mark in the biotechnology sector. Infrastructure, various schemes and incentives, funds, and training are some of the key areas dealt with.
However, there is one area that cannot be changed with any sort of training or schemes. It is the attitude and the mind-set. In one major biotech conference I attended, two prominent speakers from world renowned companies spoke about their experiences about developing products and commercialising. At the end of these talks, a top officer from a local government agency had this to say, “Tell me how to make quick buck. We have no time to wait for years”. I was shocked with his remarks. But I had to come to terms that this is the general attitude of our stakeholders.
This is the main factor that pulls us down from becoming a leader in this field. We do not want to be innovative, spent time and effort to develop products and services. We look for shortcuts. However, we must realise that shortcuts bring quick money from products that have no long-term value. For example, all our herbal tea and coffee.
What we need are long-term plans, perseverance and continuity; identify priority areas, and good business plans. We must realise that MNCs that are today’s leaders in the industry were not developed overnight. It took decades for them to reach the status they enjoy today.
One good example I could quote is our biofuel industry. Why do only hear about palm oil as the feedstock? This is mainly because its cultivation, propagation, and downstream processes are well studied and are at the optimum level.
However, there are other issues – high price of Crude Palm Oil (CPO), the food vs fuel competition, the suitability of palm oil at different temperatures as biofuel, and the economy viability. Even before one studies the scientific aspect, the economics do not support palm oil as a feedstock to produce biofuel. The main purpose of developing biofuel as an alternative to fossil fuel is because of the high price of the latter. Thus, it does not make sense to produce a fuel that is more expensive than what is in use now. The problem with the Malaysian mindset is, we are not ready to think out of the box and are not prepared to invest time, effort and money into research. We want to commercialise overnight with the least amount of resources. So, palm oil looks exciting.
There are various feedstock that could be developed into biofuel. It might take time but the rewards are there. Malaysia is rich in agricultural waste which pose huge environmental problems. This could be turned into biofuel. The other option is Jatropha, a hardy plant that can thrive in marginalised land.
There will certainly be teething problems before innovative products could be commercialised but that is all about research. All the products produced from multinational companies that fetch billions of dollars in the market were not developed overnight. How many patents do we hold in biotechnology and how many of these have been commercialised into really successful products? R&D is an inevitable step and process that we cannot avoid if we want to be a biotech player. Scientists, industry, and policy makers have to realise this. There is certainly no shortcut if we want to taste to sweetness of success.
By Mahaletchumy Arujanan