WASHINGTON—A decade ago, the United States whetted the world’s appetite for biotechnology with a tempting platter of Western hors d’oeuvres including hybridoma technology, diagnostic tests, and a handful of new drugs. But aromas from biotech kitchens across the Pacific have some U.S. experts worned that the main course will be served with chopsticks, not forks.

One telling sign of this is Rand SNell's business card. Apolitical scientist conducting a study for the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment on biotechnology, Snell has his name and address printed in Japanese on the back side of his card. “I think the Japanese are very serious competitors,” he says. Noting that Japanese companies now dominate the consumer electronics industry, despite the fact that much of the core technology was developed in the U.S., Snell says, “The question is how to avoid repeating the historical mistakes that we made with electronics.

Fortunately for U.S. firms,...

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