What can researchers, investors, and funding agencies do to unlock biotech’s potential?
The European life science industry has great potential to improve patient care, solve public health challenges, and drive economic growth. Europe is a leader in life science research, but is behind the United States, in particular, in translating discoveries into medical therapies and devices. What will it take to create a strong European biotechnology environment that supports businesses built on a research foundation?
A new white paper, “Europe’s flawed and underfunded biotech ecosystem,” from the nonprofit, Brussels-based trade organization European Biopharmaceutical Enterprises (EBE), outlines current gaps and a plan to address them. The EBE is a specialized group of EFPIA, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA).
Poul Sørensen chairs the EBE Innovation and Funding Models Working Group, which developed the paper.
“We focused on how to improve the European biotech ecosystem, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs),” he says. “They are at a critical point in the process of getting a discovery to market.”
The white paper has recommendations for several groups of stakeholders. Universities must increase entrepreneurial training for scientists. Funding agencies and investors should provide unified, sustained support for biotech SMEs that allows them to reach the market. Finally, government policies should promote these activities.
A strategy for the research community
Sørensen notes that European scientists have contributed to groundbreaking findings such as RNAi or CRISPR systems, but commercial development of these innovations tends to happen elsewhere. To keep discoveries from leaking out of the region, he says, the European Union needs to create a culture of entrepreneurship.
“Universities should integrate business and management training into science education,” he says. “We should make it easier for people to go back and forth between academia and industry.”
This would provide university technology transfer offices with people who have hands-on experience in turning a life science discovery into a viable business.
A plan for funding agencies, investors, and policymakers
Funders can learn from U.S. biotech successes, Sørensen says. The white paper has specific recommendations for the major sources of European life science funding. In addition to Horizon 2020, the white paper names the Innovative Medicines Initiative, a partnership between the European Commission (EC) and EFPIA, and InnovFin, a joint initiative of the European Investment Bank Group and the EC under Horizon 2020 that offers financing and advising. These funding sources must be careful not to spread their resources too thin, the EBE experts advise. Funding agencies must be prepared to make a sustained effort to support the entire process of translating a discovery from development to sales. Sørensen says, “Europe needs more crossover investors.” These people fund a product from early stage to market.
The European biotech ecosystem would benefit from more unity, the white paper advises, like the single stock exchange for technology-based companies in the United States.
“Europe is more fragmented in its regulations and stock exchanges,” says Sørensen.
He advises that government policies such as tax incentives and infrastructure such as a single European capital market for biotech would encourage European venture capitalists to invest locally instead of overseas. An improvement in the funding environment could result in more biotech companies on the European stock market, where they would be examples for additional biotech investment and development.
How to get involved
The EBE is promoting its recommendations through interactions with stakeholders. With global politics moving in nationalistic directions, focusing on the economic potential of biotech is critical – the number of local jobs that have been and could be created by the industry – Sørensen says.
The EBE network includes representatives from pharma, venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, and more. Sørensen encourages people in the biotech community to consider EBE membership.
“The EBE has a strong network in Europe that can serve the interests of SMEs, investors, and other stakeholders in the European biotech ecosystem,” he says. “We act as a voice for biotech in the European system, helping companies find funding opportunities and understand and navigate regulatory processes.”
Right image: Poul Sorensen