On Sept. 11 last year, 19 men, some of them known international terrorists, used fake passports and other documents to board four US airplanes and kill thou-sands of people, changing the course of history. One local company aims to make sure it never happens again, by using biotechnology to make ID papers impossible to forge.
The company, Biowell Technology Inc (博微生科), developed a process to imprint DNA on a small microchip, which is then placed on passports, credit cards, drivers licenses and other forms of identification.
The card scanners used in conjunction with the chips read only the DNA. Since it is biochemical, and not electronic, it cannot be manipulated, altered or copied, according to the company.
"Taiwanese companies like Biowell have to be very innovative," said Hsieh Dar-Jen (謝達仁), chairman of Acrobio Investment Consulting Inc (生橋生科投顧), a biotechnology venture capital investment firm. "They are small and cannot go head to head with large multinationals, so they have to find new product [niches]," he added. His firm is helping raise money for Biowell, but is not a direct investor.
The company started doing business three years ago, providing DNA identification services to help determine a children's identity and proof of parentage -- as well as other legal uses. As the company researched new uses for DNA-manipulation, it developed a method to imprint strands of DNA on products for identification purposes. At first, they marketed it as an anti-piracy product -- an avenue they are still pursuing -- but now they believe it could play a far more important role in keeping identification papers out of the hands of known terrorists.
The company is also an anomaly in Taiwan considering the extent of its research and development expenditure. Over 40 percent of its entire budget goes into R&D, versus the 3 percent to 5 percent in most Taiwanese firms.
The company yesterday opened their new headquarters, including a new laboratory, in Chungho, Taipei County.
Instead of opting for the tax breaks, low-rent land and other perks offered to biotech firms in high-tech industrial parks throughout Taiwan, Biowell chose a location based on what their employees wanted, another rarity in industrial Taiwan.
"Tax breaks are nice, but this place is close to all of our homes, the building is new and it's easy to get to the Academia Sinica or to Hsinchu from here -- it's very convenient. It's also near Fu Jen Catholic University, where I went to school and where we can find a lot of student lab workers," said Sheu Jen-jei (許俊傑), chairman of Biowell.
Biowell's offices are also located on the 14th floor of a building overlooking the Tahan River and the Taipei skyline. "The big appeal of the knowledge economy is the clustering effect, and these clusters of companies usually sprout up around universities, so that people can easily exchange ideas," said Peter Griffith, an analyst at EnTrust Securities Corp (永昌證券).