Interview: Mohd Nazlee Kamal

What challenges are there to supplying biomass as raw material for the biotechnology industry?

MOHD NAZLEE KAMAL: Access to raw materials is always the foremost challenge in attracting foreign biotechnology firms, although this issue is obviously omnipresent in most markets worldwide. Initial supply is, in most cases, easily facilitated. However, most firms need a guaranteed long-term provision of certain materials, which requires significant depth and sophistication in the agro-business sector. Our primary focus will be in devising strategies to mobilise our raw materials to meet the demands of the biotech industry. The issue at hand when attempting to provide biomass to potential investors is finding the right formula which permits the suppliers to also benefit from the programme. The investors will demand the lowest price possible, with the suppliers seeking the highest possible return. To help participants reach common ground, we are exploring the prospect of the suppliers and investors entering into joint partnerships which could pave the way towards a formula that is conducive to all parties involved. Once the supply-demand equation is solved, projects will begin to be unlocked at a steady pace, and we can then focus efforts on innovating towards replacement of fossil-fuel-based material with bio-based material. In this scenario, Malaysia could take an early lead on utilisation of raw materials and could act as an example for ASEAN to follow.

What have been some of the results of the government’s innovation policies in Malaysia to date?

NAZLEE: Policies to develop and strengthen the National Innovation Strategy are orchestrated around Vision 2020 (the nation’s roadmap for economic development), championed by Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. Building on the strengths and successes of the past, Malaysia is now in a strong position to propel the nation towards high-income status. Biotechnology has been identified by the government as a core technology to accelerate the transformation of Malaysia into a knowledge-based economy and industrialised nation by 2020. Therefore, the National Biotechnology Policy was launched in 2005 to provide a development framework for the industry, given the regulatory changes to promote sustainable energy that are beginning to take shape in developed countries. The government wants to increase biotech investments to $9bn by 2015. With labour costs and inflation on the rise in China, Malaysia finds itself in a more competitive position in terms of deliverables, such as infrastructure and its investment climate. Malaysia will be launching a bio-economy initiative in the second half of 2012 which will address environmental concerns, along with food security, climate change and utilisation of biodegradable materials.

What can be done to strengthen research and development (R&D) activities in Malaysia and translate them into long-term benefits for the country?

NAZLEE: We are looking at long-term relationships when fielding candidates for investment in biotechnology, and are ensuring that multinational companies are committed to permanent integration of their research within the local economy. Manpower will become a major factor as more biotechnology investments are committed to Malaysia. Currently, more than 40 universities are offering programmes in various fields of microbiology and bioprocess engineering.

How can universities help drive local innovation?

NAZLEE: There is room for improvement in innovation among Malaysian universities. The two leading research-intensive public institutions, Universiti Putra Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, are near 400 in world rankings. The industry and universities must innovate in tandem to drive sustainable wealth creation. We need more incentives to increase research and development efforts and to increase collaboration. This could be accomplished by allowing universities to operate more independently and work with industry players.