In 2011, the Colombian Government approved a policy aimed at promoting biotechnology and the sustainable use of biological resources (CONPES 3697), as part of the current National Development Plan (Plan Nacional de Desarrollo 2010-2014). The aim is to establish the conditions necessary to attract private and public investment in biotechnological endeavours. These include legislation that will allow access to genetic and biological resources, commercialization of products and the establishment of venture capital funds for investment.

Colombia is among the nations with greatest natural and biological resources and therefore has immense potentially for biotechnological development and bioprospecting. To know more about investment possibilities in Colombian biotechnology R&D sector, we approached one of the most recognized private research institutes in the country, CorpoGen, www.corpogen.org, which is sharing some of their experiences and insights on future trends and opportunities.

Natural resources, political and economic background for enhancing biotechnology in Colombia
Recent estimates show that biodiversity in Colombia accounts for about 10% of all described plant and animal species in only 0.7% of the planet’s surface (International Convention on Biological Diversity, signed by 168 parties). In recent years, global trade in natural ingredients has grown on average 20 percent annually and countries with ecosystem conditions similar to Colombia (Thailand, Malaysia, India, Brazil) reach 21 %of this market. It is therefore expected that biotechnology based on biodiversity can boost the market of generic products, representing a great opportunity for Colombia, in particular since about 50 % of the pharmaceutical industry patents will expire in the next 10 years. Given the need to develop novel and competitive industrial sectors in the midst of a globalized economy, the Colombian government is focusing on biotechnology as a means to obtain more competitive, value-added products based on biological resources. The national strategic plans for 2008-2019 include the “Policy for the commercial development of biotechnology from the sustainable use of biodiversity” (CONPES 3697) that will cost 27 billion dollars and aim to create the conditions to attract public and private resources for the development of firms and commercial products in the sector. One of the priorities is to clearly define the rules on access to genetic resources and derived products, and the production and marketing of biotech drugs and herbal products. It also provides for the promotion of private equity funds that invest in biotechnology-based companies.

The Colombian national strategic plans also aim to strengthen scientific and technological capabilities, and business and industrial development, as part of the national research, development and innovation system. The main objectives are: to strengthen the capacity of research, technological development and innovation, and the relationship between the productive sector and universities with regional capacities in science and technology. This would build and strengthen networks, research groups, graduate level education and doctoral programs. This integration will boost domestic and export markets and encourage the development of biotechnology-based companies, ultimately leading to a stable and continuous infrastructure for biobusiness.

Molecular and microbial biotechnology education and research in Colombia
Graduate level education and specialized research skills in biotechnology are both central to achieve the current government goals. As of 2012 there are 345 universities (public and private) registered in the Ministry of National Education of Colombia. Although many of the laboratories doing research related with biotechnological development in the country are concentrating in these universities, there are multiple other institutions involved in scientific research. There are important public research institutes dependent on government institutions, such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Ministry of Environment or the Ministry of Health and Social Protection (Colombian National Institute of Health – INS), there are regulatory agencies such as the National Institute for the Surveillance of Food and Medicines (INVIMA), both private (industrial), mixed (Corpoica, CIAT), and private non-profit institutions. Research in these centres is diverse, ranging from plant biotechnology (plant and agriculture improvement, pathogen control), human and animal health (immunology, diagnostics, implants, vaccines, bovine insemination and selection), natural products (from plants and marine  organisms), and microbial bioprospecting (enzymes for improved industrial catalysis, biological control, environmental bioremediation, development of products for molecular biology research, pathogen disease detection and diagnostics, among other interests).

Corporación CorpoGen, a remarkable success case of biotechnology R&D entrepreneurship in Colombia
One of the top microbial biotechnology R&D centres in the country, CorpoGen, <www.corpogen.org> was created in July 1995 in Bogotá, Colombia, as a non-profit research institute with the aim of advancing scientific and technological development in a setting where research, education, and biotechnology products and services would be developed in parallel. Contrary to the successful examples in some industrialized nations, however, a reliable and continued funding of research projects based solely on government funds can be extremely difficult to achieve for reasonable periods of time. Sustainability of government sponsored research and enduring scientific endeavours is greatly affected by budgetary fluctuations due to the lack of long-term policies and changing economic and political realities. Thus the concept, born out of necessity, was to create a not-for-profit centre where income derived from the sale of biotechnological products, services, and training, could be used to support research initiatives and development. CorpoGen was started by five founding scientists and today has grown into a Centre of Excellence in research and training that makes efficient use of infrastructure and resources. Currently, the centre is housed in a 3000 square foot facility equipped to carry out advanced methodologies of molecular microbiology and molecular biology for molecular microbial biotechnology developments and applications.
CorpoGen is currently recognized as one of leading research institutes in Colombia and is a key participant in several multi-centre program projects, which include:

  • The Colombian Centre for Research in Tuberculosis (CCITB)
  • The Colombian Centre for Genomics and Bioinformatics of Extreme Environments (GeBiX) – www.gebix.org.co
  • Centre for research in agricultural metagenomics (CIMA)

Organisation and structure
CorpoGen has an Executive Director (Dr. Patricia Del Portillo) that responds to the Board of Directors that in turn follows the directives of the General Assembly. There are three main branches: Research & Development, Training, and Products and Services.
Research and development in CorpoGen reflect the interests of its investigators as well as the needs of the country. Thus the projects contain both basic and applied specific aims. Although the majority of the ongoing projects are funded by Colciencias, other funding agencies include The Ministries of Health and Agriculture, The European Economic Community and several entities from the private sector.

Research & Development
Currently there are the following research groups / heads: Genetics/Microbiology / Dr. María Mercedes Zambrano (Ph.D. Harvard Medical School); Microbial Ecology / Dr. Howard Junca (PhD.TU Braunschweig, Germany); Biotechnology / Patricia Del Portillo (B. Sc. Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia); Bioinformatics (recently started) / Dr. Juan Manuel Anzola (Ph.D. Texas A&M University).
At present, the centre has a 4 Ph.D., 8 M.Sc. and 5 B.Sc. full-time scientists trained in different areas related to the Biological Sciences, as well as graduate (3 Ph.D. and 5 M.Sc.) and undergraduate students in training as part of their thesis projects.
Some completed and ongoing projects include:

  • Genomic analyses of Mycobacterium tuberculosis strain variability (CCITB Excellence Centre, national network)
  • Microbiota associated to a cohort of tuberculosis patients
  • Latent tuberculosis: new tools for the detection and clearance of dormant M. tuberculosis (FP7-funded European consortium)
  • Development of molecular tests for the rapid identification of MDR strains of M. tuberculosis
  • Transcriptomics of M. tuberculosis
  • Development of PCR-based assays for diagnosis of human and bovine tuberculosis
  • Genotyping Rotavirus isolates from the Atlantic Coast of Colombia
  • Study of the immune response and of molecular markers associated with viral resistance in the shrimp Penaeus vannamei
  • Biofilm formation and persistence in Klebsiella pneumoniae
  • Platform for the exploration of antimalarial compounds in metagenomes
  • Development of bacterial and fungal protein expression systems for overproduction of enzymes (cellulases, proteases, and amylases)
  • Analysis of microbial communities involved in waste decomposition and removal of heavy metals
  • First DNA barcoding sampling survey of processed meat and fish derived-products commercialized in Bogota, Colombia
  • Metagenomic study of the microbial diversity in Los Nevados National Park (GeBiX Excellence Centre, national network)
  • Sequencing and genome analysis of the emerging pathogen Bacillus sp. CENIACUA-CG01 strain responsible for severe mortality outbreaks of white shrimp
  • Structural and functional analysis of microbial communities in contrasting agricultural soils (Funded by the Ministry of Agriculture, National network project)
  • Study of microbial communities in PAH-contaminated sites by metatranscriptomics (MAGIC-PAH EC-FP7 European consortium)
  • Metagenomic exploration of microbial communities associated to Caribbean marine sponges

Some of these projects provided the bases for the products detailed below.

Training
There are three components to CorpoGen’s training mission: 1) students that carry out undergraduate, master and PhD thesis projects under the tutelage of one of CorpoGen’s Principal Investigators; 2) staff members teach short focused courses in diverse areas of molecular biology and biotechnology; 3) practicing scientists from other institutions (academic and industrial) obtain advanced training at CorpoGen. CorpoGen has organized workshops and symposia with renowned international speakers, and has also offered courses in molecular biotechnology tools and applications, in bioinformatics and advanced seminars on state-of-the-art molecular biology technologies in different regions of Colombia.

Product & Services
The researchers at CorpoGen are continually involved in the development of products, based on acquired laboratory expertise and the local market demands. More recently we have focused on bioprospecting of microbial diversity, particularly for enzymes, as part of the aims of the metagenomics projects currently being carried out. To date, we have developed the following products that are currently sold in the national market:

  • TucanTaq DNA polymerase for the in vitro amplification of DNA
  • PCR-100-2X – Ready to use PCR 2X Mix
  • Kit for the molecular detection of Salmonella sp
  • Kit for the molecular detection of Listeria monocytogenes
  • WSSV Kit for the detection of White Spot Syndrome Virus
  • DNA 2000, kit for the isolation of genomic DNA
  • DNA 100 pb ladder
  • Molecular biology reagents
  • Culture media

CorpoGen also offers specialized consulting and services in the areas of molecular biology, bioinformatics and biotechnology to the scientific and academic communities, as well as to the private sector, in some cases establishing strategic alliances with private companies. These services fall within those areas related to the institutions’ on-going work:

  • DNA Sequencing
  • Molecular characterization of prokaryotes and fungi
  • Gene cloning
  • Real Time PCR analysis
  • Consulting in molecular biology methods and bioinformatics

CorpoGen therefore has a longstanding tradition as service provider with more than 15 years of experience.

Comments and perspectives from CEO and cofounder Patricia Del Portillo, Head of Research Group Molecular Biotechnology:

What kind of research and development is CorpoGen doing now?
How are your expectations about the positioning of CorpoGen in the coming years?

CorpoGen is now in a vibrant stage, one I was expecting to achieve a long time ago. We currently have a plethora of national and international collaborators of the highest scientific level; we have been able to overcome the current economic crisis by innovating with new products and services, in a dynamic and competent administrative environment, an important advantage compared to the public sector. For instance, we have obtained international research funding as members of European research consortia by proposing state of the art projects applying the most advanced technologies that ultimately aim towards biotechnological applications and product development. We are now moving ahead by complement these efforts by including industrial partners. We see that there are bright perspectives for all sides involved.

How is CorpoGen financed?

Briefly, CorpoGen is currently financed with public funding obtained through calls for research projects and from profits derived from products and services.

Why do you think it is important to invest in Biotechnology in Bogota? Or, specifically, in a private biotechnology R&D venture such as CorpoGen?

This question brings to mind my participation in the main government commission regarding biodiversity, biotechnology and bioprospecting. Both this and international assessments, such as those by WHO, OCDE, PNUMA, point towards the value of biological resources and the rational and advanced investigation in biotechnological applications. Economic sectors are networked and inter-dependent, and could profit from biotechnological applications as a part of their activities. There are some official estimates showing that roughly 20% of the total Colombian expenditure in science is coming from private sectors, compared to about 80% spent in developed countries. This shows the great potential and an almost unexplored field of opportunities for international investors.

Could you tell us about the advantages of making investments in an institution such as CorpoGen?

Investing in a R&D institution can be economically advantageous. New tax exemptions for donations to officially recognized research institutions, put in place in 2011, can mean reductions of up to 175% of the donation in the total tax costs for private companies. CorpoGen has long been officially recognized by Colciencias, the national funding agency, as one such private research centre. It is very common that a high percentage of biotechnology spin-offs or other private initiatives do not survive for more than 3-5 years after their foundation. This is due to factors such as the lack of economic viability and incorporation by larger companies or private universities. CorpoGen with its independent administration and unusual yet flexible scheme for networking with public and private research labs and with productive sectors; has overcome various economic crises working in a high tech sector. Evidence of these concrete and measurable capabilities is, for example, our scientific and technological production. This is reflected in the proportion of our personnel with higher education degrees, in our R&D production, which is far above that expected for our relatively small staff. In addition, the quality of human resources and our independent and efficient decision-making process. All these factors along the years have been allowing us to develop the particular conditions for doing biotechnology in the region. Thus, investing in a biotechnology private research centre like CorpoGen minimizes some of the risks associated with investing in initiatives that are not yet well-established, that lack the sufficient skills and expertise in the field, or that depend on agendas that may cater to other private or public interests.

Do you think that this investment in biotechnology contributes to improve the social conditions of the country?

This can be seen at two levels. In the first place, this investment directly impacts on capacity building by training of graduate and postgraduate students. There is no doubt that local training is beneficial for our research and academic institutions; it will ultimately contribute to society through scientific development and innovation. Some of the students that have trained with us have an excellent track record, achieving recognitions in top world-class scientific institutions in Europe (i.e. Max Planck, Helmholtz) and the USA (i.e. Texas A&M, Washington St. Louis, Dartmouth, MIT), that in turn boosts collaborations and worldwide networking that promote local initiatives. In second place, investment has a broader impact through development of value-added products and services urgently needed in our nation. Through modern taxing schemes that stimulate private donations or partnerships for scientific initiatives and biotechnology developments, economic inputs can lead to real profits that improve social conditions, science development, education and training. In Colombia there is a growing public awareness of the importance of investment in science and technology. The next step is to evolve from words to actions and real commitments. This requires believing and investing in science to improve local capacity in biotechnology, which I am convinced will lead the way on how to capitalize on scientific findings, transforming them into successful products and services in a continually demanding and competitive market.