As the Covid-19 pandemic changes lives for people and businesses around the world, the important role of the life sciences sector has come into focus. The Belgian region of Wallonia has built itself into a life sciences hub where world-renowned universities, hospitals and multinational companies collaborate with start-up firms and investors on ground-breaking projects.

One-third of Belgium’s population lives in this mainly French-speaking part of the country, which accounts for about 55% of its territory. Firms in Wallonia’s life sciences sector report that they are within one hour’s drive of each other and that their close proximity to airports in Brussels, as well as German cities such as Düsseldorf and Cologne, makes the region very accessible for international travel.

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The roll call of organisations based here includes major names such as the UK’s GSK, Belgium’s UCB and IBA and Baxter of the US, as well as smaller companies, universities and hospitals. 

However, the region is not immune to the vagaries of international business. It was dealt a blow earlier in 2020 when major employer GSK announced plans to cut jobs in Belgium as part of a global restructuring. But firms operating in Wallonia's life sciences sector remain optimistic, and report that they are continuing to ramp up their operations, which looks likely to generate more new biotech jobs over the next three years.

Attracting funding

Firms that have set up shop in Wallonia report that there is a can-do attitude when it comes to financing projects. In 2019, CryoTherapeutics, which has developed a cryotherapy system for treating coronary disease, announced it had closed its Series B financing round at €7m to support its clinical trial programme and to establish operations at its new facilities in Awans. Participants in the financing included Belgian public investor Noshaq, the Walloon region, as well as existing investors Peppermint Venture Partners, Creathor Ventures and Getz Brothers.

“There is quite a lot of funding available for early-stage companies such as ours,” says John Yianni, CEO of CryoTherapeutics. “There is a very good public funding network of organisations, but also private investment groups. You’ve got entrepreneurs who have developed companies and sold them, and also renowned angel investors who also have expertise that they can provide at board level. Overall, it is a pretty decent ecosystem.”

In 2019, international group Novasep expanded its operations in Belgium with the launch of Senefill, its commercial facility for aseptic filling and finishing operations in the city of Seneffe. The 1800-square-metre unit has a 400-square-metre area dedicated to the production of biological products such as viral vectors, viruses and monoclonal antibodies. According to the company, these operations will support key biopharmaceutical markets for Novasep and its clients: cell and gene therapies, oncology, vaccination and other innovative therapies.

Cedric Volanti, president of biopharma solutions at Novasep Group, believes Wallonia is a good bet for firms such as his. “It has been a hot spot for medtech companies for many years and has attracted big names,” he says. “The region actively supports innovation in this field. We are a cluster for life sciences with many companies and ecosystems located near here, which is pretty good. Additionally, major firms such as GSK and UCB are located around a 30-minute drive from where we operate, so this is helping to strengthen the ecosystem.”

Public-private collaboration

Insiders say there are many opportunities for collaboration with other stakeholders from both the public and the private sectors in Wallonia. “We collaborate with small and mid-sized companies in the region, particularly with firms focused on gene therapy,” says Mr Volanti. “The local universities are pretty open to collaboration as well. We’re involved in several ongoing programmes, and this is an area we would like to strengthen further with our research projects.”

Mr Yianni agrees, saying: “There are lots of local suppliers and services for the projects we’re working on. When we’re looking to use outside vendors we can usually find very good local ones, so we don’t have to go too far and wide to find what we need. And from a research perspective, there are lots of highly renowned universities and hospitals.

“We’re a medical device company, and locally in Belgium as a whole – and particularly in Wallonia – there are a number of hospitals and world-renowned physicians and cardiologists that we can work with in terms of developing clinical strategies and plans, and carrying out clinical trials, which we’re planning to do with our product.”

A major focus of collaboration in the region is the BioWin cluster, which was created in 2006 to bring together the Walloon businesses, academic and clinical research laboratories, accredited research centres, universities, large industrial groups, SMEs and service providers involved at every stage in the research, development and production of innovative products and services.

Its aim is to speed up innovation and develop knowledge, job opportunities and a competitive edge for stakeholders in the Wallonia health sector. In addition to standard collaborative research and development projects and networking events, BioWin has been developing projects in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, including the creation of an interactive co-operation platform for the centralisation of health initiatives aimed at combating the disease.

Skills and recruitment

Investors say there is good access to skills locally. Mr Yianni recalls that when he moved CryoTherapeutics to the region in 2019, he was impressed by the range of local talent and experience.

“We have recruited at all levels, including senior managerial and engineering posts, and all these folks bar one were found locally,” he says. 

“I didn’t know what to expect when we first moved the company to Wallonia. One of the first things we did was work with a recruitment firm focused on the sector, and it very quickly identified quite a long list of candidates who could potentially fill the various positions that we were looking to fill. I was impressed by the level of education as well as experience working with companies in the sector.”

In association with Invest in Wallonia. Reporting and editing were carried out independently by fDi Magazine.

This article first appeared in the April-June edition of fDi Magazine. The full digital version of the magazine is available here