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Hodgson Address: Biotechnology in New Zealand

Hodgson Address: Biotechnology in New Zealand

[Opening address to the 8th International Pacific Rim Biotechnology Conference]

The number of biotechnology events I am invited to keeps growing. I take this as a sign of the sector's rapidly increasing vitality in New Zealand.

This conference is special. From humble beginnings in Singapore in 1988 it has grown in importance on every occasion. This is the first time it has been held in New Zealand and I’m glad that we’re able to host such a prestigious event.

What I am about to say here will be familiar to many of you, and no doubt the rest of you will hear it said more than a few times over the next three days.

New Zealand’s economy is largely based around our ability to add value to natural products by applying biological knowledge. There is absolutely no doubt, therefore, that biotechnology is critical to our future.

Our key biotechnology strengths relate to our key primary industries — agriculture, horticulture, forestry and fisheries — as well as pest and environmental management. You only need look at the names of our Crown Research Institutes, such as AgResearch, Crop & Food, Landcare — to see the role the primary sector and our natural resources play in our science.

More recently we have begun to diversify, often building on our primary sector expertise. We are increasingly becoming involved, for example, in world-beating human health and pharmaceutical research.

AgResearch, the Crown Research Institute that has traditionally focused on the science of agricultural productivity, is now pursuing such opportunities. In their own words, they are now "more determined than ever to be more than just a food company”. They’re not the only ones.

The biomedical sector in New Zealand is small by international standards but it is one of our fastest growing biotechnology fields. A number of innovative companies have sprung up here in Auckland – such as Neuronz, Genesis, Protemix – in many cases as the result of excellent research at Auckland University. And at the new Otago Innovation Centre in my hometown of Dunedin, some promising start-ups are commercialising exciting bio-medical IP developed at the University of Otago.

While biotechnology is showing these signs of healthy growth, there are of course some significant issues to think about.

Much of New Zealand’s biotechnology knowledge comes from government- funded research in Universities and CRIs. Overall, in 2001 there was about $186m of government funding of biotechnology related research. Private sector expenditure on research and development in this country is low by international standards, although it is increasing.

Then there’s what we do with what we know. New Zealand science is great at discovery, but relatively poor at putting products on the shelf. Under this government there is an increasing emphasis on taking the best possible advantage of research that has commercial applications. This is the D part of R&D — it’s where we take our excellent research and turn it into dollars.

Low capitalisation is not exclusive to biotechnology, but it has also constrained commercial growth in that sector.

And of course, the public needs assurances about biotechnology. Biotechnology, especially that part of it called genetic modification, has entered the average New Zealander’s consciousness in a way that few other science issues do. It even became a significant factor in our recent general election.

Let me briefly mention some of the ways the Government aims to address these issues. At the beginning of the year we released a policy framework called Growing an Innovative New Zealand. Its aim is to return New Zealand to the top half of OECD rankings in GDP per capita — and just as importantly, maintain that position.

The framework identifies biotechnology as one of three key sectors, along with ICT and creative industries, capable of supporting a transformational change in the New Zealand economy. For each of those sectors we have set up taskforces, heavy on private sector expertise, to help us with ideas and practical advice. You could call them a ‘reality check’ of sorts.

I co-chair of the Biotechnology Sector Taskforce. Our aim is to identify ways to focus effort on developing high-value, internationally competitive domestic biotechnology businesses. Some of the other members of the taskforce are in the room. It’s a little too soon to lay anything on the table, but we’ve met several times — in fact we’re meeting tomorrow in this hotel — and the ideas are flowing and recommendations are taking shape.

Also in train is the development of a general strategy for the growth and management of biotechnology in New Zealand. We are seeking comment from the public and the sector on a recently released discussion paper on this. I want the strategy to set out a vision and goals for biotechnology in New Zealand, mapping a way to achieve a responsible, growing biotechnology sector in this country.

Note the use of the word responsible — it’s important. I imagine that some of the many conversations that will happen over the course of this conference will be about regulation. This is a challenge for those of us who support the development of this sector. You know that biotechnology means a great deal to New Zealand, and indeed the rest of the world. The public needs to know that as well — but it also needs to have confidence and reassurance.

The strategy will offer a framework to bring together the social, economic, environmental and cultural dimensions of biotechnology in this country. Like the report of the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification — which recommended the development of a strategy — it will be about preserving opportunities. It will also be about creating opportunities.

A further piece of new work concerns bioprospecting, the examination of biological resources for features that may have commercial value.

Many modern pharmaceutical and industrial products have been derived from the natural world. New Zealand certainly has more than its share of unique biological resources to examine, both on land and in the marine environment. Many of these resources may present great opportunities, both economically and scientifically, if we put in the work.

But bioprospecting raises potential issues for Maori, who have traditional knowledge and uses of indigenous plants and animals. There are also questions about access to Crown land and access by foreign interests. There are environmental issues.

The question is whether New Zealand should promote potential economic development opportunities and other benefits from the bioprospecting of our biological resources — and if so to what extent? I suspect the answer is probably yes, but we have some work to do before we can adequately say how we might do so while remaining true to foundation agreements such as the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and our own Treaty of Waitangi.

This morning I released a public discussion paper setting out the issues arising from a review of New Zealand’s policy framework for the regulation of bioprospecting. This paper considers the opportunities, the problems with the current regulatory framework and the advantages of having a bioprospecting policy. There is a flyer summarising the issues available here this morning.

Bioprospecting is an example of an area where biotechnology, with suitable safeguards for environmental, social and cultural values, has the potential to create a wide range of benefits for New Zealand. Again we must make sure that in pursuing those opportunities we safeguard the public interest and the public need for confidence and reassurance.

Today also sees the launch of a new website with comprehensive information on New Zealand’s biotechnology sector, aimed at attracting international investment. The website has been developed by Industry New Zealand, the government's industry development agency and has information on a significant number of biotechnology industry organisations, research institutes and businesses.

There is plenty more policy development going on in relation to science and innovation, because that is central to the government's thinking about New Zealand's economic future. The regulatory and tax systems are under constant scrutiny. We’re looking at our intellectual property laws. We’ve introduced a new class of research funding, for consortia, to encourage partnerships between industry and public research providers. We’ve established the Venture Investment Fund to accelerate the development of the venture capital market.

In the end, though, the future of biotechnology in this country is down to you — the movers and the shakers. That’s why you’re here. Developments in biotechnology don’t happen in isolation. We need international collaboration and experience, which is why events like this are especially valuable and important. I hope you all have an enjoyable, informative and productive few days. I look forward to seeing many of you at the dinner tomorrow night.

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