Estonia Leads Way in Repatriation
Even though the Baltic state Estonia is a small country, Andres Metspalu, founder of the biotech company Asper Biotech Ltd. and of the Estonian Genome Project, believes that a small economy can be boosted much more easily compared to those in bigger countries. Indeed, the GDP has shown a remarkable growth rate of 5.9% in 2004. Estonia has found a niche of excellence - biotechnology - which has long traditions stemming from molecular biotechnology research initiated at Tartu University in the early sixties by Prof. Artur Lind, considered to be a founding father of genetic research. By now there are a number internationally renowned researchers in the field, and Estonia has been increasingly successful in repatriating many more. The country has launched a genome database aimed at comprising a large part of the Estonian population.
Unlike other economic sectors, biotechnology did not crash in Estonia after the Soviet Union collapsed. Renowned scientists founded the first companies in the early nineties - like Andres Metspalu (Asper Biotech Ltd.), biotechnology professor at Tartu University and president of the European Society of Human Genetics, and Prof. Mart Ustav (Quattromed Ltd.), Director of the Technology Institute of Tartu University, developer of an HIV vaccine based on gene vectors. Life science researchers have been among the most successful applicants in Estonia for European Commission (EC) grants. Estonian born applicants were also able to get some 20% of the Wellcome Trust grants - launched to support young researcher's repatriation to Central and Eastern European countries. The number of 10-12 per year surpasses that of other participating countries (Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic). Though the bio-
tech sector is maturing, it is still lacking a critical mass of managers with ability to lead business in the technology sector. Furthermore, the seed capital is not easily found as well as a nearly non-existent venture capital market. Heated discussions in the media and governmental bodies have been going on for two years concerning a publicly supported venture capital system for seed financing. So far no decision has been reached.
The Estonian Biotechnology Association (EBIO) counts some 25 biotech companies - the recently published European Biotechnology Industry Guide names 17 core companies (see p. 30). Most of them are younger than five years and have less than 10 employees. The biggest ones have 25-30 employees. Some 60% are active in the “red” biotech sector, and about one third in the sectors bioprocessing, functional food and feed, and agri-biotech. EBIO was founded two years ago and has 18 members both from industry and academia. Meeli Laane was recently elected as new managing director. EBIO's goals include encouraging research and facilitating commercialization. It also seeks to promote the establishment of competitive biotech companies, to elaborate a biotech strategy as well as to provide information for the public and the government. EBIO has been co-operating with some Nordic national bioindusty associations in the frame of the Baltic Bioindustry Group to pursue a tax support system for young technology companies. This initiative is strongly influenced by the French YIC programme.
Asper Biotech Ltd. uses its genotyping platform and portfolio of genetic tests to identify genetic components of human diseases. It has recently established a business unit Asper Ophthalmics, which is committed to delivering reliable DNA testing for retinal disorders. The R&D company Celecure Ltd. develops new anti-cancer drugs and diagnostic methods and works closely with Inbio OÜ, an affiliated biotech company that provides peptide and antibody services. Quattromed Ltd. was spun out from the University of Tartu in 1999. It provides medical diagnostics services and FIUO (for investigational use only) products of gene-expression analysis systems. After establishing protein production facilities, Quattromed plans to move into drug discovery and development in two to four years. Among Estonia's leading research institutes are the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology, the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics, the Estonian Biocentre, and the Institute of Gene Technology at Tallinn Technical University.
Estonian Genome Project
The Estonian Genome Project (EGP), founded in 2001, aims at creating a database of health, genealogy and genome data that would comprise a large part of the Estonian population. So far some ten thousand tissue samples have been collected. EGP also participates in international R&D projects like the ScanBalt Clinical Research Network (a platform for a high quality pre-clinical and clinical research network among universities, hospitals and companies), and has been a partner in the international consortium P3G (Public Population Projects in Genomics). The aim of P3G is to co-ordinate and harmonize different population based biobanking initiatives globally.
EGP was launched as a private public partnership (PPP). Due to the radical changes in investment environment the PPP agreement with US-based EGeen Inc. was terminated in late 2004. The government is considering continuous financing of EGP from public sources. One possible alternative might be to open up the database for research through regional cooperation in the ScanBalt metaregion.
Regulations and Support
The Human Genes Research Act (2001) regulates the establishment and maintenance of a Gene Bank and the necessary genetic research, ensures the voluntariness of gene donation and the confidentiality of donors' identities, and protects persons from misuse of genetic data and from discrimination based on interpretation of their DNA and the genetic risks arising therefrom. Estonia adopted the Act of Deliberate Release of Genetically Modified Organisms into the environment in May 2004. The Act is harmonized with the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety which Estonia ratified in 2004. The main weakness in implementation however is the poor institutional and technical infrastructure on the subject.
The Estonian Genome Foundation seeks to promote the development of biotechnology through supporting research, organizing R&D and educational activities and events. The foundation also grants scholarships. Six of ten national centres of excellence of the national programme “Centres of Excellence of Estonian Science” are connected to biotechnology and biomedicine.
Enterprise Estonia is one of the largest national support institutions for entrepreneurship, providing financing tools, consultation, partnership opportunities and training. Enterprise Estonia has launched a three-year Euro1.4-million project to support biotech spin-off activities.
The Estonian Biotechnology Association is the founding member of the metaregion Scanbalt and has been actively promoting regional biotech cooperations. Board member Dr. Jaanus Pikani was elected as a vice-chairman of ScanBalt in last August.
The European Federation of Biotechnology (EFB) has selected Estonia to be a Regional Branch Office. This function is now carried by EBIO which is looking for ways to improve its administrative capacities to support the activities of EFB.