When science ministers from 57 Islamic nations gather September 7-8 in Islamabad, Pakistan, to discuss biotech, Egypt's new Nile University will inevitably be a major topic of discussion. They should also discuss the establishment of government-sponsored seed funds and incentives to attract foreign investors to their nascent biotech sectors.

Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are, along with Egypt, attempting to play "catch-up" in biotech.

Delegates from the Organization of Islamic Conferences (OIC) will meet to attempt to develop a coherent strategy for developing and promoting biotech across the Islamic world. Although Comstech, the OIC's science policy arm, envisions Islamic states to achieve self-sufficiency in biotech, that goal is a long way off for the vast majority of them. The Nile University project might offer a model for some countries that want to get onto the biotechnology map.

In Egypt, construction has already started on the $96 million public-private project to develop an internationally ranked graduate school that would nurture the region's next generation of entrepreneurs, technologists and scientists. The 127-acre campus, located in El Sheikh Zayed City, will host the Nile School of Business and the Nile School of Engineering and Technology. The university's first classes will open in November, focusing on biotechnology, information technology (IT), petrochemicals, economics and related management disciplines. It will also house three specialist centers that are focused on R&D, intellectual property protection, and entrepreneurship and incubation. The university has already forged a relationship with one of Europe's top-ranked business schools, IESE School of Business, in Barcelona, Spain, and it is also developing links with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Nile University is the kind of eye-catching initiative that Egypt's government hopes will help it close the gap on countries with a more advanced R&D infrastructure. With the exception of Israel, the development of biotechnology across the Middle East is still at a very early stage.

According to Anwar Nasim, one of Pakistan's most experienced biotechnologists and a science adviser to Comstech, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey are, along with Egypt, attempting to play “catch-up” in biotech. Other OIC member states that are also prioritizing biotechnology include Malaysia and Indonesia, he says.

But the commercialization of biotech products from OIC members is still some way off. “There is not that much activity in this region although attempts are being made. Iran, for example, got into vaccine production with the help of Cuba,” says Nasim. In addition, the free trade zone located on Iran's Qeshm Island is home to the Persian Gulf Marine Biotechnology Research Center, which has production facilities for anticancer drugs and biofertilizers.

The government of Pakistan, another OIC member, adopted a national biotech strategy last year. Although the country set out recommendations for upgrading its skills and research infrastructure, attracting investment remains a significant obstacle to implementing the strategy. “There is not that much activity from the private sector,” says Nasim. At present, the government is considering a proposal to designate Faisalabad, Pakistan's third largest city, as a 'biotech city.' Several of the country's leading research centers are based there, including the University of Agriculture, the Provincial Agricultural Research Institute and the National Institute for Biotechnology and Genetic Engineering, a center of excellence in cotton biotechnology that is affiliated with the International Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Trieste, Italy. "The plan is to earmark an area around these institutes for establishing various biotech industries for agriculture, livestock and human health," says Kauser Malik, secretary of the Islamabad-based National Commission for Biotechnology.

As yet, however, there is no firm funding commitment in place to support this plan. Although the Egyptian government has launched an $8 million Technology Development Fund to finance and support the country's startups, this will focus exclusively on IT-related projects. Across the Middle East, financial support for creating biotech ventures still appears to be absent from the puzzle.

Web links

Nile University


Organization of the Islamic Conference


Egyptian Technology Development Fund


Persian Gulf Marine Biotechnology Research Center