Bogotá, Colombia, the city from where the Spanish conquistadors pursued the mythical ‘El Dorado’, launched BioLatam 2013, the first Latin American biotechnology conference with an emphasis on partnering and business. The meeting took place December 9-10, and talk centred not on gold but on attracting investors and partners to the region. The conference itself, which might have been summarized as ‘Investors wanted’, was born of a bridge-building exercise between Invest in Bogotá, the city’s investment agency and Asebio, Spain’s biotechnology association.
The link with Asebio ensured that among the 700 delegates, including 300 small businesses, there was a strong Spanish presence. Also, large international players such as Amgen, and Grifols, currently exploring biosimilars manufacturing agreements with Colombia and Brazil, respectively, exhibited side-by side with Colombian government and regional initiatives. “Our doors are open” said Catalina Ortiz, Director of INNpulsa, one of the programs set up to drive the growth of the biotech sector in Colombia.
Ortiz reminded those present that Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world (Brazil is first), with 14% of the world’s species. Although ownership issues have dogged bioprospecting, these are now resolved, prompting German Castaño Valero from agricultural biotech Solar Ciencia Agricola in Ibague, Tolima, to tell the audience that “biodiversity does not need to be exploited, but rather cultivated.”
The push to find new uses and develop natural products has already resulted in a few Colombian startups, among them is Satech, a Colombian agro-industrial company, that applies enzymatic technologies to improve the environmental footprint of food and packaging processes, and returning metals from industrial processes to the value chain. Another example is InBiotech, which investigates native plants for use in shampoo and cosmetics.
In life sciences, Colombia has nurtured some interesting startups. Keraderm, founded in 2008 by plastic surgeon Rodrigo Soto, reached the finals of the Mass Challenge in 2012. Their product, a stem-cell-derived autologous skin graft, has treated more than 200 people with chronic wounds and severe burns. Soto, Keraderm’s CEO, says their product is currently being considered for approval by Colombian regulatory authorities. Phairilab, born from a research group in the Javeriana University, is testing extracts of Petiveria alliacea, whose popular name is anamu, in mice for its anti-tumoral activity, as well as the extract from Dividivi that blocks metastasis in breast cancer lines.
Colombian-born scientist, Esteban Pombo Villar, now with Oxford Biotherapeutics, a company pursuing antibody-drug conjugates for treating cancer, headquartered in Abingdon, Oxford, said, “In Latin America, there are opportunities to work in collaboration with foreign companies who can also contribute [to their development]”. But what is really needed are venture investors. So far, most companies are supported by a mix of private equity and government funds, says Mateo Grazzi, from the InterAmerican bank, based in Bogota, and in terms of scientific knowledge base, the figures so far are not exactly encouraging. After Africa, the region invests the lowest percentage of GDP in science and technology. Only Brazil, Cuba and Venezuela exceed 1 % of GDP. The drive from the Colombian government to build the nation’s biotech potential is recent, and initiatives will take time to mature. The presence of venture capital companies at BioLatam 2013, such as The Netherlands-based Forbion Capital, Edmond de Rothschild, located in France, The Burrill Brazil Fund and Spanish VC firm Ysios Capital are perhaps are sign that, across Latin America, change is afoot.