CSIR Biosciences: Bringing innovation to life

One of the most exciting aspects of South Africa’s socioeconomic development is that enterprise has no defined boundaries and opportunity comes in many shapes and forms. As the Government looks to boost industry and create jobs, a number of sectors have a big part to play in the nation’s future. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is one such entity.

CSIRThe CSIR is one of the leading scientific and technology research, development and innovation organisations in Africa. The organisation has in its long and illustrious history played a key role in a number of world firsts, including the development of the tellurometer, the first successful microwave electronic distance measurement equipment.

Heading up CSIR’s Biosciences division is Dr Daniel Visser, Acting Executive Director:

We started out following an Act of Parliament in 1945, as a science council, to help support physical, chemical and infrastructure research and development. Today the CSIR undertakes directed and multi-disciplinary research, technological innovation as well as industrial and scientific development to improve the quality of life of the country’s people.

We are committed to supporting innovation in South Africa to improve national competitiveness in the global economy. Science and technology services and solutions are provided in support of various stakeholders, and opportunities are identified where new technologies can be further developed and exploited in the private and public sectors for commercial and social benefit. The CSIR’s shareholder is the South African Parliament, held in proxy by the Minister of Science and Technology.

Dr Visser has himself worked for CSIR for 11 years and says that the formation of the Biosciences department occurred in 2006, when the previously separately run FoodTech and Bio/Chemtech divisions were merged. Bioscience work as a discipline had commenced in the mid 1990s.

In terms of CSIR Biosciences, we perform research in the biotech space that covers health, agriculture, industrial sectors and environmental technologies – and our aim is to help promote growth in these sectors with the hope that this in turn will stimulate economic growth and new jobs,” he states.

Headquartered in Pretoria, the main CSIR campus is home to more than 2,000 members of staff, with the Biosciences division responsible for 170 employees, of which roughly 90 per cent are South African, 60 per cent are black and 40 per cent are female in line with national transformation priorities

There are two bioscience facilities covering an area of 10,000 square metres on campus, with the former Johannesburg operations moving to Pretoria a couple of years ago. The CSIR itself has other research centres scattered around South Africa.

In agriculture we concentrate on bio-prospecting and bio-diversity as well as traditional healer products – and one of our aims is to get more of those products on the market. We also undertake research to improve agro-processing.

Within the industrial arena we look at biomanufacturing and helping to develop the biotech industry in South Africa.

Our health sector work focuses on diagnostics, primarily for HIV and TB, and probably accounts for 30 per cent of our research, with the other two sectors split at roughly 35 per cent each.

The tellurometer is just one of the CSIR’s big achievements, as Dr Visser explains:

CSIR developed the tellurometer (which is the basis for cellular technology), but we have also been pioneers in radar technology. We recently developed sonar technology to help detect weaknesses in railway lines. The Biosciences unit carried out extensive work on the slimming properties linked to Hoodia, a natural product. More recently we have developed novel technologies for research reagents and personalised medicine, which are the basis for successful start-up companies” he says.

Funding primarily comes through the Government, with a Parliamentary Grant accounting for roughly 30 per cent of operational revenue. Dr Visser says that the rest of the financing comes through competitive grant and contract funding which is secured both within South Africa and internationally.

Additionally, CSIR Biosciences is looking to progressively work with private sector businesses around the world to help develop new technologies. To date the organisation lists alliances with the likes of AECI, Afriplex, Eskitis Institute in Australia, Du Pont, the Korean Institute for Science and Technology, Nestle and Oceanwise and according to Dr Visser, is looking to bring on-board a number of companies for an exciting new venture:

“The proposal to develop a Biomanufacturing Industry Development Centre in the unit was approved by the Jobs Fund, which is administered by DBSA. This R90 million project is due to open in March and we are currently expanding infrastructure, recruiting interns, staff and small companies for technical incubation”.

Our aim during the next three years aims to expand and upgrade the CSIR Biosciences infrastructure base; consolidate skills and capabilities in order to support emerging businesses to enter the market; create jobs and thus help build a sustainable bio-economy. The Centre will support small and medium-sized enterprises,” he affirms.

Determining the direction of research is often a joint-decision made by relevant government stakeholders in collaboration with the unit, with the CSIR Bioscience division reviewing its direction every year.

The nature of the CSIR Biosciences division is such that the unit could be working on 30 or 40 individual projects at any one time, with most averaging a lifespan of 2 to 3 years, aligned to 2 or 3 flagship initiatives which normally run for 5 or 6 years each.

That might give the impression that the unit regularly recruits specialist skills – and whilst that may be the case at higher levels, Dr Visser’s staff are often able to transfer their skills from one project to another.

We aim to develop capacity within a specific area by identifying niches in a market we feel we can make a difference to. We have highly-skilled scientists but they are not all highly specialised and for the main part, our recruitment process focuses around hiring good scientists that can apply sound scientific knowledge to multiple areas”.

Additional training helps to bring post-graduates up to speed and the unit sponsors and co-supervises a number of Masters Degree and Doctorate students. The unit also strongly supports vocational training to further add to the national skills base.

In March 2013 the Industrial Development Corporation invested R12 million towards the spinning-out of the Persomics™ Pty (Ltd) Biotech start-up company.

Looking at the future, Dr Visser says the CSIR Bioscience unit has bright prospects in an evolving world:

In the long term food security is probably going to be the biggest global concern and then a close second is energy supply. We are formulating a plan around energy while as far as food security goes, we are looking at how to align national priorities particularly across Africa.

I am confident that our organisation is going to expand significantly and will also need to evolve as we move from industrial work to animal health and on to human health. We are about to launch a joint centre with one of the local universities, to foster the development of natural products.

I see real significance in our work over the next five years and CSIR Biosciences is in an exciting space right now,” he concludes.