Biotechnology is heralded as one of the key growth drivers and sources of innovation in an era of knowledge-based economy. This science-based and knowledge-intensive industry has a great potential to improve our quality of life and business efficiency. Knowledge, processes, technologies and products generated from vigorous biotechnology research have demonstrated vast impacts on a wide range of industrial sectors, transforming ways of, for instance, new medicine development and genetic improvement of crops.
Biotechnology in Hong Kong
The biotechnology industry in Hong Kong is an emerging sector with steady growth. Like all other local industries that strive and succeed, the development of biotechnology industry in Hong Kong is not by design. It evolves gradually to the present shape as led by a matrix of factors including the territory’s research and technology prowess, market forces and source of capitals.
Today, it is estimated that Hong Kong has approximately 250 - 300 biotechnology-related companies, comprising of mainly healthcare-related companies with business on pharmaceuticals, medicinal or healthcare products of traditional Chinese medicine origin, and medical devices and diagnostics. Activities engaged by these companies generally include product research & development, manufacturing, marketing and sales. Amongst them, over 70 companies, some with substantial mainland China business background, are listed in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange and Growth Enterprise Market.
Because of Hong Kong’s strategic geographical location and the huge economic potential of the China market, there is a constant stream of overseas biotechnology companies interested in setting up regional headquarters or offices in Hong Kong to capitalize on the growth of the region.
Biotechnology R & D capabilities in Hong Kong
Excellence in scientific frontiers with continuous research breakthroughs remains to be a key determinant in fueling development of a competitive biotechnology industry. Hong Kong’s university research and education enjoy a good reputation and rank among the best in the Asia-Pacific region. Among the 9 tertiary institutions, 6 of them are engaged in various extent of biotechnology-related research and offer undergraduate courses and higher degree training on relevant subjects. According to a study conducted by the Hong Kong Science and Technology Park Corporation in 2004, Hong Kong’s combined basic biomedical research output and related human resources are largely internationally competitive. The total number of basic medical publications per year was doubled to about 700 between 1997 – 2002. It is estimated that Hong Kong universities produce about 250 biomedical publications of high impact factor per annum at present. In recent years, Hong Kong has also made a mark in its scientific contributions in international, large-scale genomic projects, and identification and characterization of emerging infectious diseases e.g. SARS and avian flu virus.
Hong Kong has two excellent medical schools rated among the top in the world in the field of clinical medicine by the ISI Essential Science Indicators. Both schools have extensive collaborations with multi-national pharmaceutical companies and experience in conducting clinical trials for the US new drug registration approval. The Hong Kong Eye Hospital, the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong are the first three institutions located outside Mainland China to gain approval from the China State Food and Drug Administration to carry out clinical trials in a number of disciplines for drug registration purpose in China.
A sound technological infrastructure is essential for innovation and technology enterprises to flourish. In supporting the development of a biotechnology cluster, a Bio-informatics Centre and two purpose-built buildings with shared equipment facilities are now in operation in the Hong Kong Science Park to provide one-stop state-of-the art infrastructures for the R & D activities of biotechnology companies. Developed land can also be made available at cost to both manufacturing and services companies in three industrial estates.
Research Funding for Biotechnology
The Innovation and Technology Fund (ITF) , throughout the years, has been providing financial support to the establishment of a variety of state-of-the-art biotechnology facilities and applied R&D projects that contribute to innovation and technology upgrading in biotechnology industry. Since the inception of ITF in November 1999, a total of 238 biotechnology-related projects, amounted to HK$509.6 million, are approved. Projects funded cover a wide array of research areas, ranging from bioinformatics, molecular diagnostics, drug/therapeutic discovery and development, modernization of traditional Chinese medicine, to biopharmaceutical manufacturing.
Another substantial source of research funding for academic research in local institutions is the General Research Fund (GRF) of the Research Grant Council (RGC) . In GRF 2012-2013 exercise, the RGC has awarded HK$147.6 million to 160 biology and medicine related research projects.
To support local research institutions to build upon their existing strengths in maintaining and enhancing Hong Kong's pivotal position in the overall development of China and the Pacific Rim, the University Grant Council launched the Areas of Excellence (AoE) scheme in 1998. A total of HK$906 million was allocated in the past five rounds to 15 AoE projects each for a period of five - eight years. Over half of these projects are in biotechnology-related areas of plant and fungal biotechnology, molecular neuroscience, drug discovery and synthesis, cancer research, Chinese medicine, developmental genomics and skeletal research, and circulating fetal nucleic acids research.
In view of the SARS epidemic in 2003, the Hong Kong government has also set up the Research Fund for the Control of Infectious Diseases (RFCID) with a capital amount of $450 million to encourage, facilitate and support research on the prevention, treatment and control of infectious diseases in Hong Kong, in particular emerging diseases such as SARS.