Maarika Merirand, Estonian Biotechnology Association
The history of biotechnology in Estonia begins with Karl Ernst von Baer (1792-1876), a Prussian-Estonian biologist, embryologist, anthropologist and geographer. Von Baer’s contribution to modern day biology was rather significant – he discovered the mammalian ovum and the notochord, and he was the founder of comparative embryology.
Biotechnology-related research in Estonian universities has been compatible on the world-scale ever since. In 1970s significant investments into biotechnological research were placed by the state of that time to develop genomic studies. In 1980s two leading research institutions – the Estonian Biocentre in Tartu and the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics at the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics in Tallinn were set up.
This built a solid foundation for outstanding growth of the sector, especially after Estonia regained its independence. There are now 15 research organisations in biotechnology, employing around 300 people. The first viable spin-off companies appeared in the 1990s and currently 40 biotechnology enterprises are accounted in Estonia, with new additions to the list every year. Research institutions and companies have mainly clustered around two centres – Tallinn and Tartu, being strongly interlinked. One of the characteristics of the Estonian biotechnology is also many co-operation contacts outside the country, especially in the Nordic region.
The main competences of Estonian biotechnology lie in medical biotechnology – immunology, genomics and cancer research. Industrial biotechnology is also rather advanced developed both on the research and industry side, including biochemistry, organic synthesis, environmental and food biotechnology.
The progress of the biotechnology sector has also been recognised by the state. In "The Estonian Strategy for Research and Development 2002-2006", biomedicine was defined as one of the three key areas in the country’s economy. The continuing document for years 2007-2013 has extended the status of "strategic key technology" to biotechnology in general. The aim of the current strategy document is to increase R&D investments to 3.0% of GDP, with more than a half of it being contributed by the private sector. The strategy also aims for the number of R&D staff per 1000 employees reach 8, and for productivity per employee to reach 72% of EU average. In order to reach those goals, specific programmes, including one for biotechnology will be developed. Until then, biotechnology is benefiting from a range of generic measures designed to support innovation.
There are many advantages to co-operating with the biotechnology sector in Estonia. As mentioned previously, the state supports R&D and innovation, and the economic environment in Estonia is generally liberal and favourable towards entrepreneurship. Biotechnology-related legislation is well-established (for example the Human Genes Research Act passed in 2000) and harmonized with EU legislation.
The sector offers a good scientific foundation and a large network of contacts, mainly with the Scandinavian region. The benefits also come from good-quality labour force – over the past few years there has been a trend of scientists repatriating; and approximately 500 graduates with relevant education enter the labour market every year.
All co-operation ideas, from the industry, research organisations or investors, are welcome. The Estonian Biotechnology Association will gladly assist you with gathering information, identifying potential partners and making contacts.
Organisations and projects
There are 15 research organisations in biotechnology, most important of them being:
- The National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics – the biotechnology-related work of the institute is conducted in the following areas – molecular genetics (In vitro and ecotoxicology, non-traditional adenosine-derivate signalling paths in lower animals), bioorganic chemistry (proteomics studies with particular emphasis on structure-function relationships, recognition and complex formation, which are essential cellular processes) and bioenergetics (deployment of modern physical methods in chemistry and biochemistry)
- The Gene Technology Institute of Tallinn University of Technology – the institute covers topics from fundamental studies (protein and nucleic acids chemistry, regulation of gene expression, developmental biology of the nervous system, plant-pathogen interactions) to applied research (for example mechanisms of cancer induction and metastasis, molecular mechanisms of certain pulmonary diseases, Alzheimer and Parkinson disease, production of labelled compounds in fermenters, plant cell cultures and plant breeding, DNA detection and DNA diagnostics). The Institute coordinates gene technology B.Sc and M.Sc programs (currently involving ca 130 students) and gene technology PhD programs (ca 30 PhD students). Several spin-off companies and the Competence Centre for Cancer Research have emerged from the Institute.
- Estonian Biocentre – The main research direction of the centre lies in the field of molecular medicine and is linked to biotechnology. The following research groups work in the centre – gene technology (isolating and characterizing human disease genes, developing further and applying existing DNA methods including DNA chip technologies for genetic analysis and molecular diagnostics), oncogene working group (characterisation of internalisation mechanism of cell-penetrating peptides), environmental working group (genetic structure and regulation of plasmids determining degradation of phenolic compounds in laboratory strains and in microbial communities in natural conditions) and the molecular evolution working group.
- Tartu University – the biggest university in Estonia hosts the Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology (fundamental cancer research, human genetics, complex disease studies and midcal virology), Institute of Organic and Bioorganic Chemistry, the Faculty of Medicine and the Tartu University hospital, which consists of 17 clinics.
Since 2007 Tartu University also hosts the Estonian Genome Project, a database of health, genealogy and genome information of the Estonian population. Estonian Genome Project was founded by the Government of Estonia in 2001 and it currently holds data of over 10 000 gene donors. The collection of tissue samples is ongoing, with the aim of reaching 100 000 in 2010. The database is a valuable input for national research on public health, but also for international-level research, especially in the European region as Estonians are a good representative sample of Caucasian populations in general.
- Estonian University of Life Sciences – the mission of the university is to guarantee sustainable use of natural resources and enhance rural development. The university hosts the Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences (horticulture, plant protection, soil science and agro chemistry, field crop husbandry) and the Institute of Veterinary Medicine and Animal Sciences.
There are around 40 companies that define their activities as biotechnology; about 15 of them could be defined as core biotechnology companies. All Estonian biotechnology companies are SMEs. Some of the most successful companies are the following:
- Quattromed Ltd – a spin-off from Tartu University in 1999, which has grown into the biggest biotechnology company in Estonia, with 78 employees and an annual turnover of 2,4 million euros (2006). Quattromed started with offering molecular diagnostic services, the activities today cover molecular and clinical diagnostics (Quattromed HTI Laboratories), products of functional genomics (Quattromed) and proteomics, and protein production (Quattromed Cell Factory).
- Asper Biotech Ltd – a spin-off from the Estonian Biocentre in 1999, currently employing 25 people and having a turnover of 1 million euros. The company offers human DNA analysis testing services, having tests for more than 10 different diseases; and it has developed a full proprietary DNA analysis tool. A separate unit of the company, Asper Ophthalmics specialises in genetic tests for eye diseases.
- Solis BioDyne Ltd – established in 1995 being one of the first biotechnology companies in Estonia. The company is developing, producing and marketing thermostable DNA polymerases, with its main market being outside Estonia.
- Celecure Group – a company founded in 1999, employing 45 people and investing 1.8 million euros into research in 2007. The flagship of the Group is Celecure, a drug discovery and development unit, which got a 1.6 million euros investment from Ambient Sound Investments in 2007. Other units of the company are working in custom antibody services and peptide synthesis (Inbiolabs) and laboratory equipment and supplies (Inbio). Celecure Group also holds a 50% in a Cancer Clinic founded in 2006.
- Competence Centre for Cancer Research – a competence centre set up in 2005 in co-operation between 8 different partners, involving Tallinn Technical University, North Estonian Regional Hospital and companies in Estonia and abroad. The centre is currently conducting 5 research projects in the field of developing new generation cancer drugs and 3 in the field of new technologies for early-stage diagnosis and prognosis of cancer. The centre is financed by the founding partners and by the Competence Centre program of Enterprise Estonia.
- Estonian Biotechnology Association - founded in 2003 by an initiative of biotechnology research institutions and companies. The aim of the association is to support the development of biotechnology in Estonia; and to represent the sector towards decision-makers, the general public, and towards the biotechnology sector abroad. The association offers information and networking services, organizes events and leads the process of composing the Estonian biotechnology strategy. Currently the association joins 20 members, but its contacts cover the whole sector, including recent and budding spin-offs.
- Tartu Biotechnology Park – a business incubator providing physical infrastructure as well as business development and consultancy services to companies and R&D institutions in the fields of biotechnology, medicine and veterinary medicine. It supports companies in finding co-operation partners and is active in the establishment process of new companies.
- Estonian Genome Foundation – an information platform with the aim of supporting the development of gene technology in Estonia.