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“We are holding our breath”

Helena Strigård

“We are holding our breath,” is how one company described the situation for the life science industry due to the economic effects of COVID-19. This was in April; now Autumn is coming and it looks as though it is going to be one long inhalation. We need to think about how to make the oxygen last long enough.

It’s a common mistake to believe that the life science industry is somehow exempt from the economic consequences of the pandemic. “You are in the middle of everything,” both private and professional contacts keep telling me. And, yes, we are. We might be in the middle and working hard to develop solutions to the various health challenges caused by this virus (as well as the many other health conditions), but that does not mean we are protected from feeling the impact of a downturned economic situation. In some ways, our industry has been particularly hard-hit. The pause in clinical trials imposed as the health care sector was  and still is, in many places in the world – under extreme pressure, is one example. Even still, the requirements still exist for company milestones to be met. And the challenges in finding funding for the next step of development of a life science product or service have not diminished.

“In the months to come, launching programs targeting life sciences and working together to attract international VC from serious actors should be on the utmost agenda of the (Teams-) meetings of the Nordic Council of Ministers, as well as their instrument, Nordic Innovation.”

We need air. The life science industry has to be able to let go of the breath we have been holding for so long now. And for that to happen, political measures are required. There are solutions within range including, for example, facilitating investments in R&D. In the months to come, launching programs targeting life sciences and working together to attract international VC from serious actors should be on the utmost agenda of the (Teams-) meetings of the Nordic Council of Ministers, as well as their instrument, Nordic Innovation. Their focus on life sciences, so far, has been peculiarly low, in spite of this industry being the common denominator for all five Nordic countries innovation scenes.

Furthermore, Nordic decision-makers should aim to facilitate clinical trials to be conducted locally, with patient populations spanning our neighboring countries, through the launch of a joint agency, which has been on the life science industry wish-list for some time. Certain measures like tax incentives also naturally lie within the competence of our individual national governments. Ultimately, the better aligned the policies of the Nordic region and the more we work as a single business region, the larger the impact of measures that can help fill the air with oxygen again for companies, both within life sciences and other industries alike.

There are good reasons to step-up the game for the Nordic decision-makers. Although tough times have hit us, we seem to be better off than start-up scenes and life science-ecosystems in other parts of the world, as reported by several financial actors and media1 . The reasons behind this are yet to be analyzed, but it is clear that, during this pandemic, we have seen some encouraging examples of Nordic collaboration at its best, despite what the overall picture might lead us to believe.

One such example is the launch of Eir Ventures: Nordic VC actors, public and private, coming together to establish a new fund with €76m dedicated towards investments in life science companies. Eir’s establishment has definitely raised the oxygen level a bit. Another example is the Nordic Life Science Consortium, needed now more than ever, working towards attracting investors and business partners from all across the world to our region. Moreover, incubators and life science industry organisations across the Nordics have come together to launch Nordic Life Science Invest2.

“It has become clear that we cannot solely rely on the international market channels. Therefore, production lines should be developed within the Nordics to ensure basic supply of pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics.”

There are also more direct ways in which the Nordic collaboration has played a part in coping with the pandemic, and will continue to do so if we work together in an intelligent way. Even as borders have closed, these neighbors have still held out a hand to each other, providing key medical equipment, such as Finland offering aid to Sweden – literally helping Swedes to breathe. We have begun the crucial work of coordinating our access to key pharmaceuticals and reviewing what should be produced within our respective countries, and what should not. It has become clear that we cannot solely rely on the international market channels. Therefore, production lines should be developed within the Nordics to ensure basic supply of pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics.

Read more: This too shall pass and we will come out stronger!

This kind of capacity-building takes time. It involves adapting infrastructures and ensuring analytical capacity. We might not be able to reap the benefits of a coordinated approach to domestic supply within the Nordics in the months or even year to come. But we need to start now, so that we are more ready to take on the challenge of the next pandemic, whenever it comes.

The Nordic life science partnership among private and semi-public actors is growing stronger. We urge the governments of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Iceland to follow suit.

Column by Helena Strigård, Director General, SwedenBIO (published in Nordic Life Science magazine, No 03 2020)


References

1)

Staff, M. 2019. Nordic startup scene can rival Silicon Valley. Computer Weekly.

Szyzdek, P. 2020. Nordic VC and Startup Ecosystem. Medium.com.

Report: The Nordic VC scene

Danske bank. 2020. The State of Nordic Impact Start-ups 2020.

Deloitte. 2020. Deloitte Economics’ Coronavirus Impact Monitor.

Baljko, J. 2019. A Silicon Valley Funding Giant Opens in Denmark— Where Unicorns Are Numerous and Loans Are Dirt Cheap. Fortune.

2)

Nordic Life Science Invest

A pan-Nordic initiative by SwedenBIO, BioInnovation Institute in Denmark, Promote Iceland, Health Turku, Uppsala Innovation Center, Norway HealthTech and The Life Science Cluster in Norway. This platform aims to bridge the gap between investors and early stage life science companies, giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to pitch to a range of national and international investors, under the umbrella of Nordic Life Science Days: nlsinvest.com