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Building Biotechnology in Turkey

The Turkish response to the innovation score I generated for them in the Scientific American Worldview Scorecard was pretty clear. They interpret their low score — 39th out of 48 countries measured — as an indication that they continue to ‘miss the biotech train.’ The primary reasons for Turkey’s low score are:

  • Relatively weak intellectual property protection
  • Relatively low intensity of biotechnology activities
  • Relatively poor capital availability for biotechnology ventures
  • Relatively weak educational output of scientists
  • Relatively low R&D expenditures by domestic companies

The solution to improving Turkey’s standing seems pretty clear — strengthen IP, implement programs to encourage students to study science, and support investments in company formation and R&D. But, these are not simple changes. As India has seen in their dispute over Novartis’ Glivec patents, strengthening IP protection may mean balancing short-term domestic interests with the future potential of foreign investments. Promoting company formation and the development of scientists can also be challenging. My recent study of the locations of pharmaceutical drug inventors came to a surprising conclusion: the dominant countries are the legacy pharma countries. Despite their significant investments, emerging markets have yet to produce measurable outputs in innovation.

So, what is Turkey to do? I think that it is a bit harsh to say that they continue to miss the train. Many countries strive to develop biotechnology industries, and fail to show progress despite significant investments. Turkey is blessed with a strong entrepreneurial culture, and can get ‘on the train’ if they decide to provide patient sustained support. The key to developing a stronger biotechnology industry is to continue to find and clear hurdles to innovation. Case studies from around the world are in plentiful supply — the challenge is to identify and implement the solutions best suited to Turkey.

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  1. I don’t know anything about the biotech sector in Turkey, but I would think that capital requirements/invesments would be the biggest hurdles to building a biotech/pharma sector especially in a down economy. How much in investments do you think are required in the next 5-10 years for Turkey to gain better standing and how would you calculate such #s?

  2. I think the solution is more complicated than just investing in the sector. The companies, academic labs, etc. need to be able to absorb the investment and deliver returns on the investment. Without sufficient trained scientists, for example, who is going to spend the invested cash?

  3. I don’t think one of the hurdles to Turkey’s biotech success is insufficient high-quality scientist. In many Turkish universities, the quality of science education, though unfortunately mostly theoretical, is pretty good. Moreover, most of their graduates go to Europe or mostly to the US to get their PhDs and usually stay there to pursue successful academic careers.

    Thanks to the blooming economy and recent democratic regulations by the Turkish gov’t, more and more scientists want to return to Turkey but usually as academicians. Therefore, we can say that there is a shortage of good-scientists with entrepreneurial spirit. I can say as a post-doctoral Turkish scientist who has been living in the US for the last 12 years that, it is even hard for US-raised scientists to make the transition from academia to industry. The PhD life is demanding as-is and there is very little guidance from departments or advisers about alternative pathways that scientists can pursue. There is even a hidden shame or disdain towards those who want to pursue science in an industrial setting (not everyone of course but considerable enough that often times even professors who make such transition start their seminars by explaining why they made such decisions). You have to be very dedicated, must train yourself about business aspect of science on your spare time (!) and network with the right people. But like I said, on top of other responsibilities you have during PhD (taking courses, teachings, producing good quality research, publishing, applying for grants, publicizing your research etc.), one can argue that it is extremely difficult to be both a good scientist and entrepreneur. I have seen many PhDs (at some point myself), feeling at loss by the end of their PhD education as to what they want to do, especially when the academic positions are scarce or they don’t feel up to it.

    In Turkey, making the transition from academia to industry is even harder given other obstacles such as the lack of infrastructure due to almost non-existent bio-tech industry, lack of funding, and bad IP regulations. Not to mention the severe competition from European bio-techs which are unlike US companies follow a more expansionist policy and beat smaller start-ups even at the beginning of the game.

    This year a new ministry opened in Turkish parliament: Ministry of Science, Industry, and Technology. I don’t expect this will revolutionize government’s science policy immediately, but just seeing “science” in the agenda of Turkish gov’t is exciting and encouraging. Turkey have been battling with coups, bad economy, human rights issues, terror, unrest in neighbors for the last century and all that left little room for good scientific and technological advancement. But these battles are almost over now and the economy is flourishing. I hope in the next couple of decades there will be more incentives from gov’t to fund biotech industry and also more education of the investors to encourage them to invest in biotech companies for bigger profit margins. For the time being, the 100,000 Turkish liras (that is less than $65,000) this ministry grants to start-up companies is a joke for bio-tech start-ups!

  4. Thank you for your detailed commentary. I appreciate your first-hand perspective. I was not referring to the caliber of Turkish scientists (a good metric for that might be citation counts). My metric was based on the PhD graduates in life sciences per capita (http://www.saworldview.com/article/4-education/workforce). Turkey’s levels are relatively low.

    You bring up another important point — the transition from academic to industry or private enterprise. My observations on a recent trip to Turkey echoed your sentiment that leaving academia is frowned up. I think most countries outside of the United States and the legacy pharma countries in Europe share this sentiment.

    My sense is that even in the countries where departing Academia is not frowned upon, established professors are still not the best candidates to start new companies. Given their expertise in working in an academic environment, and their established academic careers, they are too well-positioned in academia to leave it and have too much to lose by leaving academia. The best prospects for new venture formation are graduate students and post-docs who have yet to develop a career. They have less to lose, and are likely better-equipped to learn to thrive in a commercial environment. They may still involve their academic advisors as co-founders or as start-up board members, but I think the emphasis should be placed on helping young scientists start new ventures.

  5. This is a very insightful discussion and I wish to thank Dr. Friedman for initiating it. Having observed, and in some cases advised, many governments around the world drafting and implementing national biotechnology strategies, it appears to me that the most successful ones come from ideas exchanged through vibrant and healthy dialogue among government, industry, academia, and other relevant stakeholders. My conclusion is that building a biotech sector anywhere requires ongoing stakeholder engagement. Perhaps the new Ministry of Science, Industry & Technology would be open to the idea of creating a mechanism for local industry members, potential investors, scientists, and other groups to offer input and ideas on ways in which Turkey can leverage and strengthen its existing resources to drive innovation and growth in biotechnology?

  6. I am concerned that while the Government has many times expressed its aspirations for a thriving innovative biomedical sector, that this is not really possible in Turkey today unless there is a fundamental shift in how the Government relates to the innovative medicines sector and investors.

    Despite many years of effort from industry, it has been very difficult to establish a meaningful, consistent, forward-looking dialogue on policies. It’s not clear who in Government today has “ownership” for the innovative medicines sector in Turkey. As noted in the discussion, industry is hopeful that the new Ministry of Science, Industry and Trade (MSIT) offers a chance for new leadership, and can help coordinate among the various institutions that need to be involved. We all agree…Turkey has tremendous potential in this area.

    I was reminded of this recently, when I was in Massachusetts on vacation this summer. I hosted a private beach party for a number of Turkish academic researchers working in nanotechnology in the Boston area– the brain power is impressive. But back in Turkey, the innovative medicines sector is downsizing and stagnant, and has difficulty predicting its future. As a result, Turkey is only capturing an insignificant fraction of the global investment flow in the sector. Maybe now, following the national elections and establishment of the new MSIT, we can work with the Government on new pro investment, pro innovation policies to enable Turkey to achieve its full potential.

    There are reasons for optimism. As just one small signal, for the first time ever, a delegation of Turkish Government officials from Health, Industry and Trade, and ISPAT attended BIO 2011, and they have also read the Scientific American World View Scorecard. I believe that there may be an important realization that if Turkey is to be globally competitive in this sector, it needs to work in partnership with the innovative medicines sector to ensure that there is more predictability and a strong policy foundation to power investment and innovation.

  7. If only I could be so optimistic about the future of Turkish Biotech Industry as a young entrepreneur having a biotech company thanks to competitions and grants given by the ministry!
    The name of the ministry changed, yes, but it is the same old ministry (except that it is split into two – the other one is the Ministry of Customs and Trade) The people are same, the policies are same… (Who knows, maybe it will change – one dies if hope dies)
    The problem is not that the grants given are not much (even though being insufficient for biotech companies, it is a step nonetheless; and the start-ups should collaborate, instead of trying to establish separate labs), it is that there is no mentoring mechanism afterwards. Give money to young, enthusiastic scientists who want to have their own company; then what?
    The need for strong IP protection is the point as Dr. Friedman pointed out, it is also essential to lead the entrepreneurs towards patentable and marketable products (instead of academic results with no commercialization opportunity). So, what should Turkey do to catch train? It should have educated people with a background in science and business (MBA, Law, anything would do), knowledge of the European/US/world market and a vision of what future might bring. This, according to me, is of extreme importance and must be realized as soon as possible, (if required, even foreign experts might be imported – until local ones will be educated)

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