Aquaculture for all

Innovation Will Help Develop Oman's Marine Biotechnology Sector

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OMAN - Using marine resources such as seaweeds, fish and microbes to develop new products for the healthcare, agriculture and other industries could hold the key to a more resilient economy in Oman, but only if a climate of open innovation exists, a ground-breaking study led by Newcastle University has concluded.

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With over 3,000 kilometres of coastline, Oman is an area of rich marine biodiversity with lots of unique marine species, however, many of these have not yet been investigated for their biotechnological potential.

In the first ever study of the use of open innovation in the marine biotechnology sector, researchers found that despite this biodiversity, companies in the country’s marine and fisheries industries were commonly developing new knowledge mainly from ‘market-based’ sources, such as customers, suppliers and competitors, rather than through research-led innovation.

Currently, over 85 per cent of the Oman’s revenues are accounted for by oil and gas. With future revenue from these sources expected to decline, the Omani government has begun to look at ways to diversify its economy to support growth and improve food security, and identified the emerging marine biotech sector as an area for development.

The study, published today (17 April) in the journal Marine Policy, looked at how open innovation could be used to increase the diversity and competitiveness of the Omani marine biotech sector.

Researchers conclude that companies in the sector should collaborate in a more open, balanced way – not just with market-side partners but also with universities, research institutes and external partners to gain knowledge and drive innovation.

They also suggest that investing in advanced life sciences research and targeted investment to increase the use of open innovation in the sector be significantly strengthened to improve sustainable economic growth.

Grant Burgess, Professor of Marine Biotechnology at Newcastle University, who led the project, said: “Marine biotechnology is fast becoming an important part of the global biotechnology sector, and with its rich marine biodiversity, Oman is well-placed to take advantage of the opportunities this presents.

“Omani universities are an increasingly important science base for the marine biotech sector. Recent developments such as the University of Nizwa’s work on the potential use of compounds in seaweeds and algae for medicinal purposes is evidence of how the research infrastructure and marine biotech expertise within Oman are growing.

“However, there needs to be greater collaboration between private companies and researchers to develop the sector further and improve Oman’s innovation performance.”

The study makes a number of comparisons with Norway, which historically has had a heavy dependency on oil and gas but has diversified as oil production has fallen. And – like Oman - Norway also has a long history of fishing as a result of its extensive coastline. In recent years, Norway has invested heavily in marine biotechnology and aquaculture, and there are numerous examples of companies which have evolved from traditional fisheries businesses to technology-driven marine bioindustry companies.

Kawther Al-Belushi, from the School of Marine Science and Technology at Newcastle University, and lead author of the paper, said: “Open innovation encourages risk sharing, can reduce the time to market of products and is recognised as an essential approach in complex industrial sectors such as biotechnology. Yet there is limited information on the use of open innovation in the Arab World despite extensive research on its uses in other economies, and no previous studies at all on its potential within the marine biotechnology sector.

“Traditional forms of marine biotechnology such as fish and seafood processing are already well established in Oman, but with the right support and a climate of open innovation, the high-tech end of this sector can grow and flourish.”

Fishing is an important sector for employment in Oman - almost 45,000 Omanis work as fishermen and another 12,000 are employed in supporting industries, such as marketing, transport, and related services. The country has a long maritime history, having had trade links with Africa, India and the Far East for thousands of years.

Dr Hamed Al-Oufi, Undersecretary of Fisheries Wealth at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Oman, said: “The marine sector is an important part of our economy and our heritage, so it’s right that we’re focussing on this as a means to grow our knowledge base.

“The growing wave of technology-based bio industry companies in Oman can help strengthen our economy, and this key study, carried out with Newcastle University, underlines the importance of encouraging companies to invest in open innovation by forming collaborative projects with universities.”