Between 2010 and 2014, biotech companies launched more than 380 crossborder greenfield projects worldwide, according to data from greenfield investment monitor fDi Markets. However, despite this flurry of activity, biotech investors rarely go as far as moving all of their operations to another country. And even more rarely do they decide to move it to a location that has neither a strong biotech cluster nor a university research network.
And yet this is exactly what Rudi Pauwels, a Belgian pharmacologist and biotech entrepreneur, did with Biocartis, his molecular diagnostics company, when he moved it to Mechelen, a city of 82,000 people better known for its medieval architecture than its biotech prowess.
Bit by bit
Biocartis was established in 2007 in the Swiss city of Lausanne, but then at the beginning of 2010 it moved to the Netherlands after acquiring an Eindhoven-based molecular diagnostics unit from Dutch tech giant Philips. “We had business operations in Eindhoven already, so we continued to work out of the city after the acquisition, but soon a Belgian entity was established and gradually all aspects of our activity were being moved there until we completely moved in the summer of 2012,” says Erik Vossenaar, director of business development at Biocartis.
“I was part of those acquired assets that were moved to Belgium,” adds Mr Vossenaar, a Dutch native who started working at Philips five years prior to the Biocartis buyout.
Asked for the rationale for the move, Mr Vossenaar explains that Mr Pauwels founded his first company, Tibotec (which was acquired in 2002 by Johnson & Johnson), in Mechelen in 1994. Mechelen was the setting for one successful company for Mr Pauwels, so he wanted to give it the opportunity to play host to another.
But there was more to the decision than nostalgia, says Mr Vossenaar. “Our founder has very strong links in the Belgian biotech community and that definitely helps,” he says. What also helped, adds Mr Vossenaar, were generous tax incentives and grants offered by Flanders, the region of Belgium in which Mechelen is located. “Grants offered by the Flanders government enabled us to do some of the exploratory developments that we probably would not have been able to afford otherwise,” says Mr Vossenaar.
Biocartis's financial position was further strengthened and its newly acquired Belgian identity was confirmed earlier in 2015 as it brought in an estimated $111m via an initial public offering at Euronext Brussels. That in turn is likely to lead Biocartis’s management to another executive decision.
“We want to establish a local presence in the US, as it is one of our major markets,” says Mr Vossenaar, who adds that the company is currently in the midst of the site-selection process, saying: “The exact location of Biocartis’s US operation is yet to be determined, but it has to have good airlinks with Belgium.”
So after being born in Switzerland, and spending its formative years in the Netherlands, in Belgium Biocartis seems to have found a base from which to launch a global expansion.