The 2011/01/31 at 09:43
Marine Veith in La Réunion
Petite-Île, to the south of La Réunion: a land of sugarcane fields against the roar of the Indian Ocean… and Chinese businesses doing deals on life technologies with their La Réunion counterparts. The scene is the month of December, at the first Sino-Réunion conference on biotechnologies. In all, 51 companies – 25 Chinese, 20 from La Réunion – held discussions over three days. In this face-off reminiscent of David versus Goliath, the goal for the Réunion Islanders was clear: to pierce the market of the Asian giant. For the Chinese, interest in this small French department somewhere between Africa and Asia is more indirect: La Réunion is a potential springboard to French and European grants accorded to biotechnologies. As an outermost European region, La Réunion benefits from incentive measures of both the French government and the European Union, which the Chinese can join via partnerships.
Largely dominated by the United States, the global biotechnologies market displayed growth of between 4 to 6% in 2009. In Europe, France took out the bronze medal after Germany and Switzerland. French public support of the sector has increased, notably thanks to the setting up of public companies such as Oséo, which finances innovation projects or incentive tax measures. In terms of grants, the French State injects 35 billion euros to major projects, including 2.5 billion for biotechnologies. On the European level, the Lisbon Strategy, introduced in 2000, envisages 50 billion euros for European research between 2007 and 2013. These major programmes have already enabled the island to create working conditions conducive to the recognised development of research and the emergence of savoir-faire. Notching up barely ten years on the island, the Réunion biotechnologies sector encompasses some thirty businesses, mainly in food processing and the environment, according to a survey carried out by the Development Agency of La Réunion. 16% of these are under three years old. The supported emergence of the innovation sector aims to transform the small French department into a veritable Silicon Valley, Indian Ocean style.
With the creation of the Qualitropic food processing competitiveness cluster, a health research centre (CYROI) and special zones for welcoming new businesses (Technor and Techsud), the sector is well and truly taking off. Several young Réunion buds have seen the light in activities as varied as edible microalgae, eco-extraction and natural dyeing. But the tightness of the La Réunion market is a prompt to export. “China is at the heart of our preoccupations,” explains the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of La Réunion. During the Shanghai World Expo in 2010, a delegation from La Réunion occupied the French pavilion for two weeks. Led by the CCI, Ubifrance and the French Chamber of Commerce in China, eleven company heads took advantage of the opportunity to carry out a prospecting mission. “Export activity is weak on La Réunion. At the same time, we are witnessing a skyrocketing of services on the island, with shrinking market shares due to competition,” the Chamber continues. Once limited to its French-speaking neighbours in the Indian Ocean, the export activities of La Réunion are seeking to expand further afield.
The Chamber of Commerce also puts forward that “we have sensed the desire of our Chinese counterparts to become better acquainted with businesses of La Réunion”. Proof is provided by the experience of Adip’sculpt. Present on the World Expo trip, this company specialises in cell purification for cosmetic surgery. As the jewel of biotechnological research on La Réunion, the company set up by two biochemistry researchers has largely benefited from support available on the island: business incubation, grants for the setting up of innovative companies, prospecting trips… During the Chinese mission, it approached clinics and hospitals. The outcome was a successful mission, with the launching of a process for bringing its products in line with Chinese standards and commercialisation to begin shortly in Hong Kong, where European standards are recognised. Whilst this success may bode for good things ahead, Sino-Réunion exchanges are still in early stages. For “it is necessary to stay realistic – La Réunion is not an all-important stake for Chinese businesses,” explains Dominique Oudin, Consultant at the Development Agency of La Réunion.
The island’s 800,000 inhabitants do not weigh heavy in terms of future prospects. Whilst the Chinese are primarily interested in the vast research programmes from which the island benefits, China also has sought-after monetary reserves. And in the biotechnology sector, it is indispensable for businesses from La Réunion to nurture international partnerships. “Chinese businesses may enable projects in La Réunion to meet their necessary financing in order to develop on the global market,” continues Dominique Oudin. These are expenses that the Chinese are very much inclined to concede, even if financing needs for research are considerable for what remains an uncertain outcome. For example, the slightest development project for a pilot biofuel industrial plant requires over 50 million euros… without any guarantee of success. But if success does come, innovative companies can very quickly become very profitable. And all economic actors have understood this possibility.