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Biotechnology: innovative work in the most colourful scientific field

BY Anke Wilde

It is the industry with the greatest potential for innovation, which simultaneously enjoys extensive support from the political sphere and public sector: biotechnology. In recent years considerable ground has been gained in many areas for years now - not only in the field of medicine but also agriculture, environmental technology and waste management. 552 companies are already active in the market, and there are a further 126 biotech companies, for example in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries that use biotechnological processes.

Biotechnology: innovative work in the most colourful scientific field© sebastianreuter - Fotolia.comWith its high level of innovation, biotechnology continues to gain ground
With almost 34,000 employees, the biotechnology industry is anything but one of the largest employers in Germany, even if you include the almost 31,000 employees working at universities and other research institutes. Yet the turnover of the companies relying exclusively on biotechnology is continuously growing. In the study "Die deutsche Biotechnologiebranche 2012" ["The German Biotechnology Industry in 2012"] commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesforschungsministerium - BMBF) and is run every year by the www.biotechnologie.de platform, the turnover totalled 2.6 billion euros in 2011 and therefore ten per cent higher than in the previous year - and that despite the economic crisis.

According to the Vice Chairman of the Association of German Biotechnology Companies (Vereinigung deutscher Biotechnologie-Unternehmen - VBU), Dagmar Schwertner, the current situation is "extremely good". A great many companies have since been established, and there are frequently new start-ups, albeit not very many compared to other sectors. Most of them are offshoots from universities. For Schwertner, the financing of small biotech companies is a bitter pill to swallow though - the economic crisis had made investors even more hesitant. "Major companies are getting involved in new developments later and later, meaning that the risk primarily lies with the small businesses or those who are conducting the research."

The BMBF study confirms this financing crisis. While a record 700 million euros of new money was pumped into the industry in 2010, this sum shrank to a meagre 187 million euros last year. Providers of venture capital in particular have made themselves scarce.

In contrast, the industry's spending on research has remained relatively constant: companies pumped almost one billion euros into research and development in 2011. There is also the funding for universities and research institutes with which the basic inital research is primarily funded. A colossal 3.4 billion euros was made available from the public purse last year, as was a further 1.4 billion euros from third parties.

The growing number of biotechnology processes in industry

In particular, industrial biotechnology - also known as white biotechnology - is among the emerging branches. While this name is still relatively unknown to the general puplic, its products have long been a fixture of shop shelves - or can be obtained at the petrol pump in the form of biofuel. Their main advantage: previously indispensable petroleum products can be replaced with sustainable raw materials.

Biotechnology: innovative work in the most colourful scientific field Dagmar Schwertner is the Vice Chairman of the Association of German Biotechnology Companies (Vereinigung deutscher Biotechnologie-Unternehmen - VBU)
Should a manufacturer of toiletries advertise their shower gel with the tagline "With all the goodness of olive oil and milk protein", then it can well be that bacteria played a crucial role in the production process. In large bioreactors, the microorganisms produce enzymes, which in turn cut the desired fat molecules from the olive oil and protein molecules from the milk. The molecule snippets obtained can then be used in new chemical products - in the case of shower gel, with exactly the silky consistency preferred for cleansing, for example.

According to the BMBF study, there were just 36 companies working on the manufacture of technical enzymes, new biomaterials or specific production processes five years ago. There are now 58 companies successfully operating on the market - not including the major chemical companies also taking advantage of the new processes. In its technology strategy, the German federal government predicts that white biotechnology will increase its global turnover from the present 50 billion euros to 300 billion euros in the next ten years. It has established the "Innovationsinitiative industrielle Biotechnologie" ["Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Initiative"] accordingly, and is pledging 100 million euros over the coming years for strategic partnerships between companies and the world of science.

Biotechnology - an overview

In Germany, biotechnology is one of the branches from which the political sphere anticipates the most impetus for growth and innovation. Technical processes play an increasingly important role in research and development. From enzymes and proteins through to microorganisms, all are used to develop new medical treatments and new materials for everyday purposes. Biotechnology's fields of application are described by colour.

Red biotechnology
- By far the most important branch in Germany.
- Includes the fields of human and veterinary medicine.
- Enabling technologies are necessary for this field (e.g. changes to the genetic coding in animals to understand the cell processes occurring in diseases).

White biotechnology
- Gaining ground in Germany.
- Use of everything from technical enzymes through to microorganisms for new production processes and chemicals.
- Fields of application range from biofuels to new detergents and cosmetics through to food additives.

Green biotechnology
- The most controversial form of biotechnology in Germany.
- Development of plants with special characteristics for the agricultural sector.
- Overlap with other fields of application, e.g. plant enzymes for medical and industrial applications.

In Germany red dominates the biotechnology colour spectrum

The most important branch of biotechnology in Germany remains so-called red biotechnology, which includes the fields of human and veterinary medicine. Almost half (47.9%) of all purely biotech focused companies are primarily active in this field. Biopharmaceutical companies are literally working miracles in the treatment of serious diseases. Thus certain types of leukaemia can finally be treated by targeting and deactivating the genes that have mutated and are responsible for the malignant proliferation of white blood cells. Diabetics also benefit from red biotechnology. Their insulin is no longer obtained from pigs but rather with the help of microorganisms.

Frank Mathias, Chairman of the Interest Group for Biotechnology (Interessenvereinigung für Biotechnologie) within the German Association of Research-based Pharmaceutical Companies (Verband der forschenden Pharmaunternehmen - vfa bio), describes biopharmaceuticals as a "source of hope with potential for growth that has been held back". In the report entitled "Medizinische Biotechnologie in Deutschland 2012" ["Medical Biotechnology in Germany in 2012"], the report prepared every year by the Boston Consulting Group on behalf of his association, he blames new laws for stagnation of turnover. The key cause came two years ago when the mandatory discount that manufacturers must offer state and private health insurance companies was increased from 6 to 16 per cent.

According to the vfa bio report, turnover lay at 5.4 billion euros for genetically-engineered drugs alone in 2011. This corresponds to almost a fifth of the pharmaceutical industry's entire turnover. So far, a total of 197 genetically-engineered biopharmaceuticals have been approved in Germany, of which hormones such as insulin and growth and sex hormones make up the lion's share. Further drugs are soon to be released: according to the vfa bio report, more than 550 biopharmaceuticals in which German companies have a stake are currently in the pipeline, i.e. are currently undergoing clinical tests. The focus is on drugs to combat cancer, infectious diseases and immunological applications. It remains unclear how many of these biopharmaceuticals will successfully complete this process. Indeed, a total of just four new biopharmaceuticals were approved in 2011.

Green genetic engineering is receiving little support

Agrobiotechnology, which considers the genetic modification of plants, is in a rather poor state in Germany. According to a BMBF study, just four per cent of biotech companies are active in this branch. The fears of possible dangers are simply too high among the general population. Without reason, say many scientists, who dream of drought-resistant maize and rice requiring less fertiliser, or of poplars that remove poisonous heavy metals from the soil. Plant geneticist Barbara Reinhold from the University of Bremen believes green genetic engineering also enables environmentally-friendly methods of farming.

This being said, the recent controversy about the business practices of seed giant Monsanto highlights the dangers of agrobiotechnology. Among critics' fears are that the varieties of plants used in agriculture will be drastically reduced by the company and farmers will be rendered permanently dependent. For this reason, Barbara Reinhold would like a well-informed debate on transgenic plants - "with a responsible approach from the researchers' side and without any crusades from people who ignore scientific facts".

Though the debate on green genetic engineering in Germany tends to remain unmentioned and politicians prefer to avoid expressing any positive opinion on it, all in all, biotechnology enjoys extensive political support within Germany. Within their technology strategy, the German federal government values the biotechnology branch as one of the key technologies that should offer solutions for the challenges of the present day and without which innovations would barely be imaginable. Biotechnology is ranked alongside branches of science such as nanotechnology, optical technologies and microsystems technology - all of which are fields of research that focus on the smallest entities imaginable and in which one second is half an eternity and one millimetre a simply endless distance. It seems that not only the devil but also the future is in the detail.

academics :: December 2012