BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Halfway through its eight-year strategy to promote the development of European biotechnology, the European Union said it is hopeful of success for its plan to see Europe assume world leadership.

But senior officials admitted, as they presented their mid-term report, that performance is still patchy. The biotechnology industry in the EU "merits more public support," it said. The EU analysis recognizes that despite successful European biotech start-ups, companies tend to grow slowly and depend on external finance for their research and development. Sufficient amounts of risk capital are often difficult to raise, and the European patent system makes it expensive to file and defend patents, especially for smaller firms.

The report underlined the need for more focus on innovation, research and market development. It also urged renewed debate with society on ethical issues raised by biotechnology. At the same time, it championed the potential of biotechnology "in facing challenges such as the perils of oil dependence, global warming, food security and population health," said European Commissioner Janez Potoènik, who is responsible for research and development.

European Commission Vice President Günter Verheugen, who is responsible for industry policy, said, "Biotechnology is an important means to promote growth, jobs and competitiveness in the EU. The use of biotechnology is however not without controversy and the enhanced use of biotechnology needs to be accompanied by a broad societal debate about the potential risks and benefits of biotechnology, including its ethical dimension."

The plan has been revised in the light of experience, and key points of the re-focus include setting up new public-private partnerships to mobilize research funding, exploring initiatives for eco-efficient bio-based products, developing better systems for licensing genetic resources and encouraging plant science in energy and environment applications, in particular to replace of chemical processes and fossil fuels.

The report noted that the European-dedicated biotechnology industry directly employs 96,500 people, mostly in smaller firms, with employment in industries that use biotechnology products reaching as high as 2.5 million.

Research staff account for 44 percent of industry employment, and in 2004 spent €7.6 billion (US$10 billion) by the 2,163 dedicated biotechnology companies in the EU, and with 34.8 percent of biotechnology patents filed at the European Patent Office in 2002-2004.

Johan Vanhemelrijck, secretary general of the industry association EuropaBio, greeted the report with an expression of regret that EU member states were not backing the strategy. Five years since the first EU strategy for biotechnology, the spirit of the biotech patents directive is not respected in all member states, some countries are still not accepting approved and safe plant biotech products and are denying choice to farmers by refusing to condemn state-imposed bans on biotech crops, he noted.

"Member states must take their responsibilities to implement the biotech strategy seriously, otherwise [the] mid-term review will not generate the bio-economy, and meanwhile, the U.S., China and the rest of the world will run ahead of Europe," Vanhemelrijck said.

Implementing the strategy in a coherent and timely manner "will stimulate entrepreneurship and good innovation. It will take the science out of the labs and bring it to society, build the bio-economy and help grow companies, jobs and solutions to our own unmet needs be they medical, agricultural, industrial, environmental," he added.