Much of the buzz about biotechnology has always emanated from the United States (US). And yet, important advances have been made in Cuba, a country that could not be more different from the US. Can we learn anything from its experience?
In this small country – whose population today only marginally exceeds that of Bengaluru – how was the bio-technology enterprise built up? After the revolution, the big emphasis on education ensured 100% literacy very soon. It also led to a manifold increase in the number of universities, and the development of a large scientific manpower. Then, starting from the return of the team sent to Finland, from 1986 onwards the first of many prominent institutes devoted to biotechnology started to come up. Overall, over 50 institutes were set up in what came to be known as the Western Havana Biocluster, with the better known ones being the Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (CIGB), the Finlay Institute and the Centre for Molecular Immunology (CIM). Each institute has a particular specialization – molecular immunology, neurobiology, clinical trials, bioproduction and so on – and of particular note is that many, if not most, institutes have strong commercialization arms. The Government was clear that products should be developed, that these would boost the stature of the country internationally and develop goodwill, and that exports would boost the economy. Cuba’s is a know ledge-based economy, and biotechnology has long been one of its biggest foreign exchange earners.