Tromsø - the hotspot for cold biotech

The frigid waters off northern Norway provide the perfect environment for marine bio prospecting and biotechnology research of microorganisms, plant and animal cells. Among the recent developments have been the building of a new Barents BioCentre and the establishment of the new cluster BioTech North in Tromsø to help gather the biotech community together. It is all part of Tromsø’s goal to become an international centre for bio marine research and innovation.

The biotech and bio prospecting industry in the Troms area currently employs about 500 people within research and development and 400 in companies. The largest of these is ProBio, a producer of Omega-3 and pharmaceutical products. It is one of several biotech companies in Tromsø, such as Calanus, Marealis and Olivita, which develop health and nutritional products.

Another core competence among some of Tromsø’s biotech companies is within pharmaceutical and diagnostic. Biotech Pharmacon’s subsidiary Marine BioChemicals, for example, has had particular success with developing an enzyme from cod that is used in commercial HIV tests because it increases the specificity and sensitivity of the tests by controlling contamination.



Biotechnology makes use of microorganisms, plant and animal cells to produce medicines or for other technical use. Pictured here is Pagurus sp. (hermit crab). ©Robert A. Johansen, Marbank.



Barents BioCentre

These are just some of the biotech companies that are expected to possibly avail themselves of the new laboratory facilities at the Barents BioCentre (BBC) next year.

The BBC is a new joint infrastructure project with the University of Tromsø and the Norwegian Research Institute (Norut). The centre will be established in a new building in Tromsø Science Park by next year. It will include activities from the University of Tromsø, mainly the Norwegian Structural Biological Centre (NorStruct), Norut’s new department for industrial and medical biotechnology, and several biotech companies.

It will cost the Industrial Development Corporation of Norway an investment of NOK 160 million to build the 8,000 square metres addition to Tromsø Science Park, which will comprise mostly laboratories and some office space. Once completed, it will expand the science park to 26,000 square metres and add some 50-100 jobs to the 700 already there, according to Erling Sandsdalen, Norut Tromsø research director and pending BBC managing director.

The centre will benefit from its near proximity to Norway’s national marine biobank Marbank and analyse laboratory Marbio, which are located at Tromsø Science Park. In addition, Norrinova and TTO Nord – Technology Transfer Office will contribute to commercialising the results from the Barents BioCentre.

The main goal of the BBC is to develop the biotech industry in the region. It will serve as a meeting place for industry and academia and provide opportunities for developing new, innovative products and companies. It is expected that some 10-15 biotech companies will be associated with the BBC, meaning they can come and hire access to the labs and personnel for certain periods. It will be both a national and international resource open to any biotech company or institution.

“We have been working for several years to include international companies in our biotech (community),” said Sandsdalen. “We hope by establishing the BBC, it will be easier…by making it an interesting environment.”

“The benefit is for smaller companies that don’t have access to equipment and personnel,” he added. “Both the university and Norut will have personnel operating in the labs.”

Along with BBC’s members, there are several key players that will be important to developing a strong biotech cluster. These include the University Hospital in Tromsø, BioLab Prosess, Norwegian Institute of Food, Fisheries and Aquaculture Research (Nofima), Centre on Marine Bioactives and Drug Discovery (MabCent), Marbank, funding agencies, the regional forum for biotech and fisheries, and international and national networks.



Marine bio prospecting is purposeful and systematic exploration for constituent parts, bioactive compounds or genes in marine organisms. Pictured here is Pteraster militaris (echinoderm), a common starfish in world oceans.©Sten-R Birkely, Marbank.



BioTech North

In a separate recent development, the Tromsø Chamber of Commerce gave the industry a much-needed push by establishing the BioTech North cluster this March.

The idea for BioTech North started several years ago, when a number of biotech companies in the area felt the need to boost the value creation for the industry, according to Einar Kloosterman, BioTech North manager. The goal is to get more growth and recruit more people, companies and investors to the area.

“A number of companies were the initiators,” said Kloosterman. “They sat together in 2007 and concluded that after 30-40 years of bio tech they had good universities, research and development branch and companies, but it was not enough. The value creation had been less than expected. We want to create a better cluster so that is easy to identify what we are doing and create more value.”

BioTech North will work partly with helping organize workshops and seminars, such as the international conference on marine bio prospecting BioProsp. The next one will take place in Tromsø during February 23-25, 2011.

BioTech North will function as the promotional arm of the biotech industry, whereas BBC will be the physical gathering point. Kloosterman believes the success of the medical valley in the Øresund region of Sweden and Denmark and the Oslo Cancer Cluster are good examples of how the biotech companies can reap the benefits of working together.

It is estimated that some 25 biotech companies and organizations could be part of Tromsø’s biotech cluster. These would include those involved in bio prospecting, such as Marbio, Marbank and MabCent, a research-based innovation centre within the field of bioactive compounds and drug discovery based on bioactives from marine organisms.

“In the end, what we want to have is that companies here get more growth, recruit more people, get more companies to the area, and make it an interesting area to do more investments,” said Kloosterman.

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