Brussels, 08 Jun 2006
The European research community is continually told that it is dancing to an alarming tune - the Pied Piper of US investment lures people, companies and ideas out of Europe to where things can get done - America. But now Dow AgroSciences, a subsidiary of Dow, the US chemical giant and world's largest producer of plastics, has decided to go the other way, and is reaching back over the Atlantic, searching for European partners in research.
Dow AgroSciences has emerged as a leader in two key areas - healthy oils and plant-based vaccines. Both are cutting-edge areas of massive commercial potential, but Dow wants to accelerate its capacity, its development and its products.
Developing Dow's breakthrough plant-based cell vaccine took nearly five years, Dr Dan Kittle, Dow AgroSciences Vice President of Research and Development, said in an interview with CORDIS News.
The vaccine that Dr Kittle refers to is currently unique - a plant-based product to combat the Newcastle Disease virus in chickens. The vaccine breaks new ground in two ways - it is both the first plant-based vaccine in the US, and the first to be licensed by the US Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
The Newcastle disease virus vaccine contains the immunological protein of the virus, derived from plant sources, not the live virus, or virus products. The chicken's immune system quickly recognises the protein, producing an immune response, and protecting the animal from the actual virus - an elegant solution to an enduring problem.
Many current vaccines, including flu vaccines, still rely on 1950s technology, which relies upon eggs - approximately one egg per dose. If the plant-based vaccine technology can be adapted to other viruses, say avian flu, then the commercial possibilities come sharply into view.
Healthy oils are a simpler concept to grasp - oils that actively benefit human health that can be used in cooking. But why should Dow AgroSciences want to reach out for European research, which is considered to lag behind what is being done in the US?
'We looked and found that all that was good in agro-technology was not happening in Dow. So we were concerned, and began to pump funds into R&D [research and development] as a bridge. We settled on collaboration, not contract research, and now 30 per cent of R&D happens outside Dow,' said Dr Kittle.
'There are process areas we are looking at, and interests where we have internal skills - to build and collaborate. Some of these research skill-sets fit with the EU research community, and we have already been collaborating, but not so visibly as now, in areas like animal health,' he said.
Dr Kittle's President and CEO, Jerome Peribere, agrees. Collaboration gives Dow the extra leverage it needs to bring products to market more quickly. 'How can you spend so you come to launch faster? For example our plant patent products cost USD 160 million from discovery to launch, as so many fall by the way. You have to look to how you can strengthen the basic technology. With collaboration alone, you get to tap into global technology and cutting-edge research,' he told CORDIS News.
In their search for cutting-edge research, they have often found unexpected technologies. 'We would like to attach ourselves to the best possible science there is. We sometimes find expertise we did not know existed,' explains Dr Kittle.
Mr Peribere outlines the future of Dow AgroSciences. 'Within five years, we will be moving from basic research to the next stage, to products. That is what it takes from a business point of view. The targets of both healthy oils and vaccines are responding to critical EU needs,' he said.
He also outlines two distinct avenues for future European research that will benefit Europe. 'With healthy oils, there are two areas for development. First, protein for animal feed - oil seed rape plants offer a possibility. At the moment there are issues with the high fibre content, making rape indigestible, but as the EU imports millions of tonnes of soya-based animal feed every year, we could offer an alternative, grown in the EU. Secondly, healthy oil seed rape and sunflower oils relate to human health,' he said.
But what Dow AgroSciences are looking to are the foundations of an industrial infrastructure. According to Dr Kittle, 'Technically, there is a tremendous opportunity in healthy oils to deliver. With plant cells, we hope thorough collaboration that we will take early stage prototypes through to industrialised products, and then on to a family of solutions when the system is in place. Aspirations are reduced then to something technical. I have a limited interest in Dow AgroSciences' future - we want to be attractive to the right collaborator now.'
So, Dow AgroSciences wants to use European cutting-edge technology. What do these innovative companies get in return? Janet Giesselman, Vice President Corporate Affairs for Dow AgroSciences explains. 'We have an arsenal of experience from our parent company [Dow], taking products through the regulatory framework and commercialisation. We have access to markets and we find systems that work,' she told CORDIS News.
Dow was reluctant to specify how much the company had budgeted for its research needs. 'Spend depends on the quality and scope of collaborators - not to spend a specific amount, but to address the project needs,' said Dr Kittle, adding: 'The EU is not the only place we are looking to invest.'