Its no secret that the raison d’être of the Walloon region’s BioWin is to prime the pump of its already successful biotechnology and health centre. Or, to cite its own corporate message, to provide a federation of “stakeholders participating in innovation and training in the field of biotechnology and health”. But a tour around Wallonia’s science parks, and introductions to some of the key players developing new therapies and solutions, leaves a more vivid impression than that mission statement can convey.

BioWin was created in July 2006 – by which time the region was already home to global giants such as UCB, GlaxoSmithKline Biologicals, the proton therapy and cyclotrons business IBA, diagnostics and biotech products company Eurogentec, drug discovery firm Euroscreen and the biopharma product giant Baxter.

Advertisement

The presence of these companies underpins the sector and provides feedback, potential markets and research partners for smaller enterprises. But where BioWin comes into its own is by taking the existing ingredients of success and creating the critical momentum that will make the region a biotech world-beater.

Redefining the economy

Wallonia is the French-speaking southern region of Belgium, with a population of some 3.4 million and excellent access to surrounding countries – the Netherlands, Germany and France. Formerly, Wallonia was heavily industrialised, with impressive steel works, expertise in metallurgy and some of the largest arms factories in Europe. In the post-industrial age, the region has been forced to redefine itself economically and, as with others confronted with the same challenge, chose to focus on value-added industries that capitalise on the high levels of training and education available in its workforce and post-industrial legacies, including R&D capability and good transport links.

Perhaps the most important component is the strength of scientific innovation in its academic institutions, including the Louvain Catholic University, Brussels Free University and the University of Liège. Together with major corporate players, and the interest, funding and encouragement of the public sector, the market looks formidable, generating a turnover of €3bn and employing some 13,000 people.

BioWin has identified eight technological themes around which the region’s biotech activities are centred, including biomedical imaging, drug delivery systems, new therapies such as regenerative medicine, applied information technologies, medical devices and drug discovery. What the companies share is the optimism needed to sustain themselves in global markets where enormous quantities of investment and research may pay dividends in years to come. It is little surprise, then, that a whirlwind tour of the region’s six science parks introduces a broad and exciting pallet of technologies.

Jewels in the crown

Very much in the regenerative medicine space is Bone Therapeutics, a company that has identified the bone reconstruction market as one in which there is significant untapped need and limited competition. Its technology is premised on the fact that bone is a naturally recurring system and that bone disease occurs when the activity of bone resorption cells is too high or when the activity of bone-forming cells is depressed. Cell therapy can revert the trend by introducing new and biologically active cells.

Bone Therapeutics believes in time it can offer a range of products for treating bone fractures, particularly for the 10% of cases that cannot be treated conventionally because the damaged sites are too big – for example, in cases of spinal fusion or jaw and periodontal reconstructive surgery.

Advantages for patients, aside from effecting a cure where, quite possibly, no alternative exists, include the fact that no open surgery is involved, procedures can be performed under a local anaesthetic, and the treatment is short and does not require hospitalisation. Advanced clinical trials are already under way and BioWin believes this company has great potential.

Applying a similar concept to a very different part of the body, Promethera Biosciences describes itself as a cell therapy company dedicated to the treatment of liver diseases using an in vitro expanded cell. The company is a spin-off from the Louvain Catholic University laboratory of one of the world’s leading experts in hepatic cell transplantation, Professor Etienne Sokal, and is working on two cutting-edge medical products – HepaStem and HepaScreen – to treat a range of miscellaneous liver diseases, including Crigler-Najjar, urea cycle defects and Phenylketonuria, Promethera’s target diseases.

If successful, Promethera could have a huge impact on the lives of patients. The potential market for therapies for these disorders is substantial, with one in 2500 children being born with a congenital liver dysfunction that is potentially treatable with Promethera’s HepaStem technology, and a potential total market size for the treatment of E435m in the US and Europe.

Promethera was granted positive opinions for orphan drug designation for the treatment of Crigler-Najjar syndrome and urea cycle defects in 2007 and 2008, and in December 2008 was granted a ‘Freedom to Operate’ report. In June 2009, the same month in which the first patient was injected with HepaStem, it received a E3.5m grant from BioWin.

A further illustration of the innovation being fostered by BioWin is DNAVision, a company founded in 2004 and that has a portfolio of clients in the pharmaceutical and agro-alimentary industries and, of course, healthcare professionals. Based in the city of Charleroi, the business is a spinoff of three institutions including the Université Libre de Bruxelles and the Institut de Pathologie et de Génétique.

DNAVision prides itself on being industry-relevant and among the services it offers is the use of genetic analysis to predict side-effects or failure of medicinal products in patients participating in clinical trials (pharmacogenetics), the analysis of expression profiles following the administration of medicinal products, and the genetic identification and quantification of food mixtures to verify the composition of food.

In six years of existence, the firm has acquired 100 customers, exporting to France, Germany, Scandinavia, the UK and Spain, and recently received a major boost in the form of an investment by the entrepreneur Laurent Alexandre, former surgeon and neuropharmacologist and creator of www.doctissimo.fr, the largest health website in Europe, purchased in 2007 by Lagardère. So impressed was Mr Alexandre by DNAVision that he became its majority shareholder and president almost overnight.

Another jewel in the BioWin crown is Neurotech, a company that develops and designs implantable devices for the treatment of disorders through neurostimulation and is the manufacturer of the world’s first vagus nerve stimulator, which reduces the symptoms of epilepsy. The firm is also working on a drug delivery system using nanotechnology.

Next is Telemis, a medical imaging software company that offers a picture archiving and communication system, which it believes can improve the quality of diagnosis, decrease film and archiving budgets and increase the productivity of medical staff. Finally, Mithra Pharmaceuticals focuses on women’s health and is currently working on a new preventative therapy against cervical cancer.

Logistical solutions

The ‘cluster’ philosophy – bringing together companies and research institutes in such a way that each can leverage off the competencies of the other – is very much at the heart of the BioWin mission. One requirement shared by all participants, regardless of the sector or therapy being developed, is for sophisticated logistics capabilities up to the challenge of packaging, distributing and receiving the highly specialised materials and specimens that are the working currency of biotech companies. These are required to be traceable, free from contaminants, and must be treated with extreme care and in stable conditions when in transit between research institutes, universities, hospitals, biotech companies and purchasers.

Wallonia believes itself a leader in the field of ‘biologistics’, which, according to the BioWin-supported platform BiologEurope, is a “hybrid discipline”, developed to meet the challenges at the intersection of high value-added and specialised logistics and the biotech industry. Very much at the heart of the success of the concept on the ground is the proximity of Liege Airport, the European hub of freight company TNT, which has developed its Clinical Express Centre offering special packaging, coolants and integrated transport solutions.

One company specialising in providing logistical solutions to its extremely demanding biotech clients is B&C Logistics, which describes itself as a “long-term clinical research logistics partner” for companies in the biotech sector and argues that, until recently, clinical research logistics have failed to keep pace with the outsourcing of activities. The kind of facilities it has developed include consulting and training companies in order that they can optimise their logistics processes, primary and secondary packaging of investigational medicinal products (IMPs), the design and production of sampling kits, warehousing and storage of IMPs, nutriceuticals and biological specimens and specialised archiving services.

Global challenge

Wallonia is not the only region in Europe that has biotech high on its agenda, but it is making an enormous effort to help small companies clear the hurdles they encounter at all stages of development. Of BioWin’s 260 members, 145 are universities and research units, 68 are companies that, as at 2008, provided work for 13,420 employees directly and on a full-time basis – albeit the majority of these are employed by the big players, GSK Biologicals, Baxter and UCB.

Wallonia’s regional government describes BioWin as being in the second phase of its development. The first, from 2006 to 2009, yielded impressive results but also helped articulate what can and cannot be done to enable innovation. For example, BioWin cannot provide immunity from all the vicissitudes that typically contribute to the demise of start-ups.

Speaking at the launch of BioWin’s second phase, its vice-president, Jean-Luc Balligand said “[it] has had many successes, but also failures. And out of all the small and medium-sized enterprises that had been created in the sector, one-third no longer existed. We must remember that our role is to prevent the premature deaths [of potentially successful companies].”

According to Mr Balligand, the factors BioWin regards as critical if it is to fulfil its role are to provide excellent background research, professional business development and “a clever IP [intellectual property] policy”. The fourth requirement, he says, is money. “But not unless the first three requirements are met – and it is important that it comes from a number of different sources. Of course from government, but also from venture capitalists.” There exists, he suggests, a need for companies to approach potential private sector funders “in a more professional way”, so that the critical gap between a company’s take-off and its reaching “cruising altitude” might be addressed.

This model of deliberate state participation in the evolution of a sectoral economy would not necessarily work for all. But biotechnology is a difficult industry that needs long-term encouragement if it is to yield results.

The organisation’s president, Jean Stéphenne, also president and chairman of GSK Biologicals, says while BioWin’s first four years has achieved a great deal, in particular a “mobilisation” of all the participants – private, public and academic – involved in R&D, an increase in training programmes and improved international visibility, there are challenges for the next phase.

One of the issues he wants to address is that of IP, which he believes should be “better shared by the universities with companies” to encourage innovation and, to that end, BioWin has created a new interface, Welbio.

There are two other key components to BioWin’s second phase. First, to develop new strategies for developing human capital, including encouraging multidisciplinary internships in biotech and biopharma companies, and new efforts to retain and attract talent from universities. Second, the organisation is looking at how greater volumes of private investments can be attracted into the sector.

These are worldwide challenges.

The business of health is as international as any other and Belgium’s highly trained and multilingual life sciences graduates have a wealth of opportunities available to them from across the globe. But BioWin appears to have cleared the greatest hurdle in putting Wallonia on the biotech map – and, it seems, it is determined to keep it there.

The cost of this report was underwritten by AWEX (Wallonia Export & Investment). Reporting was carried out independently by fDi