The Role of Public and Industrial Research in the Development of Microbial Pesticides

Generally, the initial research on a microbial control agent is performed by public research. This could comprise the discovery and screening of strains, the identification, the unravelling of the mode of action, the host range spectrum, even basic research on production and formulation, initial application and efficacy testing. In the process of the commercial development of a new biocontrol agent this research is extremely important. Very few companies are able to perform this early work themselves because of a lack of knowledge and resources. On the other hand, the focus of a public research institute is not the same as that of a commercial enterprise. Often, particularly in the past, this has resulted in uncoordinated research efforts that did not favour the development and use of biopesticides (Dent 1997). An example is the development of a baculovirus for control of S. exigua in the Netherlands while no company could be found to commercialize it. Only many years later when there was a market demand the product was registered and marketed (Smits and Vlak 1994).

Some researchers have expressed self-criticism with regard to their attitude towards research on biocontrol agents and are calling upon colleagues to maximize efforts to attain more commercial successes (Fravel 1999; Stewart 2001). Collaboration in an early phase when commercialization is foreseen is highly desired. In this way, research goals can be compared and adjusted in order to prevent omissions and overlap in research. Several authors have advocated partnership between public and private organizations (Carlton 1990; Riba et al. 1996; Waage 1997; Butt 2000; Ravensberg and Elad 2001; Whipps and Lumsden 2001; Gelernter 2005, 2007; Fravel 2005; Krause et al. 2006; Cherry and Gwynn 2007; Ash 2009; Peters 2009). Fortunately, we see this kind of collaboration more and more and governmental funding increasingly requires involvement of industry and relevance for society. The value of public research results can be millions of Euros and will help biocontrol companies to develop products successfully. In some cases, part of the revenues has to be paid back, and most companies agree to this once revenues allow for it.

In my experience, it is not always easy to establish collaborative projects since the goals of scientists (often demanded by funding agencies) and industry researchers can diverge. The first are mainly oriented towards the organism and new knowledge that can be published. The second focus on market- and product-driven research with a strong emphasis on cost-effectiveness, registration, market size, and the investment needed. A balance must be found between the scientific research topics and the industry requirements. Disclosure and publication of data can be a delicate issue and clear agreements need to be made in advance. The same is true for exploitation of project results, patents and licenses. Nevertheless, I believe that collaboration between scientists and industry is crucial in order to develop these products, and contacts between these two groups are necessary from the outset of the development of a microbial. Such collaboration is very valuable for a biocontrol company, and fruitful relationships with public institutes are indispensable for the industry. On the other hand, a company must take it own decisions and stick to its own agenda, even when this is not always appreciated by scientists.

The discovery of new strains is a sensitive issue that has come up frequently. Researchers often prefer to work with their own, locally found strains, and will present them as better adapted, and therefore providing superior control under the local circumstances. Is a new strain significantly better so that it justifies developing a new product? This may or may not be true. It is, however, impossible to develop multiple products based on local strains for different regions, given the time and costs for such a development. Therefore, company management has to make choices and work with one strain that is best suited for many circumstances. This is an unavoidable compromise. Products can only be developed for relatively large markets.

Interactions between public and private scientists are numerous as can be seen within the IOBC, the SIP and at many conferences. Many biocontrol companies have relationships and cooperative projects with research institutes and universities. I assume that for the large majority of biocontrol products, public research has been the basis of the development and that this will continue in the near future. As a result of university research, new biocontrol companies have been established as spin-off companies, and close ties between the two organizations remain in place. Recent examples are Bio-ferm, Austria, and Bionext, Belgium.

On the other hand, research organizations tend to patent new inventions with the goal of licensing technology to companies. However, this often had the opposite effect of deterring small biocontrol companies from developing the products because of royalty payments. This trend is mainly seen in the USA and needs readjusting (Gelernter 2007).

In the current market, biopesticide companies are still relatively small, and the assumption that they can afford to develop new products on their own is unrealistic. The collaboration with public research is essential if our society wishes to have continued progress in this field (Gelernter 2007).

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