The Covid-19 pandemic has led city governments to rethink their approaches to economic development. Lithuania’s capital Vilnius has found its strategy that creating an innovative environment of technology-enabled industries has paid off.

Remigijus Šimašius, the mayor of Vilnius, explains how the city has fostered collaboration and grown its biotechnology sector.

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Q: How have you found the challenges of the past year?

A: It was a challenge, especially a year ago when there was a lack of equipment for finding Covid-19, but now we are managing it quite smoothly. For us, it was a little bit easier than for other cities worldwide, because we were much more digitised than the majority of our counterparts. Before the pandemic, we provided our citizens with a total 95 services online — now we have 100% digitised services.

Last year was also very inspiring. I have my own understanding of how the city should be run in terms of how we should empower people, cooperate and open up opportunities. This was all on the ground before, but during the crisis this was even more important. 

We were not only planning how to close businesses down, but also how to open them up during summer last year. This was very successful, as Vilnius was set up to be like an open cafe across the city. When we look at the change of population in Vilnius, we were growing at around 1% annually until last year, when we grew by around 2%. When other people were leaving cities to go to the countryside or smaller towns, we actually gained more people. 

Q: What role does the life sciences sector play in your plans for the city?

A: It is one of the key sectors when we think about the future economy. We always name fintech and optoelectronics as leading areas, but biotech is already a major player in our economy, accounting for 2% of national gross domestic product. Around 90% of all biotech companies in Lithuania are concentrated in Vilnius. All of these companies have acquired or merged with companies established by local scientists as spin-offs from the university.

We also have respected start-ups in this area. The sector is already very important, and now we are creating a new industrial park with a particular emphasis on biotechnology together with the university and businesses. The industrial park is already in action and several companies have invested — some of which are biotech start-ups. We are now in negotiations with several private companies to construct research facilities and production centres in this park, as well as with the university about how it will expand laboratories that will be essential for the start-ups. It looks very promising at this stage. 

Q: How are you elevating the next generation of scientists?

A: The important thing is how bright students are choosing their future careers, especially in high schools. As a city, we encourage children at secondary schools to choose both life sciences and related areas. I’m very glad that the number and quality of students entering university for chemistry, biotechnology and physics is increasing.

Four years ago, we started promoting sciences in secondary schools by introducing Fab Labs — a concept that romanticises science. This concept was created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and the majority of Lithuanian schools now have this.

Q: How do you balance the promotion of science with other opportunities, such as fintech and optoelectronics?

A: We spoke last time about why these areas are more successful in Vilnius. Part of this is that during Soviet times, smart people did not want to choose economics, law or humanitarian science because these were ideologically positioned. 

The biotechnology sector in Vilnius is around 50 years old, so it’s been here from the beginning. This is the same as for optoelectronics. These sectors are not a new pop-up, but are spread across genders and age groups.

Q: How do you assess your efforts in the biotech sector?

A: The sector is growing, especially in the therapeutics space. We have big perspectives in both ‘white’ and ‘green’ biotechnology.

Thermo Fisher is the biggest player here; last year, we saw them build an additional 5000 square metre factory. This was done in less than four months, from scratch, which was very fast. We were very proud of that as they are contributing to the production of vaccines on a large scale through the supply of essential components.

We have a vision and strategy as a city of being very open, collaborative and forward looking. During the crisis and this period of change, this strategy is always more successful than being conservative, closed and sticking to the mechanisms that worked before.

Remigijus Šimašius is the mayor of Vilnius, Lithuania. 

In association with NorthTown Vilnius. Writing and editing were carried out independently by fDi Intelligence.