Marine biotech – a view from the conference season

The conference season is starting to wind down. Over the past 2 months I have been to BioSpain, case the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology (EFIB), generic and Biomarine, sick and next week I will be at Natural Products Biotechnology.

It would difficult to write an interesting blog that sums up all of the partnering meetings, networking events, and conference sessions, but all of this has made me ask again –  ‘What is marine biotechnology?’

My first blog, in January 2013, was on the same subject. What has changed in the last 2 years?


The market doesn’t care

This has not changed – the market does not care where the product comes from.

At Biospain, which is a pharma oriented conference, I shared the platform with Pharmamar, AlgaPlus and Prof Ana Gago-Martinez from Vigo University for the session entitled “A quick emersion in marine biotech business”. Pharmamar is a company that has invested USD 550 M in drug discovery and development, with a large part of this spent on clinical trials.  They are an oncology business with one drug (Yondelis) approved for two indications and three other drugs in their pipeline. AlgaPlus are a recent start-up seaweed business, developing new approaches to high quality seaweed cultivation –  one to watch for the future.

At EFIB, which is Europe’s leading annual industrial biotech business conference, it was striking that there were very few ‘marine biotech’ business present. The industrial biotech sector is doing exciting things to create sustainable bio-based production of a wide range of chemicals to replace fossil fuel based production. There is no doubt that marine biomass can play a part in this sector, but it is a long way behind terrestrial sources of biomass. Parts of the industry are interested by algae, but Europe lags behind the rest of the world in terms of both technology and scale of development.

My take home message from these meetings:  for the pharma and industrial biotech sector the source of product innovation remains unimportant. They both look for novel solutions to deal with the problems they address. Talking to many people in these industries, they consider marine biotech as difficult and unproven.


The market wants innovation

I attended Biomarine for the first time, meeting many old friends and making many new ones. I was fortunate to contribute to a roundtable discussion on Nutraceuticals, which was livecast on BiomarineTV.

The conference covered established sectors such as aquaculture and fisheries by products (now called ‘rest raw materials’ by some), the macroalgae sector where new products are set to emerge, and emerging sectors such as microalgae. Although there was a shortage of large companies present, the diversity of organisations developing innovative marine biotechnologies was exciting. Very many of these organisations are non-commercial academic or not-for profit research institutions seeking to transfer technology to the commercial sector. The majority of businesses present were early stage SME’s trying to get new technologies to market.

There is a lot excitement around algae at the moment. The potential exists for Europe to emerge as good location for cultivation of macroalgae and commercialisation of innovative products from macroalgae – a clear message at both Biomarine and EFIB. Microalgae also offers potential for innovation, but so far success has been limited to niche high value nutraceutical and cosmeceutical products. Thinking back to EFIB, I think the growth of microalgae industry will remain niche for quite some time – there are fundamental productivity issues which have to be solved before microalgae is suitable for bulk products.

The take home message from Biomarine: marine biotech offers innovative solutions to a wide range of problems faced by many market sectors. However, this sector is still in its infancy and needs to learn fast from other biotech sectors to accelerate commercialisation.


What is marine biotech? – the source of future innovation