Innovation ecosystems are built on the talent pools within them. In Lithuania’s growing life sciences sector, global recognition for its research and development (R&D) is helping attract foreign companies and funding.

Academic research institutions, such as the 24,000 square metre Life Sciences Center at Vilnius University (VU LSC), are providing a space for scientists, students and start-ups to collaborate in areas such as biotechnology and molecular medicine. Its proximity to Vilnius’s ‘Sunrise Valley’ innovation cluster, which includes a biotechnology business incubator for start-ups, helps.

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“The establishment of the VU LSC has completely changed the sector across the Baltic region while positioning Vilnius as a leader,” says Inga Romanovskienė, the director of Go Vilnius, the development agency for Lithuania’s capital.

The work of scientists based at VU LSC has been awarded internationally. In 2018, the biochemist Virginijus Šikšnys won the prestigious Kavli prize — awarded for breakthroughs in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience — for his contributions to the development of Crispr gene-editing technology. Meanwhile in 2019, the L’Oreal–UNESCO for Women in Science awards recognised the neuroscientist Urtė Neniškytė for her research on early childhood brain development. 

International co-operation

“This year we are stepping on the brink of an exciting phase,” says Gintas Kimtys, the acting director at Lithuania’s Agency for Science, Innovation and Technology.

“Recently, Lithuanian researchers’ competencies to conduct world-class research were recognised as Lithuania was chosen for the establishment of a gene-editing institute based on the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (Embl) model,” he adds. 

Some €6m of EU funding will be given to develop laboratories, and will foster deeper co-operation and knowledge sharing between VU LSC and other Embl partnership institutes in the UK, Germany, France, Spain and Italy. 

In the case of multinational neuroscience specialist Biogen — which set up a Lithuanian subsidiary in June 2020 — international academic ties, alongside initiatives to drive digitalisation and better use of data in the healthcare sector, was a draw to the Baltic country.

The general manager of Biogen’s subsidiary, Mikko Fernström, says it is a “very exciting time” to be part of the life sciences industry in Lithuania. 

“At Biogen, we are contributing through pioneering neuroscience as well as through partnerships across the sector to help drive adoption of data and digital practices in healthcare,” he adds. 

The Lithuanian government aims to grow life sciences’ share of gross domestic product from its current level of 2% to 5% by 2030.

Best in class

Lithuania’s 12 universities are helping to maintain the country’s technical talent pool. In Bloomberg’s 2021 Innovation Index, Lithuania ranked second globally in terms of ‘tertiary efficiency’, which includes enrolment in higher education, graduation rates and percentage of the labour force who have received tertiary education.

According to Lithuanian authorities, a quarter of students are enrolled in innovation-related studies, such as science, mathematics, computing and engineering, while the country ranks fourth in the EU for its share of young people (25–34 years old) in higher education.

“Educated, motivated and committed, Lithuanian people have best-in-class skills to handle complex tasks, and an attitude to deliver, perform and learn,” says Danas Tvarijonavičius, the head of industrial development at Roquette Amilina, which is part of France-headquartered Roquette, a global provider of plant-based ingredients and pharmaceutical excipients.

Roquette Amilina has 15 research staff at its R&D centre in the Lithuanian city of Panevėžys, who form part of a global team of 300 scientists across its labs and innovation centres in the US, Singapore, China and France.

Other multinationals in the life sciences sector have found readily available and quality talent too. In December 2020, US-based Thermo Fisher announced it would expand the manufacturing facility at its Vilnius site, adding 140 new jobs and bringing its total headcount to more than 1200.

Outside of the capital, Intersurgical, a UK-based manufacturer of medical devices for respiratory support, has more than 2500 full-time employees at its plant in the city of Pabrade. In 2017, US-based Hollister, a developer of ostomy, continence and critical care products, announced a €50m investment into a plant in Kaunas Free Economic Zone, where it currently employs 334 people.

Start-up growth

The quality and ambition of Lithuania’s talent pool is evident in the country’s number of start-ups, including a well developed ecosystem of IT and fintech players.

As of April 2020, the number of start-ups in Lithuania had grown to 1032, overtaking its regional rivals Estonia (1017) and Latvia (352), according to Startup Lithuania. Over the past five years, more than 60 of these are in the life sciences, including several companies choosing to locate in the Vilnius City Innovation Industrial Park (VCIIP), which was set up in 2018 to help foster the growth of innovative companies in Lithuania (see feature on page 81).

Dalia Celencevičiūtė, the head of life sciences at national development agency Invest Lithuania, says the strong up-and-coming start-up ecosystem indicates a sector driven by innovation.

“[There is an] ambition to become the next key hub for life sciences in Europe, particularly in cell and gene therapies,” she adds. 

For growing start-ups and research centres, the availability of talent has been a factor in them setting up in the Baltic country. Povilas Kavaliauskas, the co-founder of the Institute of Infectious Diseases and Pathogenic Microbiology (IIDPM), was surprised to find such a density of highly talented people in Lithuania.

“The ability to attract highly talented people was one of the key aspects that allowed us to bring our research and expertise to Lithuania and successfully launch a new programme,” he adds.

For Petras Sabalys, founder of Sanobiotec R&D, a Lithuanian start-up that develops cannabinoid applications, interest among the younger generations is feeding the talent pipeline.

“The growing curiosity in life sciences creates the always growing talent pool, which makes it easier for biotech companies, such as ours, to build a strong team that is passionate about the work they do,” he says.

Overcrowding a small market

Droplet Genomics, which is developing and commercialising droplet microfluidics technology to provide solutions for research applications, has also found high quality research talent in Lithuania, particularly given the hands-on lab work experience that students receive during their studies at local universities.

Juozas Nainys, the chief executive of Droplet Genomics, says the well-established life sciences sector provides “a possibility for talent exchange between different companies”, but fears of a talent shortage in some areas as the start-up grows beyond its current team of 19 people.

“We expect that we may face hiring challenges and may need to look for talent for certain positions abroad,” he adds.

Authorities are also aware of the need for even more start-up related infrastructure, such as accelerators and incubators that would help foster collaboration between academia and business even further. “This is one of our future plans,” says Ms Celencevičiūtė.

Part of that infrastructure need is being met by VCIIP. The industrial park will build a specialised life sciences incubator by the end of 2022, offering laboratory facilities, open-access R&D centres and a conference centre. Some 12 companies are already located or are planning to set up in the park.

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.