WA feature: Miners digging for biotech

By Pete Young
Tuesday, 28 May, 2002

Biotech companies and WA's bedrock industry - mining - appear to have little in common.

But the two sectors interact on several fronts. One involves young biotechs who are being backed into the listed shells of mining and exploration companies.

The arrival of Solbec Pharmaceuticals on the ASX about a year ago as a re-listing of Britannia Gold is an example of the process.

The company has the rights to evaluate and commercialise an anti-cancer agent derived from a plant native to Queensland.

Both mineral exploration and drug discovery are high-risk, high-reward environments, so it is not surprising that mining exploration company shareholders are attracted to biotech.

The other area of interaction lies in the use of bacteriology in mining.

A group of companies offering mining biotech services or products occupy a niche of the West Australian biotech sector that isn't replicated in any other State.

A leader in the field is listed company BacTech which uses naturally-occurring bacteria to liberate precious and base metals from sulphide ores and concentrates.

It focusses on higher grade deposits of copper, zinc and nickel with technology that originally was imported to West Australia from the UK about 20 years ago.

Metallurgical testing laboratory Lakefield Oretest also has bacterial expertise, as does Ammtec Ltd, another Perth test lab company.

Pacific Ore Technologies, a subsidiary of mining company Titan Resources, like BacTech provides proprietary bacterial solutions to the minerals processing industry. It uses biotech to treat gold ores as well as base metal ores and concentrates.

BacTech is unusual in that it is listed on the Canadian TSX exchange in Toronto although president and CEO Geoff Donohue lives in West Australia and works out of BacTech Australia's Perth office.

The majority of BacTech's processing projects are in North and South America and Europe.

BacTech claims to be on the threshold of proving its technology as a viable e treatment process for copper and zinc through a joint venture in Mexico. It has a staff of about six or seven with its head office in Toronto. It also has a South African mining technology partner, Mintek.

Donohue says he couldn't find interested Australian investors when he sought to take the company public in 1997.

He still classifies West Australia's business climate as risk-taking and entrepreneurial environment but believes that where science is concerned, the State is better at developing pre-existing technology than inventing new technology.

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