We call ourselves a marine biotechnology company, we are based at the European Centre for Marine Biotechnology (www.ecmb.org/) and our new blog is about marine biotechnology, but it’s a name that we don’t like.
Marine biotech, or blue biotech as it is known, is unique among all the colours of biotech, because it is defined by its source not by its market. The other biotech’s; red biotech is medical, white biotech is industrial, green biotech is agricultural, are all defined by the application or market. For blue biotech there is no real ‘marine’ application, the applications are covered by the other biotechs, and even aquaculture is really category of green biotech.
Why does it matter? What’s in a name?
Biotechnology is ‘the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make useful products, or “any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms or derivatives there of, to make or modify products or processes for specific use”’ (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biotechnology). So blue biotech should redefine itself and think about the application, the end use, the market. If we (the marine biotech community) fail to think in this way we may well fail to meet our potential to make a difference in the world, and we will remain an enthusiastic offshoot or marine biology.
Why does it matter? Are we different?
GlycoMar was setup to develop anti-inflammatory drugs, combining the founder’s interests in glycobiology and marine biology. So GlycoMar is a medical biotech company. Other examples include marine biotech companies developing products from marine microalgae, some of these are industrial biotechs (e.g. biofuels), some are medical biotechs (drugs and other therapeutics), and some are agricultural biotechs (e.g. aquaculture feed). Once the application or market is defined a lot of other things fall into place: the kind of science we need to do, how long it will take, how much money we need, route to market, business model, and the chance of success. All of this before we have done anything or spent any money. Marine biotech is no different to any other industry. If we don’t identify our market, we lack focus and will ultimately fail to make a difference.
Marine biotech is dead, long live marine biotech!
Is this the end of marine biotech? Not for GlycoMar, we still use the term for a couple of good reasons: it is convenient ‘brand’ or differentiator which is attractive to some (but not all) of our target market; it communicates some of what makes us unique; it is attractive to some investors / funders. There has been a lot of hype around blue biotech in Europe (part of their ‘Blue growth’ strategy, ec.europa.eu/commission_2010-2014/damanaki/headlines/press-releases/2012/09/20120913_en.htm,) and elsewhere. Money has been spent on consultancy and desk studies, which correctly identify the potential of blue biotech (for example ec.europa.eu/environment/greenweek2011/sites/default/files/3-6_Querellou.pdf). So, will we see marine biotech grow into a major industry in the next few decades? Yes, the developments that are happening now in industry (for examples biofuels) and in pre-market research are starting to deliver products which will make a difference. Will we call it marine / blue biotech once it is successful?