Illustration by Juan Capitoni
Spanish scientific research is under serious threat as a result of funding cuts. As reported by Nature journal’s online magazine on May 10th, a document sent to the European Union on April 30th stated that by 2020, the capital allocated for research will be reduced from the current three percent of GDP to two percent. The lack of funding puts not only basic science at risk but the entire research sector, jeopardising the progress of the biotech and health industries.
The biotech industry applies technology to biology to create new therapies or diagnostic tools. In the digital world, an app can be developed overnight, but biotech companies need a lot of time and money to develop their products. The economic crisis and cuts in research funding have hindered the creation of new business opportunities in this sector.
However, in this bleak panorama, Catalunya and particularly the city of Barcelona represent an exception. In the last five years, the number of biotech companies in Catalunya has risen by 15 to 30 percent each year. Today, almost a quarter of Spanish biotech companies are located in the region, according to the report ‘Catalonia: Bio to Business’ from Biocat (an organisation run by the Generalitat and Barcelona city council), published earlier this year.
Several factors have contributed to the growth of the city in the research, biotech and health sectors: investment in infrastructure, the creation of a support network for bio-entrepreneurs, and a focus on people and talent.
Since the Nineties, the Generalitat has invested in creating a model of research and development (R&D) based on stable, growing investment in human talent and large infrastructures, in collaboration with the Spanish government. As a result of this effort, the ‘bioregion’ of Catalunya (the local cluster of related companies and public organisations and services) now includes around 520 biotechnology, pharmaceutical and medical technology companies, 54 research centres, 15 research hospitals, 10 universities, and 440 research groups in life science.
In Barcelona, alongside the traditional academic institutions, innovation gravitates around big science parks—such as the Barcelona Science Park (PCB) or the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB)—and large infrastructures, like the IBM-UPC Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, home to the most powerful supercomputer in Europe.
One of the key features for the development of the city as a biotech hub has been the innovative approach to the typical logistic challenges of R&D in the industry. For example, the PCB is also home to the first bio-incubator in Catalunya. This hosts around 20 biotech companies, both privately created and spin-offs from universities. It offers shared laboratory space and facilities, giving companies the chance to become sustainable businesses.
“We have our own office and lab space, but we can also use all the facilities and the platforms of the science park,” said Dr. Marco Pugliese, CEO of Neurotech Pharma. “It is a good combination for starting up a company, as otherwise it wouldn’t be possible for a biotech spin-off to set up a laboratory.”
Dr. Pugliese founded Neurotech Pharma at the end of his PhD, in collaboration with two professors, as a spin-off company from the University of Barcelona. The company works in ‘repositioning’, which means applying drugs already used for a certain disease—whose safety for people has been already proven—as a cure for a different disease. Neurotech is now performing clinical trials for an oral drug to treat multiple sclerosis, in collaboration with another Catalan company, Advancell.
The bio-incubator’s help is not limited to the use of shared facilities. According to Dr. Carmen Plasencia, CEO of AROMICS, “One of the main challenges when starting a biotech company is to position the company. Fortunately, this task was made easier for us with the help of the Catalan Agency and the Science Park.”
In 2005, back from three years in the US, Dr. Plasencia met her business partner and created AROMICS, applying genomics and proteomics (the science specialities that study genome and proteins) to develop new therapeutic and diagnostic tools. Currently, the company is raising funds to start clinical trials for a new medicine to treat hepatitis C and HIV co-infections.
A support network for new companies and biotech entrepreneurs has been another crucial part of the success. In 2006, the Generalitat and Barcelona city council sponsored the creation of Biocat to promote biotechnology and biomedicine in Catalunya. It favours interaction among stakeholders, sponsors training programmes, and champions international meetings to facilitate connections between national and international investors and Catalan biotech companies, such as the 2013 Bio-Spring Conference held here in March. The next flagship event to be organised by Biocat is the launch of ‘Moebio d-Health Barcelona’ in September. This healthcare incubator aims to train scientists, engineers, designers and clinicians with an entrepreneurial attitude, to spot unmet clinical needs and turn them into business ventures.
However, the infrastructures and the support sponsored by the Generalitat would not be enough without the human factor. Strong technology awareness and scientific excellence have also contributed to the flourishing of the local biotech industry.
Barcelona has been attracting foreign investment and talent for years. The most obvious example of this is perhaps the Mobile World Congress. More than 72,000 people from the technology industry attended this year’s edition in February, according to organisers, turning the city into a world-class centre for meeting and the exchange of opinions.
In parallel, the strong academic tradition in Catalunya has nurtured ambitious young scientists, while universities have adopted a supportive approach to the application of academic research, encouraging the creation of spin-off companies and licensing deals, while also being the source of new discoveries.
For example, the company Advancell creates value in drug development by managing the first phases of clinical trials for new drugs discovered in academic labs. Once efficacy and safety of patients affected by the relevant disease is proven, the company licenses the project to big pharmaceutical companies to finalise the clinical trials and commercialise the product. Among the projects in the pipeline are cures for lymphoma, for hand and foot syndrome (a serious side effect of chemotherapy), and for multiple sclerosis, in collaboration with Neurotech Pharma.
So, the scene has been set for Barcelona to become a first-class hub of technology, biotech and heathcare-related innovation. “In Barcelona something big is coming, the ecosystem [all the stakeholders of the Catalan biotech and healthcare industry] is getting strong and this suggests something big in terms of economic growth,” said Jorge Juan Fernàndez, of the Moebio initiative.
However, all is not perfect and some within the biotech community feel it is time to step up. “The crisis hit hard, and some companies had to close down,” says Dr. Clara Campàs-Moya, managing-director of Advancell. “This is partly due to the decrease in public funds, but this is not the only problem. Biotech companies need to bring results back, in the form of employment, business and [investment] coming from abroad. The first biotech companies started 10 to 15 years ago, now it is time to demonstrate that we have been able to do something.”