In the past five years, Spanish companies and institutions have sharply increased their focus on biotechnology, and the results — in new companies, new products, and new research centers— represent an important contribution to the growing international field. This is the sixth in an eight-part series highlighting new technologies in Spain and is produced by Technology Review, Inc.' s custom-publishing division in partnership with the Trade Commission of Spain.
In conversations about biotechnology in Spain, one word appears repeatedly: revolution. According to many in the field, huge changes are afoot in Spanish science today. Though the country has historically focused on producing quality scientific research and papers, the past five years have seen a dramatic increase in the launch of companies, the development of new research centers, and the transfer of top-quality technology into economic development.
Both the national and local governments have embraced the current European focus on developing a knowledge-based economy, one that creates companies— and income— from the ideas of its citizens. National and local governments have increased funding for research, created new research centers, and provided mechanisms to advance technology transfer. Though this focus is relatively new in Spain, the strong scientific environment has provided a rich medium for the rapid growth of biotechnology, which has seen intensive investment and development in the past five years. According to Genoma España, a government-funded organization that promotes genomic research and practical applications, half of all scientific research in Spain focuses on biomedicine.
The seeds of the current revolution were planted at the National Center for Biotechnology (CNB in Spanish), located on the outskirts of Madrid. For the past 15 years, CNB has housed and promoted top-quality science while simultaneously focusing on technology transfer and spinoffs. Eleven companies so far have sprung from the CNB labs. At 650 researchers, CNB is one of the largest center of the National Research Council— and the first to focus so intensively on technology transfer. "For instance, we were the first center to have our own technology-transfer office," says former CNB director, José Ramon Naranjo.
The departments cover a wide variety of topics: researching viruses and developing vaccination protocols; analyzing microorganisms for their potential in bioremediation; studying pathogens and their mechanisms of disease production in order to develop new antimicrobial compounds; studying species of wine grapes to understand how the plants produce defenses to cope with viral attacks or lack of nutrients. One group at the center recently developed a method for studying the genome of a pathogenic salmonella strain (previously only a nonpathogenic strain had been studied) in order to better understand its virulence. Another company on-site is working on a land-mine detection system based on the ability of certain bacteria to eat explosive compounds. These bacteria have been manipulated to glow at night if they are "happy," as Naranjo explains—"and they're happy when they're eating this compound."