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BRICS Countries Look for Their Place in Biotechnology Market

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Over the past 20 years, the BRICS countries' contribution to biotechnology development has increased manyfold, but it may be too early to predict a change of global leaders in this field, according to HSE ISSEK researchers who examined biotechnology patenting in the BRICS countries and published their findings in Trends in Biotechnology.

Today, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa account for 25% of global biotechnology patents versus just 3% in 2000. To understand the current and future landscape of the biotechnology domain, ISSEK researchers Ekaterina Streltsova and Jonathan Linton analysed the BRICS countries’ patent activity between 1994 and 2014, based on data from the WIPO statistics and the Orbit commercial database.

China made the greatest breakthrough in biotech innovations: over the 20 year period, the flow of patent applications from China increased by nearly 130 times to stand at 91.2% of all patent applications from BRICS. Russia follows far behind with just a 25% increase in patenting over the same period, making up 5.1% of the BRICS countries’ patents.

Together, China and Russia generate more than 96% of all biotech patents coming from BRICS. Clearly targeting their domestic markets, both countries receive most of their biotechnology patents via national institutions. In contrast, South Africa and India have a global focus: inventors in South Africa have critically low trust in the domestic system of intellectual property protection, while Indian applicants pursue global commercial interests, with private companies taking the lead in this field.

The BRICS countries also vary in their thematic priorities in biotech: while India, Russia and South Africa tend to patent mainly healthcare, or 'red' biotechnology, food patents prevail in Brazil and China. 

Biotechnology patenting in the BRICS countries relies heavily on public funding. In Brazil and China, universities are particularly active in developing and patenting new biotechnologies. In India and South Africa, the local legislative frameworks cause many inventors to formally hand over their IP rights to the state, but outside such formalities, the key contributors to biotech patenting are universities in South Africa and pharmaceutical corporations (mainly generic manufacturers) in India. In Russia, key applicants for biotechnology patents are research institutions and centres, such as the Research Institute of Genetics and Industrial Microorganism Selection, the 'Vector' Research Centre of Virology and Biotechnology, the Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology Centre, the Shemyakin and Ovchinnikov Institute of Bioorganic Chemistry, and Lomonosov Moscow State University. 

Although the BRICS countries have the infrastructure and conditions in place for biotechnology development, their global competitiveness is limited. According to Streltsova, 'the number one reason is that the main players on domestic biotech markets are public sector institutions, such as research centres and universities. This can be a barrier to translating invention into marketable innovation since such institutions usually have less initiative and capacity than business corporations to commercialise their results'.

As long as the BRICS countries continue to focus mainly on domestic markets, they will have a hard time becoming global leaders in biotechnology, the researchers conclude. Yet the study identifies a number of organisations in these countries which are successful in patenting biotech innovations and have good prospects for future international cooperation.

May 04