YBhg Dato’ Dr Mohd Nazlee Kamal CEO of BiotechCorp
A key focal point of the Malaysian bioeconomy agenda lay emphasis on innovative bio-based businesses. To achieve this, industry-academia alliances is a key component, as well as growing effort towards developing bioentrepreneurs and enhancing the technology-commercialisation process.
Supporting aspiring entrepreneurs in many ways possible, incubators are an integral component for driving innovation in economic development programmes. From the economic perspective, business incubators function in creating employment opportunities in the local economy, and do so by commercialising ideas and technologies.
These are organisations which are geared toward speeding up the growth and success of start-ups and early stage companies by providing mentorship, investor introduction and infrastructure support. Incubators are often a good path to source capital from angel investors, governments, and other financiers. Depending on the local needs, some are located in an actual physical space meant to foster networking among entrepreneurs and their coaches while others may operate on a virtual basis. Other core function focuses on reducing new venture risk by lowering overhead costs of R&D and product launch.
In Malaysia, since the late 1990s, business and technology incubation has been actively promoted by national and state agencies. Incubator ownership varies in the country, and the more notable industry-centric ones are the MSC Central Incubator in Cyberjaya, Technology Park Malaysia, Kulim Hi-tech Industrial Park or UPM-MTDC Technology Incubation Centre. For university incubators, we have University of Malaya Centre of Innovation and Commercialization (UMCIC), Centre for Collaborative Innovation in UKM, Putra Science Park in UPM, UTM Innovation and Commercialisation Centre and Sains@USM.
According to the National Incubator Network Association, it is estimated that there are 106 incubators in Malaysia (2011). Despite this number, only few companies under incubation have achieved global commercial success to date. Among the many challenges most commonly faced by incubators in Malaysia is in having an integrated and comprehensive strategy to grow sustainable business enterprises. Malaysia is also still lacking in terms of resources to support enhanced services, which include facilities management, business advisory and regulatory services, as well as commercialisation acceleration strategies to innovators. To top it off, a limited number of qualified personnel in entrepreneurial management leadership is another weakness factor that lies in many local incubators that gets in their way to monetise technologies. Majority start-ups in Malaysia may have good technology but with lack of proper support and facilitation, they may not be able to translate it into good money, and that is always a challenge to our young entrepreneurs.
Take the United States (US) for example, there are approximately 1,250 business incubators in the US alone in 2014, including about 120 with life sciences focus, according to the National Business Incubation Association (NBIA). One of the leading life sciences incubators in the US is The California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), which was founded in 2000. QB3 launched its first incubator at the University of California, the QB3 Garage, in 2006, and a similar effort at Berkeley in 2010. Currently QB3 link more than 220 laboratories at University of California Berkeley, University of California Santa Cruz, and University of California San Francisco to support high-level basic research and training. Through commercialisation, QB3 converts university research into products and services that can benefit society. Essentially, QB3 provides an early support platform for bioentrepreneurs.
Perhaps more programmes could be modelled after the QB3 model. For instance, QB3, through its “Startup in A Box” system, has launched over 300 bio-based companies within three years through mentorship and seed funding. The “QB3 – Startup in a Box” programme was created to equip entrepreneurs with the tools they need to find and grow successful companies. The services an incubator can offer would include pro bono services or even at a subsidised/ reduced rate, to provide access to legal, financial and other services such as providing guides to small business grant application to help incorporate or to support local bio-based companies. Applying this to our local incubators and BioNexus companies, especially SMEs, the support will come by in the form of additional benefits that will help lessen the financial burden.
BiotechCorp is currently collaborating with QB3 to link the QB3 ecosystem into Malaysian scenario. The collaboration is aimed at creating a more robust bio-based incubation ecosystem in the country. The focus in Malaysia now is to conduct programmes between QB3 and our local universities with the aim to get these local incubators to churn out more biotech companies. The whole idea is about entrepreneurship. Personnel from QB3 will be mentoring our local incubators. I would say if you have about 20 companies, maybe five will succeed, therefore we need to build a huge funnel, to create more successful companies. With the support extended through Biotechcorp-QB3 partnership, life could be a lot easier for aspiring bioentrepreneur – as it should be, in terms of entrepreneurial development, facilitating home-grown start-ups, and to promote existing BioNexus companies growth from local to global companies status.
Having mentioned the need for developing local incubator managers, the just recently concluded “QB3 Train the Trainer Programme” organised by BiotechCorp-QB3 focuses on “Customer-Driven Technology Commercialisation” component. Participants were mainly incubator managers and technology transfer personnel from many major universities and public institutions including Universiti Malaya, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, Universiti Putra Malaysia, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, Universiti Malaysia Pahang, Universiti Malaysia Terengganu, Universiti Malaysia Perlis and International Islamic University Malaysia. Graduates undergo mentoring, to learn and adopt best practices from QB3 trainers themselves, specifically on identifying a clear focus area for early stage start-ups. Upon successful completion of the programme, the next immediate focus lay emphasis on graduates to apply the learned skills and to co-develop coaching model that would be translated to training programmes by conducting workshop and train other new bioentrepreneurs inside Malaysia. This QB3 training methodology is unique by its own and is currently the only offering in the country for entrepreneurship and business incubation management programmes catering towards the bio-based sector. Overall, this is one efficient way for transferring knowledge from leading global experts in the area of bio-based commercialisation to our local talent pool.
Allow me to further elaborate. In order to support the expansion of bioeconomy, we need to connect the economy to university research, and economic expansion itself is highly related to manufacturing. To translate innovative discoveries and ideas from research into manufacturing, we need start-ups. According to the QB3 model, start-up companies will have at least four major needs to build strong industry alliances; a proof of concept, having legal support, also space and funding availability. BiotechCorp’s association with QB3 further provides an ideal platform to address these four factors that will further enhance Malaysia’s bio-based start-up ecosystem to be on par with global standards.
This strategic approach addresses gaps faced by many local incubators, by providing start-up facilities, and help guide entrepreneurs through the new-business life-cycle, from launch through graduation from the incubator. The organisation goal is to fill the gaps currently faced by entrepreneurs by having incubators that provide business mentoring, trade networks for access to markets and other necessary resources, and to serve as a source of technical and specialized knowledge for the bio-based sector. A unique incubator training curriculum for developing incubator managers, covering both the “art and science of incubator management” and best practices in the industry is also underway.
We are hoping to increase the number of BioNexus status companies from 261 today to 500 by the year 2020. Incubators are seen as a relevant strategy at boosting growth and a nucleus for start-up development. These industry players will have amongst others, shared space and facility within a network of institutions, greater access to local talent, stronger interaction with potential partners including access to market and clientele base. Put it in other way, an incubator could also be helping bioentrepreneurs to cut losses as well, sooner rather than later if the idea is not going to make it to the market, given that part of the incubator function is to “separate the wheat from the chaff” early on, which saves a lot of resources.