The company may be just 18 months old, but Biotech Africa’s visionary steps towards a disease-free continent were warmly embraced by the East African medical community at this month’s Medic East Africa Exhibition and Congress.
As the first commercial entity in Africa to design and sell local diagnostic recombinant protein, Biotech Africa was immediately recognised by visitors to the exhibition as ideally placed to become an African solution in eradicating both infectious and chronic diseases through early and innovative in vitro diagnostics.
In vitro diagnostics can include anything from self-testing systems that monitor blood glucose levels to large-scale screenings for cervical cancer and systems that check blood samples for signs of infections.
At the three day exhibition in the Oshwal Centre in Nairobi, Kenya, visitors got to hear about BioTech Africa and its revolutionary Africa-specific recombinant proteins for diagnostics. Biotech Africa CEO Jason Lurie explains the most significant benefit. “With disease it’s not one size fits all. There is regional specificity to a disease, and you have different mutations in different areas so it’s very important to validate products against local disease profiles. Of course international companies haven’t really been doing this because Africa is almost an afterthought to them. But diagnostics is crucial. Diagnostics is the first line of defence against disease, and so, to us, Africa is our first thought.”
Other significant advantages BioTech Africa offers include consistency of supply and better price control.
Lurie expands. “When our clients no longer find themselves somewhere last in line for supplies, they suddenly don’t have to deal with intermittent supply problems anymore. And when we don’t have to import our raw materials and instead design our proteins from first principle, we’re not at the mercy of producers who can charge us whatever they like. The result is a more readily available product at a very different cost base.”
Lurie goes on to say, “Being able to produce proteins from first principle really enables us to have conversations with our clients. Instead of saying, ‘This is my price take it or leave it,’ we can ask them what prices they can afford, we can ask them what products they need, and then we can go and build it for them.”
It’s clear why over 150 people in the healthcare industry lined up every day to speak to the BioTech Africa team throughout the exhibition. Lead by Lurie and COO Dr Jenny Leslie, the BioTech Africa exhibition team also met Kenya’s Ministry of Health Cabinet Secretary James Macharia, and were bolstered by the region’s collective entrepreneurial spirit, business acumen and determination to work with BioTech Africa in eradicating disease.
Lurie puts this enthusiasm and warm reception down to the company’s approach. “We weren’t sitting there trying to sell products and then walk away. We were there to talk to people, to find a way to work with them in order to develop the biotechnology sector in the East African region.”
Currently BioTech Africa’s catalogue is largely focussed on Africa’s most prolific infectious diseases such as HIV, hepatitis B and C, malaria and the water-borne disease typhoid – the latter of which is becoming an increasingly bigger problem in Africa with the continuing growth in urbanisation. In the chronic disease sector, BioTech Africa is largely focussed on oncology and already has numerous oncology-related projects underway.
“And that’s just the very early stages of our catalogue,” Lurie points out, “I expect our catalogue to grow exponentially over the next year.”
BioTech Africa however, is not just stopping at supply. While it initially intends to supply African cities like Nairobi with finished diagnostic products, the company also intends to set up assembly facilities for full production in each territory in Africa.
It’s an ambitious idea Lurie admits, but then again, “everything begins with an idea.” Until not too long ago, BioTech Africa itself was just an idea. “We had ideas that were refined – like how we could create our own proteins and how to freeze-dry them to keep them stable for use in remote rural areas.”
At first, those smart ideas were developed in external laboratories until BioTech Africa completed the construction of its own facility in Cape Town. The demand for its products is so fierce that just a few short months after settling into its own premises, BioTech Africa already needs more space.
Ultimately, BioTech Africa intends to build a future where diagnostics are no longer performed in centralised labs on expensive equipment, but at the point of care, as close to the patient as possible, so that the patient can be diagnosed there and then… and treated immediately.
“If we can get close to that,” says Lurie, “that would really change the whole health paradigm in Africa.”