Saturday, August 25, 2007

Alor Gajah: World Biotechnology Hub?

I read with extreme interest, an article in the New Straits Times which proclaimed that Alor Gajah (in Melaka, by the way), will soon become the "next biotechnology hub of the world". Undertaking this "massive project costing RM1.36 billion" at the 113ha site is "California-based Actis Biologics Inc, a bio-pharmaceutical company which has set up a Malaysian-registered company Actis Biologics Malaysia Sdn Bhd."

Now, don't get me wrong, I welcome such investments into Malaysia, and certainly if indeed Malaysia can become a global biotechnology hub, it will be excellent news for the country. However, having experienced plenty of disastrous mega-projects in Malaysia with supposed foreign investment or participation, you will forgive me if I am a little apprehensive (understatement?) when it comes to such mega-announcements. I can't help but to suspect if there's anything fishy going on.

I'll just name a few examples here. Datuk Keramat Holdings Berhad was supposed to deliver the first phase of a US$60 million studio and entertainment complex is planned on a 480-hectare piece of land in Cyberjaya. It was to form an integral part of MSC's most prestigious project: the creation of a $790-million high-tech film studio and a Disneyesque theme park complex called the Entertainment Village. Unfortunately, the grand launch during the 2001 International Advisory Panel, complete with Jacky Chan in a shimmering white outfit, proved to be the only highlight of that initiative. Instead of sharing the blame, Multimedia Development Corporation laid the blame squarely on the developer after millions of ringgit was burnt.

And, what about another of Dr Mahathir Mohammad's favourite projects - InventQjaya?
A Dr Sadeg of Reveo Inc (USA), a Libyan-American, told CNN's TalkAsia host Lorraine Hahn in a programme aired in November 2002 that former premier Mahathir Mohamad had invited him to invest in Malaysia's Multimedia Super Corridor after a meeting in New York. The project is funded by a government loan of RM437 million, of which RM228 million has been paid out. Now, with practically nothing to show besides the ownership of several commercially useless patents, the Malaysian government is charging Reveo of money laundering and absconding with the loan. Disaster? You tell me.

Of course, lets not forget the latest mega-project scandal the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ), a RM1.3 billion project which ballooned to RM4.6 billion, which in turn now requires government bailout with a soft loan which will probably never see the light of day.

So, back to our very own "RM1.36 billion bio-technology hub". Who is this Actis Biologics Inc, and are they sufficiently competent to manage such mega projects? With the project suffer the same fate as InventQjaya and require the same bailout like PKFZ?

I've done some very simple preliminary checks, something that you and me can all do with Google. Here are some initial and not necessarily conclusive findings, which nevertheless, raises some interesting questions for the authorities to follow up on:
  1. Based on a free summary report by Dun & Bradstreet, a premier provider of international and US business credit information and credit reports, Actis Biologics is an unlisted company which started in 2004. It has annual sales of US$530,000 and 7 employees.

    Um.. a 3 year old company with 7 employees and revenue of about half a million US Dollars, taking on a RM1.3 billion "world biotechnology hub" project?

  2. Now, if the above data is sufficiently intriguing, there's a more detailed business information report available for US$110.00, which may contain further juicy information. The report studies key performance information, including sales figures, net worth, financial condition, legal suits etc. I'm sure the relevant Malaysian government authorities in-charge of the project will find the US$110 money well spent. There are of course, other reports on the company which can be purchased.

  3. It will of course be useful to see other projects which Actis have undertaken, and in particular, one in India which was launched at the end of 2005. Despite many press statements then sounding overwhelmingly similar to the NST article, no further news is available as to the progress of the project in Mumbai. As reported in the Economic Times, India, Actis planned a US$3 million investment in a R&D lab in India. Also, check out the report in Hindu Business Line or the one at
    US-based biopharmaceutical company Actis Biologics Inc is setting up its wholly owned subsidiary in India in a move to make the country a hub for its clinical research and developmental activities.

    Having recently licensed the angiozyme technology, jointly developed by Sirna Therapeutics and Chiron, Actis expects this technology platform to power drug development in different segments. This technology helps block blood supply to cancer cells and the same method can be used for fat cells too, he said.

  4. Which brings me to this "angiozyme" technology. A 1-pager introduction on the enzyme is available here. Actis bought the rights to Angiozyme from the owners, Sirna and Chiron for worldwide distribution i.e., Actis isn't the inventor of the product. As reported here in the November 2005 edition of the Business World, India:
    Actis does not do any drug discovery. Instead, it licences promising drugs that have cleared early stages of human trials from either universities or biopharmaceutical firms in the US after a due diligence by its own scientific team. What Actis wants are partners in India that would be interested in helping it take these products through clinical trials in exchange for marketing rights in emerging markets and global manufacturing rights.

    Actis expects that the capital will be put up by the Indian partner
    while Actis brings the clinical and manufacturing expertise needed for a completely new biotech product.
The question then is, and I assume the situation is relatively similar for Alor Gajah, if Actis is not bringing in the much needed capital, then who is forking out the RM1.3 billion investment? The Malaysian Government? You and me?

Let me reiterate, I have every wish that the project announced by Actis will be wildly successful, for then it'll prove to the world that Malaysia is a worthwhile country to invest in. However, our past experiences, particularly with incompetent and guillible government officials, it certainly necessitate that stringent due diligence be conducted to ensure that we don't dig another hole for ourselves.
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