A ‘Blue Zone’ is one where the world’s longest living people reside and a combination of lifestyle and environment reduce the presence of diseases commonly found in other parts of the developed world to a fraction. Costa Rica is one such zone. It is little wonder that this country in the middle of the Americas is combining biodiversity, food, health and biotechnology to spark innovation.
Costa Rica hosts 5% of the world’s biodiversity and 3.5% of marine known species around the world providing a natural lab for research on new materials and components. It is ranked number 1 in Latin America for availability of research and training service and second for availability of engineers and scientists by the World Economic Forum, making it a choice destination for businesses in this fields. Furthermore, the country hosts 32 research institutions and access to over 3,400 researchers, which creates a unique environment for collaborative research with local institutions or to set up a research facility.
The National Commission for Biodiversity maintains an up-to-date registry of species collections, overseeing initiatives for research, bio-prospecting, classification and research for commercial purposes on new sources of chemical components, genes, proteins, microorganisms, and other products with current or future economic value that are found in Costa Rica´s biodiversity. A recent study by luxury brand Chanel on Costa Rica´s Blue Zone found 70 times more active antioxidant molecules in green coffee beans from that region than of any other traditional crop. After doing bio-prospecting, the company gained commercialization rights to include this Costa Rican component in its Blue Serum anti-aging product.
Costa Rica’s unique location gives it access to an abundance of flora and fauna, unparalleled across the world, for example it supports 5% of the world’s biodiversity and 3.5% of known marine species, making it a perfect natural laboratory for research on new materials and components. The Costa Rican National Commission for Biodiversity Management (CONAGEBIO) plays a pivotal role in the maintenance of an up-to-date registry of ex-situ (non-native) species. It also plays a key role in overseeing initiatives for research, bio-prospecting including systematic search, classification and research for commercial purposes regarding new sources of chemical components. Examples of these components include genes, proteins, microorganisms, and other products with current or future economic value that are found in Costa Rica´s biodiversity. Moreover, it also oversees the commercialisation of these.
Food and Agri innovations
The mantra ‘you are what you eat’ is never truer than in Costa Rica, where more than a century of agri-business combined with the latest technologies has resulted in exports across the globe. Costa Rica exports 340 food products to 130 destinations, through a robust network of Free Trade Agreements (or FTAs). This enables preferential access to two thirds of the world’s GDP. But with large scale production comes the responsibility of sustainability, if this unique environment is to be preserved, and at the heart of this is the Costa Rican motto ‘we preserve to produce and we produce to preserve’.
The country’s value chain has expanded and caters to the growing demand for organic agriculture, ‘green’ production and Fair Trade, in addition to biotechnology applied to agriculture. It is still leader in golden pineapple and banana production in fresh and processed presentations such as aseptic purées and juices. But the production of ‘super foods’ for food and non-food applications steadily rises, namely of Aloe, Soursop, Mangostan, Rambutan, Moringa and Ipecacuana, where many of these are used for food enhancement and non-food applications such as leaf extracts or leaf processing for pharmaceuticals or personal care.
Health and wellbeing: a choice destination for clinical trials
The country abolished its army voluntarily in 1948, reallocating this funds to health and education as a path for development. The net effect of this can be seen today where 9% of its GDP is spent on health and has created a cluster of over 70 ‘medtech’ companies, making medical devices Costa Rica´s #1 industrial export product.
For the past 25 years Costa Rica has actively encouraged clinical research. One such result is the new Biomedical Research Law for clinical trials, which was established in 2014 and provides a stronger, more robust regulatory framework. The country also offers a one-stop-shop for regulatory approval procedures with as low as a nine-week approval timeframe. For the past 19 years the Costa Rican healthcare system tests every single newborn for 29 genetic conditions, thus providing a strong pull for patient identification in a wide array of common and rare diseases.
It is unsurprising that because of this vision Costa Rica provides a leading position in innovation and safeguarding of intellectual property. In addition, this carefully managed environment and the balanced lifestyles of the Costa Rican people come together to create a living and breathing laboratory known as the blue zone, which plays such a key role in the success of the people and industry located there.