We at BioVox have mentioned the golden rules for life sciences success a couple times now: “Collaboration is key” and “Loners will be losers.” There’s no doubt that interaction between academia, SMEs and large pharmaceutical companies creates important synergies that lead to true innovation. Creating a life sciences network of research centers, small to medium players and big companies is a business in itself. That’s where FlandersBio comes in. As the networking organization for life sciences in Flanders, with over 330 members , FlandersBio completely updated its strategy to make this region one of the world’s most important locations for life sciences. We talked to Henk Joos, managing director of FlandersBio about the role this organization will play in the sector’s future.
“We just went through a strategic review of the life sciences cluster in the region of Flanders,” says Joos. “We looked 10 years ahead and wondered, ‘What are the critical success factors that could make this cluster the best in Europe and even the world?’ That’s how we came up with a range of initiatives in which we want to excel.”
Excelling in science, collaboration and marketing
Flanders excels in science and innovation, with organizations like VIB and a number of other life sciences groups in hospitals and universities. “We want to reinforce this position internationally by attracting top scientists, supporting early-stage research at universities and encouraging interdisciplinary collaborations,” assures Joos. “Next, we want to make sure that the technologies that are developed in these centers of excellence find their way into companies and that collaborations are set up.
Innovation is a cross-disciplinary game.
“I am convinced that in the future, new products won’t be a one-component solution, but instead will be a combination of a drug with a diagnostic test and an app to allow people to use the drug as correctly as possible. Different sectors and companies should work together to achieve this.”
Flanders is also one of the leading areas when it comes to testing products in clinical trials. “We want new business concepts to be fully developed and registered here,” explains Joos. “We not only want to be a technological testing region in Europe, but also one for marketing and developing new business models.
“Innovation is a cross-disciplinary game,” adds Joos. “In the future, the life sciences economy will be driven by collaborations between biotechnology, ICT, microelectronics, 3D printing companies and so on. We will put extra effort into supporting these cross-disciplinary collaborations, and we will bring these integrated solutions to patients and consumers.
Our goal is to create these winners, and to identify the critical success factors to make sure that each of these companies can become an independent pharmaceutical or diagnostic company.
“These first four tracks [excelling in science & innovation, bringing technology to companies, clinical trial testing and cross-disciplinary collaboration],” continues Joos, “are in support of all kinds of companies, from small ones to large ones. But we also have a special track, for companies that we call ‘winners.’ We think it is important to set examples and to create success stories to build our reputation internationally, which will attract finance and talent to the region. We have 2 or 3 companies that — at least in theory — are ready to become the Amgens of Europe. Our goal is to create these winners, and to identify the critical success factors to make sure that each of these companies can become an independent pharmaceutical or diagnostic company. Companies like Ablynx, Galapagos and Biocartis are getting into that phase. There are also a number of runner-up companies, such as Argen-X and Multiplicom, that possibly, over time, could also qualify as winners.”
This is important because:
The more successful these companies are in the commercialization of novel health solutions, the higher the chances that critical parts of their organizations and strategic decision making will continue to happen here.
In these “winner” companies, people learn to bring products from R&D to commercialization. Smaller companies in the region can subsequently draw upon the experience of these people to become success stories in their own right.
“Winners” put us on the map internationally as a very successful life sciences region. These companies are an illustration of the quality of the cluster as a whole.
Money and People
If Europe wants to be competitive in life sciences, we will need to do something about the structural shortage in funding; otherwise, all our companies will end up in the hands of US- or China-based organizations.
“We have to admit that there is a structural problem in the early-stage financing,” says Joos. “We need to find a way to make money available, apart from VLAIO subsidies. In Flanders, we are blessed with 6 to 7 funds that invest in life sciences, which each have somewhere between 70 and 150 million euros available. However, in the bigger picture, these are not giant numbers, as you need around 100 million euros to fund 1 project for 5 to 6 years. Later-stage funding requires even more capital. This forces our bigger companies to go to the US, where more funds for commercialization are available. If Europe wants to be competitive in life sciences, we will need to do something about the structural shortage in funding; otherwise, all our companies will end up in the hands of US- or China-based organizations.”
Today, around 35,000 people in Belgium are directly employed in the life science sector. “It sounds like a luxury problem, to be able to employ so many people in the cluster. But, as the sector is growing so quickly, a structural shortage of industry-ready talent is looming, threatening the growth of companies. This is why we took the initiative, together with some partners from VIB and some Dutch partners, to create MBI, a life sciences and health academy. We are conducting an extensive competence need analysis for the coming 10 years so that we will know the most important skills to train for, and we will organize these training programs in partnership with relevant players.
“FlandersBio wants to be the voice, the mediator, the catalyzer to manage these different tracks in support of startups, medium-size and, where relevant, large companies,” concludes Joos. “We want to create good science and strong collaborations with larger companies, thereby providing startups with the support they need to grow into winners.”