The Algerian Minister of Health recently revealed that an agreement has been reached between his ministry and two world-class American universities, Harvard and Northwestern, to train Algerian students as part of the government’s plans to establish Algeria as a biotechnology hub by 2020.
Admittedly, as an Algerian, it is great to see the Algerian government devising future plans in the biotechnology sector. However, what has been released so far about its plans seems to only cover exchange programs where local students are sent to America to attend some biotechnology workshops. This is disappointing to say the least, and is nowhere near enough to set up a successful biotechnology sector in Algeria by 2020 or even 2050. The Algerian government should know best that sending Algerian students abroad for studying and training is not a very fruitful strategy for developing university education and research within Algerian universities.
Setting up a biotechnology hub is a serious business. Many countries around the world, especially developing countries, have been trying very hard to set up successful biotechnology clusters. If the Algerian government is serious about establishing Algeria as a biotech hub by 2020, they need to think beyond student exchange programs and into developing innovative research, supportive laws and legislations, and much more.
Let’s make one thing clear. Biotech companies capitalise on (biotechnological) scientific discoveries and on the ability to turn them from concepts and preliminary experiments into products or services. For these companies to be successful, they need to be supported by thriving, innovative and fruitful research programmes. It is therefore of paramount importance that if we wish to establish a successful world-class biotech hub, we need to seriously reform Algerian universities and establish a culture of research – not any research butcutting edge research. That is, we need to focus on research that pushes the boundaries of science, or as put by Prof. Dario R. Alessi, Director of the Medical Research Council Protein Phosphorylation Unit in Dundee, on “research that is at the frontiers of knowledge”. Only such cutting edge research could form the strong foundations needed for a successful and a sustainable biotech sector.
Although the issue of establishing innovative research is beyond the scope of this piece, I believe the following headings summarise what is necessary for realising such a task:
- Recruiting smart people, who are inspired by making scientific discoveries.
- Providing adequate financial and logistic support needed for carrying out research.
- Giving researchers the freedom to make decisions on their research.
- Encouraging collaborations.
- Evaluating the research being carried out.
- Rewarding and celebrating scientific success.
Once a strong research sector is established, it becomes more feasible to set up a biotech hub that exploits the scientific discoveries being made at universities and research centres.
In effect, establishing a biotech hub needs to address at least five issues that go beyond student exchange programs. First, it is important that the government’s willingness to establish a successful biotech sector is reflected in the laws regarding setting up companies in Algeria. These should be revised to facilitate the setting up of (small) biotech companies as well as the import/export laws and regulations in Algeria to facilitate importing reagents and equipment needed in biotechnological development.
Second, it is essential that government institutions provide financial assistance and investments to Algerians wishing to set up biotech companies.
Third, it is critical that universities curriculums are reformed to reflect the government’s plans for the biotech sector. This of course would include nurturing students’ entrepreneurial skills, which cover turning an idea into a product, devising business plans, raising financial investment, and various other skills needed for setting up start-up (biotech) companies. In addition, the curriculum should include subjects that deal with the field of biotechnological, e.g. synthetic biology, chemical biology, systems biology, and different engineering disciplines. If the Algerian higher education system fails to continually train groups of people who think like bio-entrepreneurs, it would be hard to envisage the government’s biotech plans as successful in the long term.
Fourth, Algerian universities should establish effective research and innovation offices that analyse the scientific discoveries and developments being made within their institutions and manage the intellectual properties (IPs) generated by such discoveries and developments. IPs can then be either licensed to biotech companies to be fully developed into products and services or be developed by the universities themselves.
Fifth, one cannot underestimate the importance of having the right people in charge of planning biotech developments in Algeria. I feel that such an initiative would have higher chances of success if it involves an advisory committee comprised of individuals who have been extremely successful in setting up biotechnology hubs e.g. Prof. Elias Zerhouni (Johns Hopkins Medicine, USA), Sir Chris Evans (key player in setting up the Cambridge Biotechnology hub in the UK), Sir Philip Cohen (responsible for making Dundee a biotech centre in the UK) and Prof. Stuart Schreiber (responsible for setting up many successful biotech companies in Boston, USA). Such committee would use their expertise to critique the Algerian plan for establishing Algeria as a biotech hub by 2020. In addition, the involvement of world-class bio-entrepreneurs would give international credibility to Algeria’s biotech plans and could contribute to attracting investors and large biotech companies to Algeria.
It is clear that what has been made public on how the Algerian government is planning to establish a biotech hub by 2020 is not sufficient to setting up one successful biotech company let alone a biotech hub. Until a robust plan that includes the points highlighted above and more is adapted, establishing a biotech hub in Algeria will remain a dream for the Algerian people and a mere propaganda topic that politicians use whenever they wish.