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Article Released Tue-4th-September-2007 04:05 GMT
Contact: Asian Institute of Technology Institution: Asian Institute of Technology
 A bio-driven future

Asian Institute of Technology aims to focus its work on six areas : information and communications technology for development; food and aquatic systems (bio-resources); urban and rural sustainability (climate change); the Asian model of management; water; and robotic and sensor networks for an intelligent environment.

Dr Sudip Kumar Rakshit, 50, the vice president for research at Thailand's Asian Institute of Technology (AIT), is spearheading a consolidation of research activities at the premier regional educational institute.

Founded in 1959, AIT, which is situated in the north of Bangkok, aims to focus its work on six areas. These are information and communications technology for development; food and aquatic systems (bio-resources); urban and rural sustainability (climate change); the Asian model of management; water; and robotic and sensor networks for an intelligent environment.

These research groups and sub-groups span different fields of study within AIT so that climate change, for instance, could be handled with by AIT's School of the Environment, Resources and Development as well as the School of Engineering and Technology, says Rakshit, a biochemical engineering professor, who started AIT's biotechnology unit back in 1995.

Currently, AIT has around 2,000 students from 30 different countries, while there are about 120 faculty members and researchers who come from 25 different nations.

"We have about 220 sponsored research projects with a combined budget of Bt1.2 billion under way, including those with short and long duration of up to three to five years. Funding comes from international agencies such as Cida [Canadian International Development Agency], regional government units, as well as industries etc," says Rakshit.

The professor earned his doctoral degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in 1987. As a biochemical engineer, Rakshit was then involved in research on enzymes that could be used to convert cellulose materials, such as rice or wheat straw, into alcohol and ethanol for use as an alternative energy source.

Now, bio-fuels such as ethanol made from tapioca starch are gaining popularity due to high petrol prices.

Rakshit says Thailand stands a good chance of becoming a major producer of ethanol in the region due to its large annual supply of tapioca and starch.

More recently, Rakshit has focused on the areas of food safety using quick, biotech methods as well as functional food that provides both nutritional value and health benefits, such as the use of probiotics in yoghurt.

"Probiotics are also used in the animal feed industry, such as in chicken feed, to improve the livestock's health and promote faster growth for higher yield," he says.

In Thailand, major chicken producer and exporter Betagro, for instance, has switched to probiotics because major markets such as the European Union are banning the use of antibiotics in animal feed since they could be harmful to human health.

Rakshit feels that there ought to be a closer linkage between academic institutes, industries and public-policy makers in Asia.

"Asian businesses were not research-intensive as they used to look for short-term gains only. This meant they preferred to buy foreign technology via licensing etc [rather than investing in research and development].

"Now, things have changed. It's far more costly to buy technology. In addition, free-trade agreements have levelled the playing field and increased the [cross-border] competition, so you need to take a longer-term strategy.

"I think we also need to do more confidence building in Asia as far as R&D is concerned and promote more collaborative research.

"Looking forward, we also need to be more flexible and tap the potential of leapfrogging via partnerships with other institutes and countries as we cannot possibly do everything ourselves.

"We also need to be ready for rapid changes in technological development. Biotech is a good example. The so-called PCR machine was rare just 15 years ago. Now, it's a basic piece of equipment for the sector.

"The Indian government, meanwhile, set up the Department of Biotechnology in 1985. Now, there're a total of 10 sub-agencies under this department, covering different fields of biotech such as bio-pharmaceuticals in which India is now quite competitive," says Rakshit, who has been working here for the past 11 years.

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