22.11.2016 - Natural Sciences Sector

An entrepreneur rewarded for revitalizing Jamaican research

© Photo courtesy of Bio-Tech Research and Development Institute. Dr Lowe holding his award, flanked by Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness and IDB president, Luis Alberto Moreno.

A Jamaican firm specializing in pharmaceutical and nutraceutical products derived from indigenous plants has taken home this year’s Local Innovator Award bestowed by the InterAmerican Development Bank. The Bio-Tech Research and Development Institute was founded in 2010 by Dr Henry Lowe and is profiled in the UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030, as an example of the emergence of private indigenous research companies in the Caribbean.

The report observes that ‘the biotech firm’s ‘main research focus is on isolating pure compounds for the development of candidates for the treatment of cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes and other chronic diseases’.

Dr Lowe was presented with his award by IDB president, Luis Alberto Moreno and Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness for his innovative use of the Jamaican Ball Moss, which shows promise as a potential treatment for cancers and as a neuroprotective agent for diseases like Parkinson’s.

The report recalls that, ‘in October 2014, Dr Lowe and his team published a paper in the European Journal of Medicinal Plants after discovering that proprietary extracts from the Jamaican variety of Guinea Hen Weed inhibited the survival of the HIV virus. Dr Lowe told the Jamaican Observer at the time that these findings, if confirmed, might also impact the treatment of other viral diseases, such as Chikungunya and Ebola. In late 2014, he attracted international attention when he launched a company (Medicanja) to research and exploit marijuana plant varieties for potentially profitable medical applications’.

‘The Bio-Tech R&D Institute Ltd employs about a dozen enthusiastic young PhD-holders and master’s graduates, who have been able to engage in effective collaboration with established laboratories locally and overseas’, explains the report. ‘The company has deepened its collaboration with the University of the West Indies (UWI), for instance, ‘where it is establishing a state-of-the-art R&D facility and lending its entrepreneurial skill to the commercialization of UWI’s suite of intellectual property’.

The UNESCO Science Report observes that ‘initially, the Bio-Tech R&D Institute Ltd received financial support from the Environmental Health Foundation, a not-for-profit company founded by Henry Lowe, but the firm now lives off income from sales of its own products, receiving no government funding… This success story shows that an entrepreneur with a vision can provide a country and a region with desperately needed R&D leadership, even in the absence of effective public policy’.

Dr Lowe’s acceptance speech at the IDB’s 19th Foromic conference in Jamaica on 26 October 2016 echoed this sentiment. Noting that he had invested more than US$6.5 million in developing nutraceutical and pharmaceutical products from Ball Moss, Dr Lowe appealed to the government and IDB to consider establishing a science and technology innovation fund.

The Jamaica Observer(1) quoted him as saying that ‘we have at least five patents that have been issued and another six coming out shortly in this work. So we are proud and happy. But guess what? No financial support… The entrepreneurship, as it stands here, needs some collaborative push between the commercial banks, the IDB and its agencies and the individual development banks in each country’.

Jamaica has both a Ministry of Science, Technology, Energy and Mining and a National Commission for Science and Technology. However, the country only devoted 0.06% of GDP to research and development (R&D) in 2002, the last year for which there are data. This corresponds to an investment of just US$3.30 per capita per year (in purchasing power parity dollars), according to the UNESCO Science Report.

Jamaica was one of several Caribbean countries which participated in the training workshop run by the UNESCO Institute for Statistics in Grenada in 2011 to help them respond to international data surveys of research and development. Despite this, Trinidad and Tobago was still the only country of the Caribbean Common Market (Caricom) providing data on R&D in 2014.

The UNESCO Science Report observes that ‘the current poor understanding of the Caribbean STI environment is compounded by weaknesses in institutional research capacity and the inadequate collection, analysis and storage of key data, including for performance indicators. The report suggests that Caribbean governments engage in a mapping exercise of their national innovation systems, since ‘without a rigorous understanding of the status and potential of STI in their countries, Caribbean governments will be advancing in a haze’.

One performance indicator that is readily available through the Thomson Reuters’ database measures the scientific output in the form of articles catalogued in international journals. According to this database, Jamaica produced just 42 publications per million inhabitants in 2014, compared to 1 430 per million in Grenada and 730 per million in St Kitts and Nevis. The world average is 176 per million. Whereas Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago had tied for first place among Caricom members in in 2005, with an output each of 136 papers, Jamaica has since slipped into third place behind Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago after experiencing a sharp drop in output from 178 to just 117 papers between 2012 and 2014.

One encouraging development is the creation, in 2005, of the National Innovation Awards for Science and Technology, which are administered by the Science Research Council, an institution dating back to 1960. Contestants compete for prize money of US$ 20 000 and the attention of investors, venture capital and opportunities for further product development by academic researchers and other interested parties.

The UNESCO Science Report notes other encouraging signs, such as Caricom’s development strategy for the region, the Strategic Plan for the Caribbean Community: 2015–2019. A central aim of the plan is to reinforce the Caribbean’s socio-economic, technological and environmental resilience. With the exception of Guyana, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago, which have significant hydrocarbon or mineral reserves, most states are small with too limited natural resources to support rapid economic development. They will thus need to look elsewhere for wealth creation. The two key enablers identified by the plan for improving the Caribbean’s resilience are a common foreign policy, in order to mobilize resources effectively, and R&D and innovation.

The plan complements the Caricom Sustainable Energy Roadmap and Strategy (2013), which fixes a target for the region of having 20% renewable energy sources by 2017, 28% by 2022 and 47% by 2027.

The Strategic Plan for the Caribbean Community should have a good chance of success, since it mirrors national aspirations. Jamaica’s own Vision 2030 (2009), for instance, accords central importance to STI in realizing its aspirations, which is why Vision 2030 is complemented by an STI Roadmap (2012).

The UNESCO Science Report concludes that ‘it is high time that the region embarked on a detailed STI policy mapping exercise, in order to get a clear picture of the current situation. Only then will countries be able to design evidence-based policies which propose credible strategies for raising investment in R&D, for instance’.

(1) Hines, Horace (2016) Lowe wins IDB Innovator Award. Jamaica Observer, 26 October.

Source: adapted from Ramkissoon, H. and Ishenkumba, K. (2015) Caricom. UNESCO Science Report: towards 2030.

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