The 5 hottest private biotechs in South Africa

September 28, 2022 - 5 minutes
biotechnology in South Africa

Biotechnology companies are sprouting in South Africa’s maturing life sciences industry. We’ve listed five private biotech companies that have turned heads in the last few years.

South Africa boasts the second biggest economy in Africa after Nigeria. While famous for its rich mineral wealth, South Africa’s economy has diversified widely in the past decades to include industries such as pharmaceuticals and biotechnology.

One of the biggest success stories for the South African biotech industry was Kapa Biosystems. The company was founded in 2006 to create DNA sequencing tools and was sold to Roche for $445 million in 2015.

Several incubators and funders are striving to build on South Africa’s biotech foundation such as BioVentures and OneBio Seed Investment Fund.

Here we list the top five biotech companies that have recently made headlines in South Africa’s biotech scene. These companies cover a range of healthcare and industrial biotech sectors, and have bagged funding rounds in the last few years.

Shutterstock cape town south africa
Cape Town, South Africa. Image/Shutterstock

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BioCertica

Founded: 2019

Headquarters: Paarl and Wilmington, U.S.

BioCertica is a genetic testing platform that uses an app to provide customized information about a user’s genetics. The company provides the user with data from their own genome that can inform them on key lifestyle and health-related decisions.

To fund its business development, BioCertica raised $650,000 in a pre-seed round in early 2021, and a $1.6 million seed round in April 2022.

BioCertica works in a similar way to established genetic testing companies such as 23andMe, which offer consumers key genomic screening tests to unearth health- and ancestry-related genetic data. BioCertica targets its services to African populations, and claims to be the first of its kind in Africa to incorporate polygenic risk scoring into its genomic analyses: an estimate of a person’s genetic predisposition to a particular condition based on many genetic changes.

Biovac

Founded: 2003

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Headquarters: Cape Town

The COVID-19 pandemic hammered home the importance of equitable vaccine distribution across the world. Almost two decades prior to this world-changing event, Biovac was set up as a public-private partnership to boost the domestic manufacturing capacity of vaccines in South Africa and neighboring countries.

At present, the biotech industry in South Africa and the rest of the continent as a whole lacks manufacturing muscle for life-saving vaccines for a range of infectious diseases. To rectify this problem, Biovac is developing manufacturing know-how and sourcing from multiple partners including the University of Cape Town, World Health Organization, Sanofi Pasteur and Pfizer.

So far, Biovac has invested over $44 million in building up its operations. Earlier this year, the European Investment Bank granted Biovac $14.3 million (€15 million) to strengthen the organization’s capacity to manufacture vaccines in future pandemics. Biovac also expects investments totaling more than $166 million (€175 million) over the coming years, backed by South African and international financing partners.

BixBio

Founded: 2020

Headquarters: Cape Town

In late 2021, BixBio was picked up by the Illumina Accelerator, a program designed to provide funding and support to entrepreneurs to innovate in the genomic medical sector. The startup is gunning to drive the development of precision medicine in Africa.

BixBio is working on this mission by building bioinformatics tools based on artificial intelligence. The company is keen to harness huge untapped genetic diversity in Africa’s population to discover genetic links to disease and discover new drug targets.

Cape Bio Pharms

Founded: 2018

Headquarters: Cape Town

Cape Bio Pharms, a spinout of the University of Cape Town, bagged a jackpot of around $49 million in late 2020. The company is using the cash to fund the production of diagnostics and lab reagents using a type of tobacco plant called Nicotiana benthamiana.

The firm uses plants to manufacture therapeutic and diagnostic proteins because they have a number of advantages over traditional forms of protein production, including in cell cultures, live animals and microbes. For example, plant-based manufacturing is often cheaper and faster to set up and use than traditional techniques. It is also easier to scale up to meet fluctuating demand.

One of the applications of Cape Bio Pharms’ strategy is producing reagents used in COVID-19 tests, which can be cheaply distributed across African communities. Another is diagnostic reagents to combat HIV and other infectious diseases.

To ramp up its capacity, Cape Bio Pharms and its manufacturing subsidiary Cape Biologix are currently constructing a hydroponic manufacturing facility in Mauritius.

De Novo Dairy

Founded: 2021

Headquarters: Cape Town

De Novo Dairy aims to produce proteins for the nutrition industry, with a focus on infant nutritional products, a sector largely based on cow’s milk.

Rather than sourcing its protein ingredients from animals, De Novo Dairy is developing a method to mass produce identical proteins using a technique known as precision fermentation. This involves brewing the proteins using engineered strains of yeast.

By using precision fermentation, the company aims to increase the supply of vital proteins that are currently harvested at great cost from cow’s milk. It could also provide a more sustainable alternative to animal farming, which requires big greenhouse gas emissions and land use.

To fund the development of its technology, De Novo Dairy raised a pre-seed round in February 2022, with a further investment from UM6P Ventures in September 2022.

De Novo Dairy plans to partner with big food brands to slot its precision fermentation proteins into their products, and expects to be ready for commercial launch in 2024.

Supporting South Africa’s emerging biotechnology space

While South Africa hosts a number of innovative biotech companies, the general attitude in the space is that South Africa lags behind other countries. However, there is big potential growth with the right enablers, such as R&D universities, research institutions and incubators.

With more venture capital funders with an appetite for risk, and greater government support for biotech companies, South Africa could see a strong growth in innovation in the years to come.

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