Can Africa play a role in the ‘omics’ revolution?

This is a question that I am being asked frequently by colleagues locally and internationally. If yes, what role could it be?

I’d like to explore the role Africa can play through 3 different lenses:

  1. China’s role as an emerging superpower in biotechnology, with a particular focus on Genomics, and the lessons we can learn from it;
  2. Common issues in ‘omics’ research (Genomics, Proteomics, Bioinformatics, Biomarkers), in particular in the biomedical sciences;
  3. Resources & capabilities in Africa, mainly based on my experience in working in South Africa.

Ultimately, I aim at synthesizing these viewpoints into a business idea for positioning Africa as a serious player in the ‘omics’ arena globally.

1. China’s role as an emerging biotech super power and a world leader in the Genomics arena

Recently, China published its 12th Five-Year plan for national economic and social development (1). The plan features biotechnology as one of 7 priority industries that are meant to contribute to a 7% annual GDP growth over the 5-year period. It sets an innovation target of 3.3 patents per 10.000 people and predicts an increase in R&D spending of 2.2% of GDP (1).

Impressively, Chinese officials have mapped a plan to generate a million new biotech jobs by the end of 2015. In order to achieve this ambitious goal, they have plans to spend in the order of USD 300 billion for science and technology development (2).

In the Genomics arena, China has created the most powerful Genomics hub in the entire world: BGI, formerly known as Beijing Genomics Institute. The BGI is located in a converted shoe factory in Shenzen city, containing about 128 high end 2nd generation sequencers from Illumina and another 27 SOLiD systems from rival company Life Technologies (formerly trading as AB) (3, 4).

Today, BGI has the capacity to generate the equivalent of 10.000 human genomes per annum. In 2010, it produced 500 Tb of data – 10 times the amount of data the NCBI generated in the past 20 years – and it is set to produce 100 Pb of data in 2011 (3).

BGI was originally created as a sequencing factory but has progressed into developing its own scientific muscle and reputation (5). From its initial involvement in the ‘Human Genome Sequencing’ project, BGI has been involved or actively spearheading a series of large-scale genomic projects, such as the ‘1000 Genomes’ project, the ‘10.000 Microbial Genomes’ project, and the ‘1000 Mendelian Disorders in Humans’ project (4).

Backed by the Chinese government and endowed with a USD 1.5 bn loan from the Chinese Development Bank in 2009 (6), the company’s strategy to catapult itself, and China, into an entirely different league in the Genomics and biotechnology arena seems to pay off.

Amongst others, the company has managed to draw attention from literally everyone involved in Genomics research, simply because of the organisation’s massive economies of scale and the consequential savings in cost and time. In 2011, when a deadly foodborne strain of E. coli strain was threatening Germany and other European countries, the BGI teamed up with experts in Hamburg (Germany) to sequence the bacterium in no time. Not only did they do that, BGI experts also developed a test for the rapid detection of the E. coli strain, all based on the initial sequencing effort (7).

BGI has grown into a massive operation with some 3000 staff, most of them at an average age of 25 (1). Their ability to generate unprecedented amounts of data has attracted attention from academia and industry. In 2010, the company’s revenue hit $ 150 million and is supposed to triplicate by end of 2011 (6). In order to address the needs of industry, BGI has created a commercial interface (BGI Americas), with a strong interest to gain a footprint in the lucrative US pharmaceutical market. To date, BGI is serving 15 of the top 20 pharmaceutical companies (7).


  • BGI has built unprecedented critical mass and economies of scale in the Genomics arena by way of creating a next generation sequencing (NGS) factory. This has lead to a significant reduction in cost and time-to-data for everyone with an interest in getting results quickly. For the BGI, this means that they can continuously improve their processes when dealing with an increasing number of projects.
  • By way of teaming up with scientific groups all over the world, the BGI uses its NGS muscle in collaborative projects to gain co-ownership of data and IP. Moving away from a pure service provider model, the company has seemingly started to subsidize interesting projects in-kind and in-cash. As a consequence, by way of engaging in collaborative scientific efforts (5), the BGI manages to complement its ‘production power’ with the biological and biomedical knowledge residing in the minds of scientists all over the world to stimulate the creation of IP, services and products.
  • This kind of exposure puts the BGI into a position to select and prioritise the most lucrative projects, treating the rest as either process-improvement or money-making exercises.
  • Building a track record in successfully turning around NGS projects has surely helped the BGI to attract widespread interest from academia and industry. This is important for at least two reasons: (1), the company needs to make money to service the $ 1.5 bn loan from the Chinese Development Bank. Although there is some information in the public domain about the revenues BGI makes, little is known about any surplus (profit) it makes from any of the projects it runs. It would be interesting to see how successful the company is going to be in blending a front-end contract research organisation (CRO) business with a large-scale collaborative research effort. However, the ability to attract unprecedented numbers of talented scientists should be a decent basis for building the capacity to tackle these ventures effectively; (2), BGI will have to complement its expertise in ‘NGS production’ with relevant areas of science. It’ll be interesting to see if the company choses a collaborative approach or if it rather opts to build its own scientific expertise. In case of the latter, it may eventually look more like a large-scale academic institute as opposed to a factory. If so, will it choose to have a focus on a particular field of science or expand even further to tackle a wider field of research areas?
  • Turning out massive amounts of data is merely the starting point in modern-day genomic projects. What follows when the lab has generated data is often a larger-scale effort to crunch and interpret the results generated in these projects. It will be interesting to see if turning out ‘primary’ data quickly is the real value-add for scientists turning to BGI for help. With the volume of data increasing on the current scale, who will take care of the down-stream value creation? It is unlikely that the BGI will be able to do all of this; therein is a possible gap in the BGI business model and an opportunity for other solution providers to step in. Unless, of course, all the BGI customers build their own bioinformatic capacity to deal with the massive amount of data that the BGI can generate. But this creates another conundrum for everyone who turns to the BGI for cost-effective sequencing: Bioinformaticists cost money too! I doubt that all of the projects run by the BGI, on behalf of its clients, have considered these properly. We may in the end sit with nothing but a pile of data that hardly anyone can interpret or put to use.
  • It will be interesting to see how BGI is going to capitalise on the IP it generates. Translation of genomic data into products is a long-term process, fraught with challenges problems, all in all requiring further investment. Taking the development of a predictive genomic signature as an example, the corresponding efforts range from the validation of data to demonstrating utility in clinical trials. Will the company be able to convert the intellectual capital it creates into products that can render a decent return? What kind of strategies is BGI going to pursue in this regard? Will it employ a licensing model, prominently used by some of the big Universities; or rather choose to set up special purpose vehicles (start-up companies) to keep the development of technologies or products, and therefore value creation, in China?
  • Lastly, how is BGI planning to maintain a competitive edge in terms of NGS technology? The company’s factory is built on state-of-the-art 2ndgeneration instruments and it is putting these to impressive use. How will BGI respond to the next wave of instruments that are alreday promising to reduce the sequencing costs per base pair even further? It’s not inconceivable that other countries, and companies, decide to emulate the BGI model to build NGS factories using 3rd generation NGS instrumentation. It will also be interesting to see how BGI will leverage its muscle in using 2ndgeneration NGS instruments to develop its own proprietary sequencing technologies. It is conceivable, considering the expertise China, and other Asian countries have built in engineering and manufacturing electronic devices, that the 4th generation of NGS technology will emerge in Asia, rather than in the US.

So, all of this looks very impressive! Where does it leave the rest of the world? Where does it leave Africa?

Before eventually getting to this point, I’ll explore current issues in ‘omics’ research in part 2 of this post.


1.         China’s 12th Five-Year Plan: Overview (2011).

2.         China to spend $308B, gain 1 M new jobs in 5-year biotech plan (2011).

3.         China genomics institute outpaces the world (2011).

4.         BGI – China’s Genomic Centre has a hand in everything (2011).

5.         The sequence factory. (2010) Nature 464, 22-24.

6.         High quality DNA (2011).

7.         Chinese Genomics Firm Expands Operations.