"There is a misconception that nothing innovative can come out of an industrial country like Turkey, that the research and ideas here are not developed enough to bring original research products. This is not true. We have very educated young talent and we need to organise these assets and bring together the universities and the industrial players, not only from Turkey, but at an international level too."
Since joining Acibadem University 10 years ago, one of your priorities has been to nurture university-industry partnerships. What progress has been made in this regard?
Since my time in the US, it became clear to me that the success of American biopharma was due to the prolific industry-university collaborations. The headquarters of the largest companies are located in the campuses of universities like Stanford; when a product is developed in the research labs, it is launched into the market, and a share of the profits are reinvested in research, which speeds developments by creating an innovation cycle. Returning to Turkey in 1994, I sought to convince people in the academia of this model, but it took over a decade before the importance of industry-university collaboration was brought into focus. Similarly, Turkey also realised the importance of biotech very late, but there is still a chance to catch up, with collaborations starting to form. Concrete relations, however, have only started to materialise in the past few years.
You also have experience as an entrepreneur, having founded TIBO in 2005. Could you share your this experience?
We founded TIBO, which stands for “Trends in Innovative Biotech Organisation” in 2005, focusing first on developing diagnostics, which are easier and cheaper to develop compared to therapeutic drugs. Using microbials to introduce diagnosis, the costs are minimal because human studies do not need to be carried out. TIBO is specialised in rapid diagnosis for infectious diseases, with a focus on tuberculosis. I developed a sample processing kit together with a rapid tuberculosis culture system. These products were brought to the attention of WHO because they are simple tools with great usability in resource-limited settings where TB continues to take many lives. Without the resources for diagnosis, one third of people who die of TB are never diagnosed. WHO has set out to reduce the number of fatalities by 90% by 2030, and fully eradicate the disease by 2050. There is great scope in this area, but so far we have not been able to launch these products internationally. While TIBO makes US$4 worth of product in a year, global competitors produce about US$4 billion equivalent in the same amount of time. It is my dream that the company will manage to establish an international collaboration to do global marketing and face competition better.
The biotech industry is still in its early stages. What potential does Turkey have for developing original drugs?
First of all, we have to trust ourselves and fight against the belief that developing drugs is too expensive, because this is only partly true and should not discourage our attempts. At this stage, research centres are able to conduct the first part of the research up to bringing the final product to the market, from lab studies, animal testing, and even Phase 1 Clinical studies, with the financial help of research organisations like TUBITAK and TUSEB. In the universities, there are many drugs under discovery of which the industry is not even aware. On the other hand, in the industry, even big companies who hire over 150 scientists in their R&D teams do not engage in research that will lead to an original drug with a prominent effect. These two components need to be brought under the same roof.
What is your message for our international audience?
There is a misconception that nothing innovative can come out of an industrial country like Turkey, that the research and ideas here are not developed enough to bring original research products. This is not true. We have very educated young talent and we need to organise these assets and bring together the universities and the industrial players, not only from Turkey, but at an international level too. Investors and international companies should come and look at what is going on in Turkey because what we are doing is not only for our country, but for humanity.