Article publicat a: Catalan International View (A European Review of the World)

Biotechnology and Biomedicine in Catalunya, a window on the world
by Manel Balcells

 

The birth of a cluster from a biomedical alliance

The embryo of the BioRegion of Catalunya was the ‘Barcelona Biomedical Alliance’, an agreement signed on the 3rd of September 2003 by three of the main participants in the biomedical scene in Catalunya: two leading science parks and a research institute. Subsequently two Catalan universities have joined the initiative.
This first step towards a common, successful future of excellence in life sciences was sponsored by the ‘Generalitat de Catalunya’ (the Government of Catalunya) and the Barcelona City Council. The purpose of the initiative was to organize public biomedical research in Catalunya and build up its competitiveness, according to the European policy of promoting environments of scientific and technological excellence. The Government identified an area of future growth with enough potentail to compete at a global level. On the 14th of February 2006, Biocat was formally constituted as the organization that promotes the biotechnology and biomedicine in Catalunya. Now, the BioRegion of Catalunya (the biocluster) is fully consolidated.

At the beginning of 2007, Dr. Montserrat Vendrell (as director) and myself (as president of the Executive Committee) took the lead of Biocat, with the goals of facilitating networking among the different stakeholders, fostering biotechnology and biomedicine as key economic motors for the country, promoting Catalunya on the world stage, and contributing to a better understanding and perception of life sciences in society. This commitment to competitiveness involves defining the right instruments, and the initiatives to be undertaken. This is the responsibility of Biocat.
 

The Catalan Government and the Barcelona City Council are not only continuing to explicitly support this platform, they also are providing impetus, through the regional Ministries involved (Health, Economy, Universities, Innovation and Industry, and  the Vice-presidency). The president and vice-president of the Catalan Government are also president and vice-president of the Biocat board. The position of executive president of Biocat, which I currently hold, is designated by the government.

 

The Catalan reality: excellence in research and innovation:

Catalunya stands out in the field of clinical research and human health, with a network of 60 hospitals, six of which count among Spain’s most prolific hospitals in terms of scientific production. Twelve universities and twelve science parks, six of them specifically dedicated to biomedical and agro-food research and development activities, host a network of services (technology platforms) in different areas (genomics, proteomics, crystallography, nanotechnology, fine chemistry and so on).

 

Modern biotechnology is applied to medicine and health care in therapeutics, mainly for the discovery and production of new drugs

 

Barcelona hosts the ITER (‘Fusion for Energy’) headquarters, and will also be home to Alba, a new European Synchrotron (an electron accelerator that produces X-Rays used for research purposes).

 

Research in Catalunya

The network of 150 research centres of excellence include; the IBM-UPC Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, with Mare Nostrum (the most powerful supercomputer in Europe) the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), with outstand-ing researchers such as Miguel Beato; the Barcelona Regenerative Medicine Centre (CMRB, whose director, Juan Carlos Izpisúa, is also professor of the Gene Expression Laboratory at the Salk Institute); the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS); the research institute of Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, which, in terms of scientific production, is the most prolific hospital in Catalunya (and the Spanish state); and the Biomedical Research Institute (IRB), whose  president, the leading Catalan expert on cancer metastasis, Joan Massagué, is also director of the Cancer Biology and Genetics Program at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre (Massagué has been one of the 50 most cited authors in all fields of science in the last twenty years). These and other excellence centres linked to universities, the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) and science parks, host more than 400 research groups in life sciences generating excellence projects that feed the biotechnology start-up companies and big pharmaceutical partners.

The three existing biomedical science parks in Greater Barcelona are; the Barcelona Science Park (PCB), home to the first bioincubator in Catalunya; the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB); and the UAB Science Park (Autonomous University of Barcelona), the latter being home to a group of centres created to respond to specific needs in research fields of great interest. The PRBB is one of the largest biomedical re-search parks in Southern Europe, home to several excellent research institutes, and forms a knowledge core for one of the main innovation assets of the city, 22@Barcelona, a technology district that integrates the different agents in the field of innovation.

 

Catalan Biotech companies

About 250 companies are linked to the bio-technology sector (60 biotechnological, 60 pharmaceutical and around 120 using biotech or providing services to the biotech industry). About 800 people work in the Biotech sector, and 20,000 in the pharmaceutical.

Biotechnology is the application of science and technology to living organisms, or to parts, products and models of them, for the production of knowledge, goods and services. Modern biotechnology is applied in medicine and health care in therapeutics, mainly for the discovery and production of new drugs, in preventives for the development of vaccines, and in diagnostic kits. Most of the biotechnology companies in Catalunya focus on drug development and diagnosis.

Catalunya also boasts four large domestic pharmaceutical companies that have evolved into multinationals: Almirall, Esteve, Ferrer and Uri-ach. Also subsidiaries of some of the main multinational companies in the sector have chosen Catalunya as a venue. Some examples are Bayer, Boehringer Ingelheim, Novartis, Pfizer and Sanofi Aventis. Together they account for about sixty percent of Spanish pharmaceutical production. The current trend in the Catalan biotech sec-tor is to create new businesses at a rate of more than 10 companies per year. In 2006 and 2007 Catalunya was the most dynamic Autonomous Community in the Spanish state in terms of the creation of new biotech companies.

 

The international stage

To attract international interest, Catalunya counts on some inherent assets, such as a strategic location and good quality of life, but also with unique assets, such as excellence in research and an entrepreneurial spirit. We must profit from the fact that Barcelona is considered a dynamic and innovative location, with the highest quality of life in Europe (according to Cushman & Wakefield’s 2006 European Cities Monitor Research), and the fourth best city in Europe for businesses.

Throughout 2007 Biocat coordinated the candidacy of Barcelona as European headquarters for the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI). Despite the fact that the European Commission took the decision to establish the headquarters in Brussels, we are now obtaining the benefits of this previous work, in terms of Catalunya’s raised profile and the possibility of participating in European consortia. We are also facilitating the ac-cess of local institutions and companies to other European funding programs. We have also set the basis for the participation of Catalunya in the Eurobioregion project, beginning to work with our French counterparts in the design of the Southern Europe Biocluster.

 

All the structures in the bio sector need a brand in order to act collectively with enough critical mass to compete at all levels and to accede to global resources

 

Exploring further afield, Biocat has signed a memorandum of understanding with the All India Biotech Association to favour the partnership between Catalan and Indian companies. While thinking globally but acting more locally, we are working with local institutions to identify and ad-dress internationalisation needs, such as the identification of geographic areas of interest, grants for missions, delegations and conferences, and so on. We coordinate the participation of the sector in international events, such as the BIO Inter-national Convention. In 2008 our BIO delegation to San Diego to attend the world’s premier biotechnology conference will exceed 70 people, more than two thirds of the participants from the Spanish state.

 

Future plans: boost Catalunya’s profile

The months to come will be very busy for the BioRegion. Thanks to Biocat’s role as a catalyst, several major projects are in the pipeline.

 

The Industrial Innovative Clusters Project

Biocat has led significant actions in the private sector, such as the presentation of two specific plans, for Biotechnology and for Medical Technologies, to the Spanish Ministry of Industry. These seek to improve the international competitiveness of Catalan companies in terms of innovative capabilities.

 

Biopol Health Park

In terms of infrastructures, for both the public and private sector, we coordinate the Biopol Health Park project, a 300,000m2 Science Park near Barcelona, focused on human health and built to host hospitals, universities, research centres and companies. This project is aimed at leveraging the sector and surpassing the local stage to become an international hub, meeting quality standards in terms of advanced facilities, as well as urban image and design.

 

The European Institute of Technology

The future European Institute of Technology (EIT) is a great opportunity for Europe to see innovation as the main driver to the European Community’s development. It represents a major European innovation project, relying on techno-logical excellence and regional cooperation. This institute will be built around (and benefit from) relevant, already existing, development cores (Knowledge Innovation Communities or KICs), that will stimulate the necessary collaboration between industry and institutions, between public and private sectors. Biocat is leading the efforts towards the EIT initiative in Catalunya.

 

Training

According to the general goal of recruiting top human capital to cover the biomedical and biotechnological sector needs, we are also promoting the creation of experienced pools of managers for the life science industry. The proposal involves recruiting internationally, as well as training at local and European level. Programs for experts may require the establishment of specific grants to help entrepreneurs to achieve the mobility requirements to attend the different European modules on biotechnology industry management.

 

A brand: Catalan excellence

Catalunya, its researchers and all the structures in the bio sector need a brand in order to act collectively with enough critical mass to compete at all levels, to accede to global resources, to international projects and to communicate with the world competitiveness clusters. The agreements we have established with India, Finland, the West Coast of the USA and the Midi-Pyrénées and Languedoc-Roussillon French regions, must allow a fluent exchange of experience, expertise and partnerships on the international stage.

Acting jointly, we are strong enough to have a presence in a global world. This strength will en-able us to form a spearhead towards a knowledge-based economy. This unified image will be made visible by means of collaborations in future issues of this publication. Relevant representatives and outstanding experts of the Catalan life sciences community will use this window on the world to disseminate the Catalan stamp of excellence, through diverse visions of this modern, competitive Catalunya.

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