Biotechnology bridging science and technology gap

Minister of Small Business Development Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams.

The BioCiti digital hub was officially launched by Minister of Small Business Development Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams, at a small ceremony with industry role players last week.

The biotech incubator in Woodstock was created in 2019 and installed its first lab in 2020. The official launch was, however, postponed due to Covid-19.

BioCiTi provides entrepreneurs with a platform where science, business and investment can come together. The incubation centre and hub provide tailor-made enterprise development services to innovative start-ups across various sectors by providing facilities for business activities, information, skills and training.

Speaking at the launch, cluster head Dheepak Maharajh said its open lab and co-working space was the first on the continent.

“Biotech is the future, not only in South Africa but globally and that is where job creation is going to come from. South Africa has huge potential from biodiversity and we want to harness those unique potentials to grow businesses,” he said.

A key focus area of BioCiTi is to help produce future industries in South Africa and Africa by creating a bridge between research and the commercialisation of ideas based on the application of technology to broad biological sciences. It also aims to provide a cost-effective entry point for small businesses to access lab space, incubation, mentorship and support.

Keynote speaker, Ms Ndabeni-Abrahams, said her department was excited to finally launch the space, which she said would play a big role in bridging the gap between science and technology and job creation.

Her department has to date invested R11 million in this project.

BioCiTi is one of the 110 incubators and hubs supported by the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda), Ecosystem Development for Small Enterprise (EDSE) Programme and the Delegation of the European Union to South Africa (EU in SA).

BioCiTi’s laboratory.

Ms Ndabeni-Abrahams said their mandate from the National Development Plan was to create nine of the 11 million jobs envisioned by 2030 but said there were currently 13 million unemployed people in South Africa.

“We realised that we needed to invest in the talent and ideation phase and not just look for the finished product. When we invest in the ideation phase we are able to create more opportunities and ensure that businesses have access to the market and funding. But for this to happen we need incubation centres where talent can be nurtured and people have access to infrastructure,” she said.

To date, BioCiTi has been involved in several projects and just last week one of its incubators Mzansi Meat Company produced its first lab-grown beef burger (“Cape Town gets lab-grown beef burger”, Tatler, April 21).

Other interesting projects included De Novo dairy where they’re developing alternative milk protein; Afrobodies who are producing bespoke Alpaca antibodies; African secrets who use indigenous South African plant biodiversity to produce cosmetics and Algae Labs who are expressing canabanoids from cannabis plants in recombinant micro-algae.

Mr Maharajh said they relied on a grant funding model to enable operations and the provision of services to the various businesses they support. SEDA is currently BioCiTi’s largest funder.

“We do generate some additional income from rental access to our shared lab and through contract projects. However, for us to expand progammes we require further investment from the public and private sector,” he said.