For decades European countries have been among the most innovative on the planet when it comes to drug development. Scientists at stellar academic centers like the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the Oxford/Cambridge university axis in the UK have produced some of the best thinking on new drugs the industry has seen. And clusters of developers in Switzerland, the UK and places like the Medicon Valley in northern Denmark and southern Sweden have spawned their share of start-ups. Germany has seen a whole generation of biotech companies launched with public assistance from the BioRegions it began to establish more than a decade ago.
Major pharma companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Roche, Sanofi-Aventis and Novartis, meanwhile, have nurtured top talent in their ranks, creating an intelligentsia of experienced managers and scientists skilled at recognizing the market value of new therapies.
But the financial tsunami that hit the global biotech industry at the end of last year has been particularly brutal in Europe. With fewer private VC groups lending money, the industry has been forced to fall back on either its own resources or new government programs designed to bolster their biopharma industries. And several European countries have been pushing new public-private ventures aimed at leveraging larger funds for developers.
“The UK, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France and Spain have all been putting more effort into biotech,” says Jürg Zürcher, Ernst & Young’s biotechnology leader Europe. And for most, it’s still too early to tell exactly how effective they’ll be.
After years of discussion, the €2 billion Innovative Medicines Initiative has become a reality with a well-defined plan to help burnish the continent’s image as a center of drug discovery work. Members of the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations are committing €1 billion in resources to match the €1 billion in cash coming from the European Commission. Just last month the IMI entered a new stage of development with a €156 million call for research proposals.
This year, for the first time, FierceBiotech looked into the development scene solely in Europe to see which countries have hatched the best programs to support drug discovery and innovation. That doesn’t mean simply listing the largest clusters. Switzerland has had one of the best track records in Europe for developing a homegrown drug development industry, but it’s done it all with private capital and virtually no public support. Eastern European countries which have been late to the biotech party have the furthest to go to catch up. But in places like the Czech Republic and Hungary they’re pushing ahead quickly, anxious to leapfrog into the global mainstream. All of these project initiatives bear close observation in the U.S., where public support for biotech has been a prominent feature in a slate of key states.