Interview: Vijaya Rajendram

How likely is it that bio-industry can become a major contributor to the nation’s economic diversification?

VIJAYA RAJENDRAM: Brunei Darussalam is a crown jewel for scientists, especially as far as the future of the ethnobotanical industry and herbal medicinal sector are concerned. Over 60% of the nation still consists of forests, which are well conserved, and the government is very clear on sustainable environmental policy. This is a fantastic starting point for the industry. We believe that almost two-thirds of the most exciting future drugs will be found on the island of Borneo. This would supersede what China and India can offer to the world, let alone the European phytomedicines that also exist. Borneo offers unexplored potential for the field, and Brunei Darussalam is right at the hub of this opportunity. The nation has the wealth necessary to build the infrastructure required to deliver on this sizeable and high-potential industry. I believe this is the right time for bio-industry to take off in Brunei Darussalam, and the nation would do well to learn from the experiences of neighbouring nations to safely deliver upon the promise of the industry. Furthermore, bringing these fields to Brunei Darussalam opens the opportunity for young local entrepreneurs to learn the entire process involved in phytomedicine right from propagation through to commercialisation of a finished product.

What specific research is being conducted in Brunei Darussalam, and how can it be commercialised?

RAJENDRAM: There are three main research areas with regard to medicinal plants that are being targeted. Primarily, we are attempting to identify medicinal plants with high relevance to cardiovascular disease and mental health. Most contemporary synthetic drugs for mental health are hit or miss, and the world is crying out for a solution. I believe there is enough scientific evidence to suggest that we could identify drugs or at least compounds from plant materials to synthesise. The focus is taxonomy, through the identification of Borneo’s plant species using genetics as a main mode.

Secondly, we must look into improving the efficacy of natural medicines and drugs by identifying dosage requirements and preventing their degradation. Research is focused on identifying or developing bioactive delivery systems that, through new technologies, can release bio actives in the most efficacious manner to a very specific site, all while ensuring safety.

The last part of the research is the extension to the application of enzymes. The future scientific innovations in the field will be identification and application of novel plant enzymes. One of the three projects that we have undertaken in Brunei Darussalam is to identify and isolate novel plant enzymes for use in many applications. Our initial focus is to develop enzymes for protein production and downstream halal cheese processing. This will provide a major source of protein intake to meet nutritional deficiencies. Commercialisation is a natural byproduct of this main research.

How are research and development (R&D) firms supported, and what will bring them more talent?

RAJENDRAM: It is exhilarating to see Brunei Darussalam focusing and investing in R&D for the future of the nation. This is an exciting opportunity for us as one of the pioneer international companies to be offered BRICS funding through the Brunei Economic Development Board. The nation offers companies an opening to enter the Asian market and attain a greater understanding of business requirements in South-east Asia. Yet, there are a number of areas that can be better managed to attract more international R&D partners. For instance, stronger understanding of the interfaces between public and private R&D is required, as the approaches are very different. Commercialisation is also an important aspect of R&D. As a result, it is important for the country to create market opportunities in Asia through attractive commercialisation schemes for exporting firms with R&D and manufacturing capability. Synchronised planning, in terms of infrastructure and human resources, is another area that is a priority.