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AAAS meeting coverage  

From lab to village: Tech transfer in Africa

Africa's reputation as a scientific backwater has deep roots. Political instability, malnutrition, disease, and poverty have loomed as far more serious issues than tinkering with science. But in recent years, biotechnology research and development has emerged in many African countries. Researchers there now have the potential to tackle the AIDS epidemic, water pollution, and other major problems through local and national initiatives, said speakers on 13 February at the AAAS meeting in Chicago.

In the session, titled "New Partnerships for Science in the Cradle of Humanity," policymakers and investors from Africa and the U.S. tried to put to rest the notion of Africa as one homogeneous, monolithic entity. Rather, they said, scientific capabilities vary from nearly zero in anarchical Somalia to world-class in post-apartheid South Africa. In addition to university labs, many governments have established research facilities in collaboration with the World Health Organization and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

"The advantages to home-grown innovation include amplifying the impact of investments due to lower labor costs, a strong understanding of local market needs, and creating self-sustaining cycles of local delivery and development," said Margaret Kigozi of the Uganda Investment Authority in Kampala.

"Receiving free money from government, diaspora, or non-profit organizations has reduced African entrepreneurship," Kigozi lamented. Still, she noted, entrepreneurship is rebounding in Africa. Patent filings have gradually increased, and start-up companies in Uganda and other countries have emerged in recent years to transform discoveries into usable products.

"Government-funded incubators have been the main players in commercializing early-stage research," said Maxwell Otim of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology in Kampala. The incubators have provided business advisory services, entrepreneurial training programs, science-to-business conferences, infrastructure, and soft loans or grants. "[One of the] difficulties is getting scientists to actually listen to the private sector and identify real problems, rather than problems of their own imagination," Otim said. The incubator-run programs have helped to open communication between academia and industry, he noted.

Although some African entrepreneurs have complained about government inefficiencies in procuring funding, the incubator-based educational programs have sparked a few results. Otim provided the example of Ashley Uys, a 22-year-old black graduate of one such program in South Africa. Uys improved an existing HIV strip test and invented a new test for the parasitic disease schistosomiasis during his internship at a medical diagnostics company. The host firm allowed him to spin off a new company, Real World Diagnostics, to provide affordable products for public-sector markets such as hospitals.

Despite these successes, the program that actually spawned Real World terminated after a year due to lack of government funding. AAAS panelists said that improving public understanding, which dictates political priorities, is an important step to further success. Kigozi described how the general public found it "difficult to link immediate problems with science-based enterprises that take several years to develop products, with no guarantee of results."

"Most early-stage life science companies require small amounts of only $100,000, while investors tend to target later-stage, established or technologically less complex companies in hope of quick money," said Kigozi. "Yet, studies from venture capital show a strong positive correlation between capital efficiency and return on investment. This makes Africa the perfect investment opportunity."

In addition to lower labor and other costs amplifying the magnitude of investments, the scarcity of money forces entrepreneurs to be even more efficient with what money they have. A few non-profit venture funds, such as the Acumen Fund, have emerged to fill this void, Kigozi noted. However, she said, "They do not have the technical expertise to evaluate and fund the early-stage life science companies that Africa so desperately needs."

"Ultimately, the success of tech transfer in Africa will depend on government transparency and support," Otim said. But in some cases, corruption has persisted. For instance, the founders of a Nigerian biotech firm that had developed and manufactured the FDA-approved sickle cell anemia drug, Niprisan, were recently charged with defrauding the government for $4.5 million.

Overall, panelists were optimistic. "Africa remains an untapped fountain of scientific entrepreneurship and innovation," Otim said. "While it is important for the world to recognize our growth, it is even more important for Africans and African governments to realize this too — that we can solve our own problems through science and hard work."

Justin Chakma is an undergraduate studying neuroscience and economics at the University of Toronto. He founded BioSynergy, an international magazine focusing on entrepreneurship in the life sciences with a print circulation of 28,000 copies, and has authored several peer-reviewed articles in leading journals including Nature Biotechnology. His research background includes stints in human genetic variation for neuropsychiatric disease, gene therapy for spinal neurosurgery, and co-founding a protein folding simulation start-up. Reach him at justin.chakma@utoronto.ca