Thailand's Expanding Bio-tech As the Kingdom of Thailand surges up the ladder of economic development, the country naturally has moved away from an over-reliance upon labor-intensive industries to a more tech-savvy, knowledge-based economy. Indeed, over the past two decades, the biotechnology industry has been a dynamic engine in Thailand's push towards modernization, transforming the Kingdom into a high value-added economy. The country offers biotech investors a solid R&D and manufacturing infrastructure, and a skilled but affordable force of laboratory scientists, field technicians and facility support staff. Although still an embryonic industry with much room for growth, biotechnology is important to the future of the Kingdom, as each breakthrough enhances Thailand's global competitiveness today and for the years ahead.
What is biotechnology? At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology. Biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives and the health of our planet. Modern biotechnology provides breakthrough products and technologies to combat debilitating and rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint, feed the hungry, use cleaner energy, and have greener and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes. Presently, there are hundreds of biotechnology health care products and vaccines available to patients, many for previously untreatable diseases. Plus, millions of farmers around the world use agricultural biotechnology to increase yields, prevent damage from insects and pests and reduce the impact of farming on the environment. Simply put, advances in biotechnology are helping humanity prepare for and meet society's most pressing challenges.
Thailand's expanding biotech industry offers ample opportunity for investment, and there is no lack of support from the government. In fact, the Thai government is playing a vital role in the steady advancement of the industry, through research funding and encouraging developmental efforts by numerous agencies and institutes. The National Biotechnology Policy Framework 20042011, endorsed by the National Biotechnology Policy Committee, laid a solid infrastructure for the progress now being seen in the industry. Supplementing this trend, headway in other related industries is indeed helping to fortify Thailand's emergence as a major biotech hub, with the country being a world leader in agriculture, food exports and medicine. The reverse also is true as local breakthroughs in biotechnology make industry and living standards better. The Thai food sector, for example, uses biotech advancements to continually improve plant and livestock breeding, rice, cassava and shrimp output, testing and product quality. These important breakthroughs are protected by a comprehensive legal structure, with seven intellectual property protection laws enforced in Thailand. These are the Copyright Act of 1994, Patent Act of 1979 (with amendment in 1999), Traditional Medicine and Practice Act of 1999, Trademark Act of 1991 (with amendment in 2000), Act for the Protection of Layout-Designs of Integrated Circuits in 2000, Trade Secret Act of 2002, and Protection of Geographical Indication Act in 2003. On 24 September 2009, Thailand also became a party to the Patent Cooperation Treaty, which offers inventors, researchers and exporters who seek patent protection in multiple countries a more user-friendly, cost-effective and efficient option. What's more, there are various public and private organizations that support the expansion and heightened competitiveness of the biotechnology industry in Thailand. These include the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), the Thailand Science Park (TSP), the KMUTT biopharmaceutical cGMP Pilot Plan, the Research and Development Certification Committee Secretariat (RDC), the Thailand Center of Excellence for Life Sciences (TCELS), the Thailand Institute of Scientific and Technological Research (TISTR). In addition, there is a long list of government agencies that also strive to continue strengthening this flourishing industry, which includes the Department of Agriculture, Food and Drug Administration, Ministry of Public Heath, Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, and the Department of Intellectual Property under the Ministry of Commerce. Nonetheless, the creation of the National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) in 1983 marked an important early milestone for Thailand's biotechnology industry by laying a solid foundation for strong future development. In fact, BIOTEC allocates 70% of its R&D budget to local universities and institutes for the upbringing of researchers needed by the country to ensure continued breakthroughs and growth in this vibrant industry. The remaining 30% of the budget is used for in-house research projects.
BIOTEC also operates specialized laboratories in several universities, including at Kasetsart University for plant genetic engineering and DNA fingerprinting, at Mahidol University for microbial genetic engineering and medical biotechnology, at Chulalongkorn University for marine biotechnology, and at King Mongkut's University of Technology for biochemical engineering.
BIOTEC constantly monitors and assesses this impact of its output towards social and economic development. Every year, a number of technology transfer projects are selected for detailed impact study for the following few years. The impact is measured in the form of income generated by the clients out of such products and technologies, and also quantified from parameters such as import substitution and employment generation. Additionally, the Thailand Science Park, which like BIOTEC is actually one of the centers under the NSTDA, covers 80 acres populated with laboratories, incubator units, pilot plants and greenhouses. Located 20 kilometers outside of Bangkok, the world-class facility mainly conducts R&D in biogenetic engineering. Some 4,000 personnel work in the park and range from researchers to maintenance. Among its features attractive to investors are long-term land leases for construction, multi-tenant buildings, and ready-made wet-labs for rent. At the moment, there are 60 companies in operation (70% Thai, 30% International) with approximately 10 companies in the pipeline. Under its multibillion-baht Biotechnology Development Policy Framework 2012-2021, the Thai government is a driving force in stimulating growth. The program emphasizes enhancing R&D in the private sector and utilizing the intellectual capital created from the biotech revolution to fortify the country's overall competitiveness. Across the Kingdom, a number of biotech firms have been established. These companies enjoy the protection of strict intellectual law enforcement, as well as benefits such as the country's substantial supply of skilled technicians, well-developed infrastructure and generous investment incentives. Another key supportive national strategy is the 11th National Development Plan 2012-2016, which committed the government to biotechnology development.
The growth of the industry also is well sustained by new initiatives in a diverse range of areas, including drug discovery, agribusiness, stem cells, DNA and genomics. One of the most notable public-private sector cooperation endeavors is the BIOTEC-Novartis Drug Discovery Partnership. Moreover, these efforts have resulted in almost 800 publications in international academic journals, the development of dedicated research infrastructure and resources, and the training of over 600 research scientists, benefiting both public and private sectors. Furthermore, over 650 new species of organisms have since been discovered. These discoveries create new business and economic opportunities. For instance, a new species of Thai Fairy Shrimp, first discovered in Thailand in 1998, has been developed commercially for sale and export overseas. Of equal significance, Open Lab is a new activity initiated in 2011 to promote collaboration between laboratories and industries by inviting companies to meet with BIOTEC scientists, be informed of BIOTEC expertise and potential of the biotechnology to make an improvement to industry, with expected results such as collaborative research, commissioned research or analytical service provision. Three laboratories were selected for three different events in 2011, based on the industrial application of the technology. A total of 35 companies and venture capitalists participated in the events, consisting of SMEs to major companies such as CP Group, Saha Farms, Mitr Phol Sugar Group, Agromed, Merck and Vnet Capital. Such collaborative efforts are the driving force behind the rapid progress of the Thai biotechnology industry. It must be pointed out that applications of biotechnology in Thailand include Agriculture (Green Biotechnology), Medicine (Red Biotechnology), Industry (White Biotechnology) and Marine/ Aquatics (Blue Biotechnology). Indeed, the use of biotechnology will improve food and agriculture product yields and quality, reduce costs and also increase product value to support the country's competitiveness in the food industry. Moreover, Thailand has developed several biotechnology programs to support the medical sector especially in alternative disease solutions for emerging diseases, re-emerging diseases, and tropical diseases. Many government bodies have joined hands to strengthen the biotech industry in Thailand. Among them, the Board of Investment (BOI), the principal government agency for encouraging investment, under the Ministry of Industry, has been active in granting incentives to promote biotech projects. To be specific, the BOI provides special incentives to activities that involve high-level R&D and production in six main areas. These are seed and plant improvement; biopharmaceutical agents; diagnostic kits for health, agriculture, food and environmental applications; biomolecule and bioactive compounds using microorganisms, plant and animal cells; raw materials and/or essential materials used in molecular biological experimentation/ testing; and biological substances analysis and/or synthesis services. The Thailand Board of Investment offers a wide range of fiscal and non-tax incentives for biotech
investments. Tax-based incentives include exemption or reduction of import duties on equipment and raw materials, and corporate income tax exemptions and reductions. Non-tax incentives include permission to bring in foreign workers, own land and take or remit foreign currency abroad. Additionally, foreign businesses are entitled to 100% ownership. According to BOI Announcement No.2/2553, on 23 April 2010, the BOI offers promotional privileges to projects in biotechnology to support the country's national biotechnology policy and encourage more investment in the industry's research and development. The incentives are granted to R&D and manufacturing activities in a number of biotechnology areas, provided that applicants use modern biotechnology as approved by the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA) or the Thailand Center of Excellence for Life Sciences (TCELS), which are public organizations under the supervision of the Ministry of Science and Technology. These projects are considered as a priority activity that has special importance and benefits to the country, which grants exemption of import duty on machinery for all zones, an 8-year corporate income tax exemption (uncapped) and other relevant locationbased incentives. Currently, there are approximately 200 biotechnology firms in Thailand with a total market value over US$2 billion. The majority of the biotech companies in Thailand are small firms with registered capital of less than 50 million baht. Those considered medium-sized firms, with registered capital, make up 21% of the market. Large firms with over 200 million in registered capital, make up 7% of the market. Thailand's biotech market is divided into four segments, namely, agriculture/food (agro-business, medical/health, environmental, and others. The agro-business segment is the largest and accounts for 51% of the total market. Through strong and supportive governmental policy and the establishment of alliances between universities and industry these biotechnology companies have flourished. By bringing the appropriate stakeholders together, Thailand has linked science to business and is able to deliver biotechnological research and innovation that is applied in the industrial sector.
Across the board commitments are being made by the Government of Thailand to embrace the opportunities of modern technology and to capitalize on the industries of the future. Savvy entrepreneurs are already benefiting from the incentives offered by the Board of Investment, which helps lower the costs incurred in such capital intensive sectors. Equally important, investors and industry experts worldwide are impressed by the Kingdom's increasing number of biotech accomplishments. For example, a strong indication that the global community recognizes Thailand's biotech capability came when the World Health Organization (WHO) approved the country as a manufacturer of the H1N1 flu vaccine. For those interested in modern research facilities equipped with skilled staff and within one of the world's least expensive environments, Thailand is the place to invest.