In 2005 Richard Stone wrote ‘Central Asia. Visions of a biotech empire on the Kazakh Steppe’ in which he described the journey of Erlan Ramanculov from Colorado to Kazakhstan. Erlan and his wife had one objective: to raise their daughters in his native land. However, the 38-year-old molecular biologist was soon chosen to build a national biotech program with resources far beyond anything he could have imagined back in the States. The Government had approved plans for a $50 million Life Science and Biotech Center of Excellence, supported in part by the World Bank.
Fast forward 15 years, and although The National Centre for Biotechnology is doing excellent work, including the development of a genetic database of the peoples of Central Asia, the vision for Kazakhstan as a global leader in biotechnology remains a vision.
However, the time has come for Kazakhstan to take its place on the world stage as a nation dedicated to, and leading in, healthcare, and especially biotechnology.
The global biotechnology market surpassed $417 billion in 2018 and is projected to grow to $775 billion by 2025, an 8.3 percent CAGR. The recent pandemic has accelerated investment in the sector, and pundits suggest the market could easily reach $2 trillion over the next decade, making it one of the fastest-growing sectors for investment. Much of that growth is in the U.S, Europe, China, India and South America. However, just as with LawTech, very little is happening in Central Asia. Why is that, and what does Kazakhstan need to do to become a part of this opportunity?
First, perhaps let’s look at the healthcare sector as a whole in Kazakhstan. Maybe it is already so good that it doesn’t need to be part of the health and biotech revolution?
At the core of any prosperous society, indeed at the heart of any civilisation, are three elements: education, healthcare and security. Why else should people coalesce and live under a collective code of behaviour? They must feel that there is hope for the next generation, that their family’s health will be protected and that they are safe.
And as Kazakhstan has a very high standard of education, ranking in the top 10 globally for maths and science according to the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement’s TIMSS’s results, so it also has developed the safest society of any of the CIS member states. However, according to the World Health Organisation, there is much to do for healthcare, with Kazakhstan placed 135th in the world.
So, with a need to deliver better, more modern healthcare to the people of Kazakhstan, combined with the opportunity to ride the wave of success in the health and biotech sector, what if anything is holding Kazakhstan back from being the regional, if not a global, hub?
To succeed in biotech there are three key ingredients: talent, vision and funding. Looking at each:
Kazakhstan is blessed with talent. Not only are Kazakhstan’s citizens highly educated, but it’s also universities are filled with world-class academics. This approach to exposing students to a world view began in 1993 through the First President’s ‘Bolashak’ or ‘Future’ programme, from which over 6,500 students have benefitted. That legacy is now reflected in the diversity of Professors teaching in Kazakh Universities. Indeed, Nazarbayev University’s School of Medicine is well known for creating future leaders in medicine for Central Asia and beyond.
So it isn’t talent that is holding Kazakhstan back.
The First President made it clear that the wellbeing of the citizens of Kazakhstan must be the Government’s first priority, a focus that the current President has continued. Indeed, I saw first-hand the First President make the case to officials about the need to deliver better services for all the people, and no-one left the room unclear with the First President’s determination to see improvements. This was also enshrined in the 100 concrete steps, which prescribed the implementation of mandatory social health insurance; priority financing for primary health care; enhancing accessibility and quality of the healthcare services through competition; and the establishment of a commission on health care service quality to introduce better standards.
So Kazakhstan doesn’t lack the vision to improve healthcare for its people.
Biotechnology requires investment, and in the early days that can be significant. Without funding, the sector can’t grow, research can’t be commercialised and entrepreneurs can’t take the risks necessary to make breakthroughs.
Although the Government of Kazakhstan has raised the total expenditure on health, education and science, forecasting to increase the overall healthcare expenditure to 4.7 percent of GDP before 2023, its investment in the biotech sector; the future of modern healthcare, is modest.
And this is where Samruk-Kazyna comes in. Kazakhstan’s sovereign wealth fund, with estimated assets over $74 billion has, as its primary objective, the development of a diversified and modernised economy. So what better investment could it make than one which improves the health of the nation and offers more significant returns than the fund has achieved in recent years? Truly a win-win.
And might others also want to benefit? Perhaps the Nazarbayev University’s endowment fund, and other funds set up around the country by the First President for the benefit of future generations.
Nazarbayev University could benefit further by establishing a Central Asian technology transfer office, responsible for facilitating the commercialisation of research from leading Universities across the region. Globally, such offices in leading Universities bring research developments to market, often acting as a channel between academia and industry in return for a small equity stake in the entrepreneur’s spin-out. In Oxford, Stanford and other campuses these offices are now delivering significant returns to support the growth of the Universities and the number of students they can support: Imagine if Nazarbayev University owns 4 percent of the company that finds the vaccine to Covid-19, or a cure for breast cancer?
And that money would not only enhance established research facilities and universities but also spawn a new generation of next generation biotech businesses developing cutting edge technologies that can be shared around the world, all originating from Kazakhstan.
And so, the answer to what is holding Kazakhstan back from being a world leader in biotech is simple. Nothing.
It has the talent, the vision and the funding necessary to become part of this estimated $2 trillion opportunity.
To create a healthier world, whilst boosting education, jobs and wealth in Kazakhstan.
The time is right to realise Richard Stone’s visions of a biotech empire on the Kazakh Steppe. An empire enhancing the health of billions of people, and creating opportunity and jobs for University students, researchers, entrepreneurs and many others. An empire that will make significant returns for investors, and position Kazakhstan as one of the leading hubs for biotechnology in the world.
The time is right, and the time is now.
The author would like to thank Dr. Bobojon Nazarov, Managing Director of Latus Therapeutics Limited for his input into this article.
The author is Mark Beer OBE, the co-founder of Seven Pillars Law in Kazakhstan, a visiting fellow at Oxford University, a visiting professor at Shanghai University for Political Science and Law and an investor in technology start-ups around the world.