Issue Date: May 4, 2009
Saturday, March 14, 2009
I arrived in Johannesburg late last night and am letting my first day of a three-week stint in South Africa sink in. This trip is intended to help me get a handle on the biotech industry in South Africa, but right now I am simply trying to get a handle on my immediate surroundings. With the high security gates topped with electric fencing snaking through its residential areas, Jo-burg is a particularly disorienting city for a Brooklyn girl with a bad sense of direction. At home, I walk pretty much everywhere—not an option here—and my usual strategy of using landmarks as my guide doesn't work in this walled city. As I am taken around by a college friend who has been working as a foreign correspondent in South Africa for nearly five years, I simply can't get my bearings. A Jo-burg native explains to me that public space is not valued in this city—people hang out at malls on the weekend, not in parks. Okay, then. My disorientation isn't helped by the many security tips people are giving me: Only carry as much money as you need; don't put your laptop in a bag that looks like there's a laptop in it; don't hold your purse in your lap while on the road. At one point, I notice a sign alerting drivers to be watching for carjackers at that intersection. Before arriving, I was perhaps a little blasé about the crime rate in this city (it's high). I am not anymore.
Monday, March 16, 2009
It's my first day in Cape Town, and immediately upon arrival, I sense a difference: open space. The city is insanely beautiful, with ocean meeting metropolis backing into mountains. And what mountains they are: I got my first glimpse of Table Mountain from the window of the cab from the airport and was overwhelmed.
I am in Cape Town to sit in on business workshops being put on by a group from Emory University. I met the main organizers, Steve Sencer, the university's deputy general council, and chemistry professor Dennis Liotta, last summer, when I went to Atlanta to hear about their collaboration with the South African government to help build biotech capacity—both human and bricks-and-mortar—here. I walked into the conference center late and struggled to find a seat.
Sencer told me they were particularly excited about the packed room because half the attendees had come from the University of West Cape, a school that has historically been disadvantaged, a legacy of apartheid. Apparently it was a different crowd from what they saw at last year's workshops, which had attracted older entrepreneurs, many with fairly focused ideas for a business plan. Many of the faces in today's crowd are young, female, and black or South Asian.
The sessions go over the basics—and I mean basics—of operating a business. The attendees are keen to drill into the nuances of intellectual property and have some valid questions, such as "Why do you need IP anyway?" There is a lengthy diversion as they try to grasp the concept of "dilution," with Sencer and Omar Amirana, a venture capitalist from Oxford Biosciences, going back and forth to try to explain the concept. As a business reporter, I'm a bit embarrassed to confess that I learned a thing or two.
There are also some topics covered that seem, well, obvious. Like a section on defining the different models of businesses. At first I take this as a sign of how behind this country is in terms of its business acumen. Then I remember how young many of the audience members are—just in master's programs—and realize that at that stage in life, I not only didn't know what a business plan was, I didn't even consider that I should know what a business plan was. That said, it does give me pause that these are the likely entrants for the business plan competition-it's hard not to wonder how ready these folks are for the eat-or-be-eaten world of start-up companies.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
Today, we headed to the University of Cape Town to meet Kelly Chibale, a medicinal chemist who Liotta thinks is going to be a star scientist here. Nestled against Table Mountain, the campus is as picturesque as any Ivy League school.
Chibale is a genial host and gives us a presentation of his work—primarily describing his efforts to start up a medicinal chemistry competency center at UCT. I am struck by how many different collaborative agreements he's assembled. Some are with nongovernmental organizations such as Medicines for Malaria Ventures, others with big pharma. All, unfortunately, have a limited life span. It seems clear that a major challenge is follow-through—trying to establish a culture of drug discovery within academia is hard when the funding on a project will, after a year or two or three, run out. I'm starting to get the sense from Chibale and others I've met that broader, more sustainable collaborations are needed if this whole biotech industry thing is going to work.
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
We traveled back from Cape Town to Johannesburg today. Here's a shot of our ragtag crew assembled at the airport.
Thursday, March 19, 2009
I spent the day at the Hilton in Sandton, a business-oriented part of Johannesburg. Today was all about iThemba Pharmaceuticals, a contract research firm started by Liotta and several other researchers. There was a drug discovery symposium and poster session, followed by the official launch of the business.
At least 100 people showed up for the symposium, with a good mix of students, academics, scientists working in government labs, and representatives from government. The presentations focused on specific examples of drug discovery projects, and the speaker list included professors from the University of Witswatersrand, Rhodes University, ETH Zurich, and, of course Emory. Later, I learned from a scientist at CSIR, the government-owned research organization, how rare it is for chemists from different South African institutions to be sitting in the same room, hearing about their contemporaries' research. I've always had the impression that collegiality and networking are hallmarks of the annual ACS meetings, so it's a pretty bizarre notion that such a small community of scientists is not more closely aligned. This culture of research in isolation is one that many people I talk to this week would like to see change.
Sunday, March 22, 2009
Today, I visited the apartheid museum, which is probably the most effective and powerful museum I've ever been to. I had already heard that it would be a moving experience—everyone here cautions to be sure to leave aside two or three hours to get through it. Earlier in the week, I had a bit of a spoiler from Andrew Kanicki from the National Research Foundation, who told me there were separate entrances for "whites" and "non-whites." Not only was it disarming to walk through a "whites only" entrance, but I was separated by bars from my companion long enough to feel true discomfort and disorientation. It is a painful experience. Kanicki had told me about a friend from the Caribbean who had broken down at the entrance and couldn't make it into the museum. Walking through the exhibits, and later chatting about it with my taxi driver, who while originally from Zimbabwe has lived in South Africa for over a decade, I am reminded of how close that time is. He told me how, growing up, he could have been beaten or jailed simply for setting foot in the wrong neighborhood, even for simply saying hello to me. I am here trying to write about starting up an industry, yet there is a complexity to my environment that needs to be considered along every step. This is a place where the wounds of apartheid are still fresh, change seems to happen daily. With a young government, the country is still trying to figure itself out. I am feeling overwhelmed by the need to get the story right.
Tuesday, March 24, 2009
I spent the day with Chris Parkinson, the head of drug discovery at CSIR, the government-sponsored research organization. I got to his labs in Modderfontein, a suburb of Johannesburg, early, and we quickly hopped into his bright blue truck to head to CSIR's main facility in Pretoria, where all the drug discovery activities will soon be consolidated. When we arrived at CSIR's campus in Pretoria (which is beautiful, by the way) Chris introduced me to a host of scientists who contribute to drug discovery efforts here. Along the way I happily ran into Malefa Tselanyane, whom I met last summer while she was a fellow at Emory. She's working in the formal bioassay group that was set up just four months ago. When I catch her in the lab, she is setting up a malaria culture, and she asks me if I want to go give some blood. Everyone working in the lab offers their own veins in order to have a medium for the malaria parasite to grow in. The joke around the labs is that the parasites like the boss's blood best.
Chris took me back to CSIR's Modderfontein site, and I got a quick tour of the labs and was able to pop in and see iThemba's newly opened space. Before I comment on the state of the facilities, I should note that my usual visits are at U.S.-based big biotech companies, or even tiny start-ups that tend to be in sparkling new incubators or innovation centers. Here, things are admittedly not as sparkling. The labs are in a series of buildings that look like former Army barracks, and there is a 1970s vibe to the décor, both in the offices and in the labs themselves. But CSIR's equipment is up to snuff—state-of-the art molecular modeling capabilities, two NMRs (and a still-in-the box 600-MHz NMR in Pretoria), along with a host of other instruments you'd find in any other modern lab. Often when Parkinson shows me a swanky instrument, he proudly notes, "Only one of these in South Africa." That statement is almost always quickly followed up with, "Well, only one of these on the continent." It's a comment I hear a lot, and it only underscores the pressure for South African science to succeed.
Thursday, March 26, 2009
I am back in Cape Town to finish some interviews and, finally, get some R&R. On my cab ride from the airport yesterday, I got the same spiel from my driver as I'd gotten from a different driver the week before: There's the township, there's Lion's head, there's the hospital where the first heart transplant was performed. This time, that last one gave me pause. I'm struck that the medical care here is so advanced ("medical tourism" has hit South Africa—you can fly over, get a face lift, and recover at a luxurious lodge on the edge of Kruger National Park), and yet the scientific resources feeding into that system are so limited. Both ends of the chain exist—solid basic science on one end and strong clinical-trial infrastructure plus good doctors on the other. How long will it take to build the bridge between those?
Saturday, March 28, 2009
I'm officially signing off for a much-needed break. I'll be spending some time with these fellas.
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society