The South Koreans are way ahead in developing human embryonic stem cells to treat disease. China, now testing genetically engineered rice...

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The South Koreans are way ahead in developing human embryonic stem cells to treat disease.

China, now testing genetically engineered rice, looms as a threat to disrupt Monsanto’s broad grip on crop biotechnology if the world’s most populous nation begins commercializing modified rice as widely believed.

Stem cells and genetically altered crops are but two small sectors of the growing biotechnology industry, which remains overwhelmingly dominated by U.S. companies and researchers.

Still, as 18,000 industry executives and scientists from around the globe began gathering in Philadelphia yesterday for the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual trade show, other countries are finally making significant inroads. About 6,000 attendees from outside the United States had been expected.

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“Countries around the world are competing fiercely to attract and develop biotech activity,” concludes an Ernst & Young industry report titled “Beyond Borders” being released at the convention.

Biotech company acquisitions are also expected to be a hot topic in Philadelphia, especially after Pfizer announced Thursday that it would pay $1.9 billion for tiny Vicuron Pharmaceuticals, an antibiotic maker.

Analysts expect more such purchases as drug makers scramble to bolster sagging research and development efforts by securing biotech companies with depressed stock prices.

Stem cells

Stem-cell research is another hot area. President Bush has limited the amount of federal support to the field because of ethical concerns: Stem-cell scientists destroy embryos during research.

In contrast, the South Korean government fully supports the research and one of its top researchers last month unveiled significant human cloning advances.

A government delegation is advertising Seoul’s expanding biotech prowess. Sweden and Singapore boast of their openness to stem-cell research.

In all, 27 countries from Australia to the United Kingdom are expected to send officials to tout the benefits of doing business within their respective borders.

Inside the United States, meanwhile, individual states and cities are vying to land biotech companies.

Just about every state is represented at the conference and some are shelling out upward of $250,000 each to be noticed with festive conference booths and swank cocktail parties.

They believe biotechnology will soon emerge as an economic force and can help reverse sagging economies. They’re looking to biotechnology for financial salvation, though the industry as a whole loses billions of dollars annually.

BIO officials insist the sector should be judged on more than profits and losses. They argue that there’s good reason its annual convention grows larger each year.

When the conference was held in Philadelphia in 1996, for instance, it attracted just 3,500 attendees.

BIO officials also note that federal regulators have approved 20 new drugs created with biotechnology last year. Some 230 such medicines and other related products combating cancer, diabetes and myriad other diseases are now on the market.

Ernst & Young is optimistic that biotech as a whole will become profitable by 2009, pointing to some 365 drugs in the last stages of development compared to 290 in 2003.

State interests

A dozen governors are making appearances at BIO, including Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jeb Bush of Florida.

Romney recently riled his state’s biotech industry, which is second in size only to California’s, when he vetoed a bill giving state regulators authority over stem-cell research. The Massachusetts Legislature overrode Romney’s veto.

Gov. Bush, meanwhile, persuaded the Florida legislature to spend $310 million on an incentive package to lure the Scripps Research Center to Palm Beach. He’ll be in Philadelphia to sell his state’s emergence as a biotechnology up-and-comer.

For many communities, biotech is the No. 1 economic development goal.

San Francisco, for instance, used $17 million in incentives to lure the state’s new stem-cell institute to base its headquarters in the city.

Even though the state agency won’t employ more than 50 workers, Mayor Gavin Newsom made landing the headquarters a priority because of the prestige the venture is expected to lend the city.

Even though biotech is still a niche industry — it employs a total of 200,000 workers compared with Wal-Mart’s 1 million — civic leaders still vie for the high-paying jobs and higher tax rates the sector brings.