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The role of biotechnology

24 August 2006

Embargoed until:12.30pm

The role of biotechnology in New Zealand's economic transformation
Speech to the launch of the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery, Auckland University

Thank-you. Before I discuss biotechnology and how it fits into the Labour-led government's economic transformation agenda, I would like to begin by passing on the Prime Minister's best wishes for the opening of this centre today.

As experts, you will be as well informed as anyone on biotechnology and its potential, if not more so.

You will also be reasonably well informed on the role biotechnology has had in government economic development thinking, and associated strategies since 2002, when the Growth and Innovation Framework – the Government’s economic development strategy - was announced.

For example, biotechnology is one of three sectors prioritised under the Growth and Innovation Framework and government support for biotech is part of a 10-year national plan developed by the industry-led Biotechnology Task Force.

In response to the recommendations by the taskforce, the government invested $1.4m to establish NZBio, New Zealand’s biotech industry organisation, and we recently announced further funding of $1.2m to support NZBio for three more years.

Economic transformation is about working with business and sector groups to build on our work to date, including the work of the Growth and Innovation Framework. The aim - to deliver a high-income high-wage export-led economy.

We have to ensure our economy is better able to continuously adapt and lift its performance and lift productivity by becoming more internationally connected, and more innovative.

The Growth and Innovation Framework identified biotechnology as a sector that had the potential to make a high impact in terms of economic growth.

Seen through an economic transformation lens, biotechnology provides a good example of a sector that is successfully leveraging off New Zealand’s strengths, particularly in the primary sector.

I've made it clear that I do see biotechnology as one of the rising stars of the New Zealand economy.

Biotechnology is where the tradition of excellence established by the likes of Maurice Wilkins is today continued by other world class New Zealand biotechnologists who endeavour to merge the disciplines involved in science and business.

Maurice Wilkins in particular, captures a tradition of scientists who applied their interest and ability to work across a number of overlapping areas. They contribute not only as key innovators in their own fields, but also as part of collaborations where individuals make critical contributions to scientific breakthroughs.

It was, of course, as a result of becoming a world authority in X ray crystallography to determine the structure of molecules that he was awarded the Nobel prize in 1962 for work with James Watson and Frances Crick that confirmed the structure of DNA.

In the 1960s, his birthplace of Pongaroa in the Wairarapa seemed a long way away. Today it does not seem so far because modern communication has brought international science and economies closer together in terms of information sharing.

However, New Zealand is still lagging in terms of becoming more internationally integrated. This is certainly a major task for those involved with innovation, and the increasingly important commercialisation of this innovation.

Getting a foothold in international markets often means having connections with people on the ground or with other global entities who can provide the necessary skills and experience to navigate the way through the particular challenges that each overseas market throws up.

In the past year the government has invested approximately $12 million in the commercialisation of biotechnology.

There is no doubt about the strength and the potential of New Zealand biotech. Centres of Research Excellence like this centre here at Auckland University are already highlighting the opportunities through your ground-breaking work in drug discovery and development.

More than 150 years of applying cutting-edge science to livestock and plants today has given New Zealand one of the world’s most innovative and fast growing biotechnology industries with applications across the board in all fields of endeavour – agricultural, industrial, environmental and biomedical.

In 2005 New Zealand’s biotechnology industry generated an estimated revenue of $811 million, including over $250 million in exports, and supplemented by $160 million in manufactured agritech exports.

In the two years to June 2005, 190 biotechnology patents were granted compared with 156 in the five years between 1994 and 1999.

Biotechnology research and innovation also helps ensure the continued international competitiveness and efficiency of New Zealand’s food and beverage exporters.

There is a key role for the biotech sector in economic transformation in at least two ways - by leading the world in research that spins off into products in world markets, through the niche application of some innovations, and through developing strong strategic relationships with investors, collaborators and international markets.

I am very pleased to be here today to launch the Maurice Wilkins Centre for Molecular Biodiscovery.

As one of seven centres for research excellence that our government is funding, you are charged with producing world-class research that is focused on New Zealand's future development.

Already your leading-edge research and drug discoveries, together with your work with biopharmaceutical companies shows how biotechnology can and is playing an important role in further developing our economy.

I wish you all the best for the future.

ENDS

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