In Portugal, the unemployment rate has reached a record level of 17.7 percent, the highest in the European Union after Greece (26.4%) and Spain (26.3%), compared to an EU average of 10.9%. 952,000 people are unemployed, out of a total population of 10,5 million inhabitants.
For 2013, the center-right government led by Pedro Passos Coelho provides additional anti-crisis measures to comply with the financial assistance program of the Troika (EU, ECB, IMF), whose inspectors have already been twice in Lisbon to control the progress of the accounts. Among the measures there is the reduction of approximately 5 percent of public employees (30,000 of 700,000).
The bioeconomy could also be for Portugal an important way out of the crisis. We speak with Simão Soares, Ceo of the young company SilicoLife, one of several companies involved in the fields of bioeconomy created in Portugal in recent years, specialized in bioinformatics.
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Mister Soares, does it exist in Portugal, or is on the political agenda, a national plan for the bioeconomy?
The Portuguese bioeconomy is still in an early stage of development, a significant part of the first Portuguese biotech ventures started not more than 15 years ago. These initial try-outs are now achieving a state where they can influence the political agenda with their experience from their successes and failures in building bio-based businesses.
Although Portugal does not have a formal national plan for the bioeconomy, Portugal has significantly invested in what is now an excellent and competitive scientific and human resource base. It can thus play a very interesting role in the European bioeconomy, in combination with the experience and capital from traditional sectors (e.g. Portugal hosts a world-class pulp and paper sector) that can benefit their business with the immense opportunities of the industrial biotechnology.
The Bioindustry was identified recently by the AICEP (the Portuguese trade & investment agency) as one of the sixteen key sectors to improve the Portuguese economy. SilicoLife is involved in the definition of a national strategy by participating in the board of the Portuguese Bioindustries Association (P-Bio).
What do you think are the strengths of the Portuguese bioeconomy?
The coming years can be the start of a new stage of development for the bioeconomy in Portugal based on the critical mass of the biotech sector, which is now much more consolidated, to create stronger ventures and also reorganize the current ones.
Portugal in the past decades did a strong investment in the training of highly educated human resources changing radically the science landscape in Portugal, with life sciences and biology on the top of it. Further, the emergence of the first biobusinesses in the last decade has brought to the ecosystem people with experience in technology transfer and in running biotech startups targeted to the global market. Now it is time to have the industry benefiting from these resources bringing the science from the university to the market. This is an opportunity to create new companies based in top science and also to redefine the more traditional sectors aiming to offer services and products to a global market.
Further, Portugal has a very well developed forestry sector, comprising world-leading companies in some of its segments, which know how to effectively manage their biomass raw material and operate large scale industrial facilities upon or around which the biorefineries of the future can be built. In addition to that, Portugal has a tremendous potential in the still untapped biodiversity of its impressive maritime area, which only know is starting being exploited.
Your company is a research start-up. What do you do exactly?
SilicoLife creates advanced computational biology solutions for leading chemical, materials and synthetic biology companies. SilicoLife develops state-of-the-art optimization algorithms and uses proprietary computational and modeling tools to accelerate the design of microbial strains.
We design new microbes, based on metabolic engineering and synthetic biology approaches, helping our clients and partners to design optimized microbial strains for the cost-effective production of specific target compounds such as biofuels, chemicals, food ingredients or biopolymers.
In simple terms, we look to the microbe cell as factory converting feedstock to desired chemical products. SilicoLife develops genome-scale models that act as a map of all chemical reactions within the cell and we combine those maps with our proprietary and state-of-the-art algorithms in a similar way to a GPS, but in this case to find the most efficient pathways between raw-material and end-product, enabling our clients to streamline the strain design process and explore non-intuitive pathway modifications.
In addition to our work in long-term partnerships with clients, we are also carrying out internal R&D efforts in the design of optimized microbial strains that over-produce selected chemical building-blocks with high market potential, aiming the generation and exploitation of our own IP in optimized microbial strains. We also participate in consortia running European funded projects, as the FP7 project BRIGIT (a 16-partner project aiming at developing the next generation of bio-based polymers). We are also leading the project PEM (Platform for Metabolic Engineering), a project with a Portuguese University combining the in silico design of microbial cell factories with wet lab validation.
Portugal is going through a period of severe economic crisis, like all the rest of Europe. Where can focus better bioeconomic innovation to promote sustainable development of the country?
I believe a bioeconomic innovation from scratch is a very difficult and an inconsistent effort, the roots for this process in a country like Portugal should be a combination of novel and traditional businesses. Looking not only for the innovation by itself but also to where this bioeconomic innovation can be applied, i.e. traditional industries that can expand their business opportunities using biotechnology with their already established capabilities.
The European strategy is also deeply connected to this vision, promoting an Industrial Biotechnology based on the extensive knowledge and experience from the chemical, agriculture and forest industries. A Portuguese strategy for a bioeconomy must be in line with this, as Portugal cannot be a single player but a team player of the Industrial Biotechnology European efforts.
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