The vista that sprawls beneath the windows of the headquarters of Stockholm Life is not one of the city’s most appealing: there are no Baltic islands or forests in view; rather, the view – a tangle of train tracks and traffic intersections – is a reminder that Stockholm is a big city, with big-city needs.

By 2020, however, the plan is that the roads and railways will have been hidden beneath what promises to be Sweden ’s largest-ever construction project, Stockholm Life. The health business is a major part of the Swedish economy. Pharmaceutical exports represent 20% of the country’s total exports by revenue, and the Swedish health service is one of the best funded in the world.


The Stockholm region, which in this context includes the nearby university town of Uppsala, is also home to world-leading research institutions – including the Karolinska Institute, which is the home of the Nobel Prize in Physiology organisation – along with major companies GE Healthcare and Astra Zeneca.

There is also, according to one former biomed researcher, “just an extraordinary buzz about working here – the standard of research is incredibly high and the close proximity of so many institutions generates a lot of energy”.

Challenging sector

The life sciences – in Sweden and elsewhere – do face a number of challenges. Competition is intense, internationally; and many traditional business models for research and production are no longer profitable. Companies are typically small. They are often conceived in a flash of inspiration, but the transition from lab bench to start-up and beyond represents a laborious and difficult journey, in a harsh environment in which funding is often not forthcoming.

The purpose of Stockholm Life is to give renewed energy to the synergies that are possible between all these players, and also between government and the private sector in such a way that everybody benefits, leading ultimately to improved solutions for patients.

Already, Stockholm is home to about 47,000 students and 400 researchers in the life sciences – a recruitment pool that has proved a valuable draw for life-science companies, alongside the knowledge capital accumulated over decades and, more recently, the presence of biobanks (storage facilities for biological samples). But Stockholm Life, once completed, will be very much more than a slogan. The concrete reality will more than double the available area for life sciences in the city from 200,000 square metres to 550,000.

Fully functioning district

Alongside the new life-science facilities, the City of Stockholm, the sponsor of the project, intends to build 5000 new houses and 36,000 office spaces; the idea, says Stockholm Life director of business development Filippa Kull, is that the development will be very much more than just a science park.

“It will be a new, fully functioning, 24/7 city district, easily accessible, providing meeting places and attracting creative types in which the hard infrastructure (the premises) will be adapted to life-science activities, as will the soft infrastructure, which will provide structures and functions for collaboration and knowledge transfer,” she tells fDi.

Stockholm Life will not be built in a day; this is a long-term project, in which independent construction companies will be invited to tender for various constituent parts. However, construction of the new Karolinska University Hospital (replacing the institution’s existing building) is scheduled to be one of the first components – and in a sense a linchpin of the whole project.

Earlier in 2010, Stockholm’s city council announced that the public-private partnership hospital project had been awarded to an Anglo-Swedish consortium that includes construction company Skanska and the UK investment fund Innisfree, and is intended to be complete by 2015.

Collaborative laboratory

The Science for Life Laboratory, intended as a national resource centre for large-scale analysis of DNA, proteins and cells, is another development illustrating the energies being directed at the life-science sector in Stockholm. A collaboration between the Karolinska Institute, the Royal Institute of Technology and Stockholm University, the idea of the laboratory is to drive research in specific areas, including genetic sequencing, bioinformatics, biological image analysis, gene-function studies and structural biology – with the ultimate aim of developing new therapies for cancer, diabetes and heart and lung diseases. The plan is that the laboratory will employ 220 staff, mostly researchers, by 2011.

The Stockholm Life vision is not scheduled to be fully realised for a decade or more; this is a major project, which will demand the resources and input of many players across the public/private divide. But it is an endorsement of Stockholm’s commitment to the life sciences as a driver of the Swedish economy.

Karolinska Development

One of the problems that the sector encounters – as is the case in any city in any country – is that of getting ideas off the ground at the very earliest stages. More so than in any other discipline, biotech and pharma projects are extremely investment-hungry, and returns can literally be deferred for decades. One commercial initiative intended to provide that initial (and also sustained) lift is Karolinska Development, a fund that was conceived to secure financing for innovations coming out of the world-renowned Karolinska Institute.

The fund's mission statement is to combine the drug-development experience “of big pharma [corporations] with the speed, flexibility and energy of a small biotech company”. The portfolio includes companies in all stages of development and across a spectrum of therapeutic areas, including cardiovascular, dermatology, wound healing, obstetrics and oncology.

Karolinska Development has first right of refusal on projects coming out of its namesake institute, and has looked at 1200 projects since 2003. Out of those, 200 have been invited into the incubator to see if the results can be repeated; the current portfolio covers 50 companies, with a total investment of $200m.

Vice-president Otto Skolling, who expects to see a big outcome from Karolinksa Development in the next couple of years, says that he is “spoilt” by the world-class quality of research that he has access to. But he says that in the industry at large there are issues with lack of capitalisation.

Karolinska Development’s shareholders include institutions, insurance companies, high-net-worth individuals and the Wallenberg family (a major presence in many areas of Swedish business life). And while no investment is without some risk, the opportunities in the Stockholm region are, Mr Skolling says, excellent.

“We’re also cheaper than comparable regions. It is true that blue-collar labour has a reputation for being expensive in Sweden,” he says. “But the scientific process is not – it is much cheaper here than in Germany, for example.”

With Stockholm’s continued investment in the life sciences, further economies of scale, and exciting investments, are predicted to follow.