For more than fifteen years, Esteban Guerra felt like he was living on an airplane. As an advisor to laboratories producing veterinary vaccines, his work took him at least twenty times a year from his native Uruguay to destinations around the world. The frenetic pace eventually took its toll.
“I was advising in Turkey, and I lived three weeks in Turkey and five weeks in Uruguay,” he recalls. "I endured that for more than two years, until one day I had to get off the plane in a wheelchair and rethink my life."
A month of convalesce helped him do just that. As his intervertebral disc injury healed, he realized that he could reshape his situation into a business. When he was traveling, he could only advise one client at a time, even as more and more companies were calling with their consulting needs. This was a case of unsatisfied demand – and opportunity.
With his partner, chemist Jorge Wenzel, Guerra envisioned a biotech venture.
“We staked everything. Jorge took out a personal bank loan, and I mortgaged my house. We put all the liquid capital we had in the company,” he recalls. “There was no going back.”
At first, the partners thought about going to Brazil, where there was more of an ecosystem in place for biotech startups. But a series of happy coincidences, including the opportunity to buy cheap lab equipment from a company that was leaving the country, took them to Khem Bio, a business incubator located at the Pando Technology Cluster outside of Montevideo.
In 2016, Benten Biotech was born, the first contract research startup for veterinary vaccines in Latin America.
“Uruguay is at a much better stage than it was a decade ago,” Guerra reflects. “We could not have created the company if we had not been incubated and if we had not had the support of the ANII for seed capital to enable the projects we’ve developed.”
The ANII, or the National Agency for Research and Innovation, is the state entity that has promoted R&D in Uruguay since 2007. With the support of the IDB, the ANII finances projects, business-innovation initiatives, scholarships for masters- and doctoral-level studies, and new ventures such as Benten Biotech.
The emerging biotechnology industry has required an extra level of investment, notes Pablo Angelelli, lead science and technology specialist at the IDB:
“In Uruguay, the industry that has had the most notable performance in terms of entrepreneurship is software… Biotechnology is a sector that requires an investment of greater magnitude and in the longer term, and although there are many more capacities in the country in biology and medical sciences, transforming that knowledge into companies requires long-term efforts and a lot of money.”
Fernando Brum, president of the ANII, estimates that where another company will require $25,000 in seed capital, a biotech company will need $40,000. Projects that would last two years in other fields extend to three in biotech.
In late 2017, Uruguay confirmed its commitment to developing the field with the inauguration of its first biotechnology center, CBI + I. Financed primarily by the ANII and Montevideo’s ORT University, with support from several private companies, the center is home to innovative companies working on projects as diverse as cheese fermentation, medicinal cannabis derivatives, phosphorus-solubilizing microorganisms and more.
Well-regulated agrotech applications could bring significant value to the soy, dairy and meat industries, three of Uruguay’s largest.
The country is experiencing “a moment of germination,” says ORT University’s Enrique Topolanski, “where we are still generating basic capabilities so that the biotechnology sector can grow, and above all, working very hard so that the actors in agriculture and other companies begin to value this type of solution.”
CBI + I, he says, will be a critical part of the story. Featuring a cutting-edge, 300-square-meter laboratory, its work methodology aims to spur innovation by bringing companies, researchers and students together.
Benten Biotech may well be the poster child. Two and a half years since its founding, the company has a dozen workers and exports products and services to seven countries on three continents. In 2018, it won the National Innovation Award for exemplifying how academic and applied research can be turned into an innovative venture.
“Now, Uruguay has the tools that allow companies like ours to emerge,” says co-founder Guerra. “In turn, those tools are being perfected, and are meeting the real needs of biotechnology companies.”
“In five years, I’m sure we’ll be the leading company in our field in Latin America,” he predicts. “I think there are going to be more and more examples like ours. This sector is going to be energized a lot, and the people who are trained in this field can have a professional future, which is a bit difficult today.”
If you want to learn more about the growing biotech sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, download our new publication, AGTECH: Agtech Innovation Map in Latin America and the Caribbean.