Between 2011 and 2016, Lithuania’s life sciences sector grew by an annual average of 22.1%, with the turnover of companies operating in the industry reaching more than €613m, according to the Lithuanian agency for science, innovation and technology (Mita). 

Inga Romanovskienė, the director of Go Vilnius, the official development agency of Lithuania’s capital, says that this growth is pushing the life sciences industry to enter “a golden age of sorts”, with an increasing number of start-ups and foreign companies setting up to make use of its ecosystem.

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The national government hopes to maintain this momentum, laying out a strategy in 2018 to increase the gross domestic product (GDP) contribution of the industry from 2% to 5% over the next decade. 

“Lithuania has an ambitious goal to become one of the leading countries in life sciences in the [Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)] region by 2030,” says Aušrinė Armonaitė, Lithuania’s minister for economy and innovation, who adds that Lithuania has already paved the way for this to happen. 

Today, the Baltic country’s life sciences sector has more than 400 companies and 5000 people working in areas such as molecular biology, biophysics, genetics and biomedicine.

Scientific anchors

The foundations of biotechnology research in Lithuania began in the 1970s, when the former Soviet Institute of Applied Enzymology was founded in Vilnius to develop technologies for enzyme production. 

This institute then spawned Fermentas, a leading biotech company in CEE, which was acquired for $260m by US pharmaceutical firm Thermo Fisher Scientific in 2010. 

More than 1300 people are currently employed in Thermo Fisher Scientific Baltic’s Vilnius site, including more than 100 scientists which undertake research and development (R&D) and produce molecular, protein and cellular biology products.

In December 2020, the company announced plans to expand its manufacturing facility and create a further 140 jobs. The company’s managing director Algimantas Markauskas said in a statement that the level of qualified candidates available to the company was a determining factor in the decision.

“The success Thermo Fisher has experienced in Lithuania is a direct result of the region’s rich talent,” he clarified. The achievements of Lithuanian scientists and the depth of the talent pool is often cited by life sciences companies as a draw to the Baltic country (see feature on page 78). This includes Virginijus Šikšnys at Vilnius University, who has made significant contributions to Crispr gene-editing technology.

Multinational cluster

Several other prominent multinational life science companies have a presence in Lithuania, including biopharmaceutical giant Teva and medical devices producer Intersurgical, which has a branch in the city of Pabrade.

In 2020, Lithuania attracted a record six foreign greenfield investments in the life sciences sector, up from two projects a year earlier, according to fDi Markets. Although from a low base, this ranked Lithuania second worldwide in terms of annual growth in numbers of life sciences foreign investment projects.

One such investment was made by US-based neurological disease specialist Biogen, which set up a new Lithuanian subsidiary in June 2020. Mikko Fernström, the general manager at Biogen Lithuania, says the company’s local presence has created new opportunities for partnerships, attracting the best talent and contributing to the healthcare system.

“The life sciences and medical community in Lithuania is very active, with high expertise and close ties to academic institutes outside Lithuania,” he says. “From the moment we made the decision to invest into Lithuania, everything went extremely smoothly from registering our business to opening our offices.”

A longer term multinational player is Roquette Amilina, a Lithuanian subsidiary of the France-based Roquette, which develops plant-based ingredients, proteins and pharmaceutical excipients. It has operated an R&D centre in Lithuania since 2008, alongside its other laboratories in the US, Singapore, China and France.

For Danas Tvarijonavičius, head of industrial development at Roquette Amilina, Lithuania’s life sciences potential is “defined by well-developed infrastructures, universities and research centres, a growing industrial presence, significant foreign investments and national strategic direction”.

Lithuania ranks as a cost-effective location for the sector too. A benchmarking study of 25 EU countries estimates that it costs $870,550 per year to operate a life sciences R&D centre in Lithuania, according to investment destination comparison tool fDi Benchmark. This is far below the EU-average of $2.18m.

Innovation ecosystem

A central feature of the country’s research landscape is the EU-funded Life Sciences Center (LSC) at Vilnius University. Since opening in 2016, the 24,000 square metre teaching and research facility has become a hub for collaboration across biotechnology and molecular medicine.

In September 2020, the LSC at Vilnius University signed an agreement with the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, establishing a partnership for genome editing technologies. Some €6m of EU investment will be allocated to a scientific laboratory based at the centre, as it joins the European network of centres.

Ms Romanovskienė says that the broader research ecosystem in Vilnius is well developed, with clustering in the 'Sunrise Valley' neighbourhood of the city that includes open access R&D centres, 20,000 students, 5000 researchers and innovative businesses.

“One of Vilnius’s strategic goals is to actively develop our entire business ecosystem, which unites biomedical organisations and other high-value-added industries, creators and regulators,” she adds.

Some 50 life sciences start-ups have settled in the Vilnius ecosystem, where they collaborate with academic researchers and other like-minded innovative companies. For Giedrius Kalesnykas, the president and chief executive of Experimentica, a company that offers scientific know-how and expertise in preclinical ocular drug development, this helps to create a vibrant and growing biotech community.

“There is an excellent ecosystem for multidisciplinary projects involving life sciences, laser and optics sciences, biomedical engineering and computer sciences,” he says.

To cater for this, Vilnius City Innovation Industrial Park (VCIIP) was established in 2018 for innovative companies to set up R&D and production facilities (see feature on page 81).

Gediminas Pauliukevičius, the chief executive of Northtown Vilnius, which operates the industrial park, says that VCIIP has created favourable conditions for start-ups and foreign companies to collaborate and develop new solutions (see interview on page 80).

Incentives

Lithuania also has a network of seven free economic zones (FEZs) that provide support services, infrastructure and incentives to prospective investors. In 2017, US-based Hollister decided to invest €50m into a manufacturing plant in Kaunas FEZ, where it produces medical products for ostomy and continence care.

Outside these zones, incentives include tax exemptions of up to 20 years on projects that have capital expenditure above €30m and create 200 jobs or more, and three-times reductions for R&D expenses.

Gintas Kimtys, acting director of Mita, says that given the recent growth of the industry, Lithuania’s goal to become a regional leader in life sciences R&D and production is “ambitious, but rather realistic”, especially given improvements in its business environment and innovation landscape.

“Life sciences are high on the political agenda; therefore, we offer active support for R&D projects. Our high scientific potential has led to top-level research and the development of unique competitive products,” he concludes.

In association with NorthTown Vilnius. Writing and editing were carried out independently by fDi Intelligence. This article first appeared in the April/May print edition of fDi Intelligence. View a digital edition of the magazine here.