The Biotechnology areas with the greatest impact in Portugal are pharmaceutical and industrial. Pharmaceutical Biotechnology is mainly linked to the development and sale of biopharmaceuticals, recombinant vaccines and diagnostic methods, which account for 10 billion Euros in sales in the EU, making up 0.25% of gross added value. Biotechnology can bring treatments for a broad range of illnesses, that include certain types of cancer, as well as introduce innovative vaccines and allow the rapid detection of pathogenic agents.
The adoption of Biotechnological processes in industry is linked to an increase in work productivity by 10 to 20%.
Industrial Biotechnology includes Biotechnology applications to different industries, such as textiles (e.g. textile finishing), pulp and paper, food (processing of dairy products, sugar and producing ingredients), plastics, chemicals and biofuels (essentially bio-ethanol). A significant part of this sector is the production of enzymes (used, for example, in detergents), which in Europe alone accounts for some 2 billion Euros in sales, making up 0.05% of the EU’s gross added value. In this sector, it is also estimated that the percentage of chemical products produced through Biotechnology will reach 20% over the next 5 years. Adoption of Biotechnological processes in Industry is linked to an increase in work productivity ranging from 10 to 20%, significantly reducing energy and water consumption and carbon dioxide emissions, in comparison with traditional chemical processes.
Because it is a highly innovative sector with a significant scientific base, its development in a country or region is determined by a series of factors linked to the existence of qualified human resources and research institutions. In addition, biotechnology’s business sector is known for having medium to high investment needs with regard to developing new products or processes, along with relatively long-term return times. As such, in addition to the aforementioned factors, development of the sector requires favourable investment conditions.
Portugal has invested significantly in terms of generating scientific knowledge in research projects and institutions, having been able to reach R&D indicators that place them amongst the best countries in Europe. These indicators cover not only scientific articles, but also patents and projects with an industrial application. Some facts illustrate this effort:
- Currently, 5 of the 25 existing member laboratories are dedicated to Biotechnology, accounting for some 28% of total human resources (more than 300 doctorates) and of the financing of the Member Laboratories;
- There are also 7 research centres recognized by the Fundação para a Ciência e a Tecnologia as being very good or excellent, which include another 140 persons with doctorates;
- The amount allocated to Biotechnology in financing scientific research projects has been greater than 10% in the past years;
- The percentage of publications in international biotechnology scientific journals compared with the total number of publications is slightly above the European average;
- The number of patents linked to biotechnology has increased exponentially, accounting for some 10% of all international patents submitted by Portuguese inventors, a percentage that is almost double than the European Union and OECD averages
In addition, the number of national Biotechnology companies has increased significantly over the past decade, with some integration of knowledge from research centres and from highly qualified human resources:
- Biotechnology companies directly employ 96,500 people in Europe. In Portugal, the sector directly employs some 700 people. In both cases, however, there is a significantly higher number of Biotechnology jobs in companies from other sectors;
- In Portugal, over 10% of human resources in biotechnology companies have doctorates and over 70% have bachelor’s or master’s degrees.
However, older domestic companies have had difficulties in continuing to grow sustainably, whether it is due to difficulty in getting financing, or due to lack of critical mass in corporate Biotechnology in Portugal. These difficulties were aggravated in the past years by the current crisis, which has significantly affected all economic sectors that use biotechnology.
As such, Portugal is currently facing a dilemma. There is no doubt that a significant effort has been made in the past twenty years in terms of public investment in R&D, resulting in a notable increase in the number of persons with doctorate degrees and in the number of scientific publications originating in Portugal, along with a clear improvement in infrastructures. This progress was particularly palpable in areas that are the foundation of biotechnology and life sciences. However, although biotechnology currently represents almost 10% of patents submitted by Portuguese inventors, the economic value of the sector will only be felt over a long period of time and not in the short run.
Biotechnology and the life sciences sector have gained a dynamic that is difficult to ignore, especially given the fusion that is underway between life sciences and technologies, and which obliges all countries and regions to invest in the sector, or otherwise face increasing their economic, energy, social and even political dependence on those who are doing this. This is the reason why almost all developed or developing countries have declared in various forms that the sector is a priority, namely countries like the United Kingdom, Malaysia, Spain, Brazil, Israel and the Scandinavian countries. Several of these countries also have governmental agencies or inter-ministerial bodies dedicated exclusively to the sector.