Earmarked as one of Taiwan's rising-star industries, the biotechnology sector is balancing between raging success and abject failure. Hidden hurdles on the path to commercial glory may yet trip the new leading light of the island's economy. It is, of course, too early to tell whether the time and energy being expended on this new industry will pay off, but early signs indicate that the academic sector is climbing aboard, if not the private sector. Last weekend's BioTaiwan 2003 exhibition saw lots of interesting highbrow, albeit scientifically baffling, research from universities and think-tanks. They dominated the floor, with appropriately dressed scientists attempting to explain their work to passers-by. The private sector's contribution was somewhat more lowbrow. Energy vests and glowing fish were displayed alongside a seemingly endless array of Chinese medical derivations. Insomniacs have probably seen the adverts for them: 'Revolutionary new product extracts the potency of little-known ancient Chinese recipe. Available in tablet or capsule form. Call now.' President Chen Shui-bian turned up at the BioTaiwan show and gave the opening speech, noting that the government has invested NT$54 billion (HK$12 billion) and helped more than 70 biotech companies to start up. In fact, the money is barely half the cost of one next-generation semiconductor plant, but the point is that the government is determined to make it work. The fact that academia and the government dominate the fledgling days is not necessarily a bad sign. Taiwan's hi-tech industry got its momentum from significant government help three decades ago. Local heroes, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company and United Microelectronics Corp were spinoffs from a semi-government think-tank. Biotechnology proponents point out that when the idea to move to the personal computer industry was first floated in the late 1970s, the response was silence, followed by hysterical laughter. Back then, Taiwan was known for its cheap plastic toys - and not much more. In the end, the PC industry was a success, but few people even now would say that such success was obvious. This time round, one of the dominant trains of thought goes something like a line out of the film Top Gun: give it a big enough engine and you could make a brick fly. But a hidden problem for the Taiwanese is one that its PC industry never faced, and that is the public's perception of the sector as a whole. PCs, semiconductors and even the plastic-toy industry have been relatively free of controversy. But biotechnology is sitting on a potential minefield. This was most evident last week when a story surfaced about the world's first genetically engineered fish, which glows green. The news of the dull, freshwater rice fish that, through innovative bio-engineering, had been turned into a glowing wonder, and a commercial success, sparked fury among lobby groups. The well-meaning, perhaps naive, developer was evidently very pleased to have such a winner on his hands. But the ethical and environmental consequences had apparently escaped him. Within days, environmental groups were issuing warnings about the fish getting into the ecological chain and the Singapore government had started seizing imports. It was this reaction that reminded the local biotech industry that theirs was not an easy path to travel.