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South Africa has begun to put into effect an ambitious new strategy to boost biotechnology research with commercial potential.

Earlier this week the first of three Biotechnology Regional Innovation Centres was launched in Johannesburg. The centres are central to a national biotechnology strategy that was adopted last year, and are intended to act as regional investment vehicles for biotechnology ventures.

The centres will receive a total of R400 million (US$50 million) over the next three years, a significant proportion of the Science and Technology Department's research budget.

The Johannesburg centre, called Biopad, has been awarded R135 million, and will act as a nucleus for biotechnology research in animal health, industry, mining and the environment. It is planned that Biopad will eventually generate funds from spin-off companies and attract enough capital from the private sector to become self-financing within three years.

Biopad will fund 25 different biotechnology projects, ranging from an initiative to extract the medicinal components of Rooibos tea, to attempts to develop affordable and effective vaccines for livestock sicknesses such as heartwater disease, an acute tick-borne disease of domestic and wild ruminants.

Biopad has also earmarked R6 million for a biotechnology "incubator" scheme will support fledgling biotechnology companies. This is one of six established around the country under the Trade and Industry Department's Godisa programme.

The other two centres — the Cape Biotechnology Initiative in Cape Town and EcoBio in Durban — are expected to open within the next few months. They are likely to focus on human health and industrial bioprocessing.

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