The Belgian region of Wallonia offers access to prestigious universities, top hospitals, well-qualified staff and links to wider networks in Europe. Add to this its favourable central location and it becomes apparent why the region is so popular with firms in the global biopharmaceuticals industry.

Biopharma is a major part of Wallonia’s economy, directly employing almost 16,000 people in 2012 and indirectly responsible for the full-time employment of 42,000. “We’ve seen employment grow by 71% in seven years,” says Frederic Druck, communications and international relations director of Wallonia’s health competitiveness cluster, BioWin.

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Research and development into biopharma is also significant, estimated to be worth Ä830m in 2012. “We have a number of vibrant companies that are raising investment funding, and there are opportunities for companies in cell therapies, vaccines, genomics and radio-pharma,” says Dr Philippe Janssens de Varebeke, life sciences specialist at Wallonia’s exports and foreign investment agency, Wallonia Export and Investment (AWEX). “Major R&D investment in the region in the past five years includes GlaxoSmithKline with €456m, Baxter with €270.6m and UCB with €70.5m.”

Track record

The roll call of companies that have set up base in Wallonia is pretty impressive. Mr Janssens de Varebeke says: “Big names such as GSK Vaccines, Johnson & Johnson, UCB, Baxter, Pfizer, IBA, UCB, Lonza, Kaneka, Ajinomoto and Daiichi Sankyo have all been attracted to the region due to its position as the number one logistics location in Europe, according to [commercial real estate services firm] Cushman & Wakefield; its position as number one in Europe and number five worldwide for clinical phase-one trials; its favourable tax regime; R&D incentives; dedicated training; investment subsidies; a supportive regulatory environment; and its host of university-industry partnerships. It is also committed in the European Commission’s Seventh Framework Programme, which supports biotech firms and research institutions in their projects.”

AWEX offers investors interested in the sector a one-stop shop, including help with finance, labour issues, subsidies, R&D incentives, site selection and after sales. Mr Janssens de Varebeke helps companies set up in the region. “I know all the key people in the region when it comes to foreign biotech and pharma companies,” he says. “What is important to me are the needs of the value chain. I encourage firms by linking companies and universities together. I find out what foreign companies want, then I try to find out if any of our universities can offer that expertise to the investor. If they need grants, which is usually the case for pre-clinical R&D, I can also put them in contact with the right people.”

Mr Druck adds: “Our strong network of research institutions includes universities such as Université Catholique de Louvain [UCL], Université de Namur, Université de Liège and Université libre de Bruxelles, and they have lots of links with the companies located close to them.” Spin-offs from these universities include Novadip, a future UCL spin-off active in the bone reconstruction market which is supported by the Louvain Technology Transfer Office.

Key areas of expertise

The region’s key areas of expertise are immunology; in vitro diagnostics; healthcare radiation applications; biopharma; cell therapy and regenerative medicine; instruments and medical devices; and services and technologies. “We have four companies developing their own cell therapy products. That is huge compared with other regions in Europe,” says Mr Druck. “We are leaders in the translation of technologies from universities into companies in that domain.”

At the heart of what Wallonia offers are networking opportunities and access to skills, both within the region and further afield. For example, the Liaison Entreprises Universités network coordinates technology transfer at universities in the area. This approach brings together several different academic disciplines, including engineering, medicine and veterinary sciences. “This helps innovation as it pools resources,” says Dr Philippe Lachapelle, AWEX’s director of business development and strategic partnerships. “To have one group that enables several disciplines to work together around one table means you can look at a problem from every angle, and that’s vital for innovation.

“We are working on the complete innovation chain, from the university all the way to the production of the improved product. Even if a US company already has its own patents and university links back home, it is still quite important for it to have the same in Europe to access the market here. And Belgium, at the heart of Europe, is well placed to meet that need.”

The BioWin health competitiveness cluster brings together about 95% of the region’s organisations working on innovative projects and skills development in the biotech and medical tech fields. “We now have more than 510 members, including six global leaders and 400 research units from five universities, including prestigious institutes such as the GIGA in Liège, the Institute for Medical Immunology and the Christian de Duve Institute of Cellular Pathology,” says Mr Druck.

“Our core activities are supporting R&D and skills development, fostering international technical partnerships and encouraging the creation of innovative technical platforms to develop the biomedical sector.”

Larger networks

Wallonia helps biopharma firms to act on a truly global basis. BioWin regularly links up with 40 European health clusters. It has affiliations with a number of EU projects including the NanoFar graduate programme and Europe Innova innovation consultancy. Wallonia also has partnerships with the Lyon Biopole bio cluster and the European Diagnostics Cluster Alliance, and participates in networks including the European Biotechnology Network and the Council for European Bioregions. Its international partnerships include tie-ups with the Massachusetts Life Sciences Centre in Boston and Juke Biotech Park in Shanghai.

Additionally, Wallonia has established international links through the Open Worldwide Innovation Network (OWIN), founded by AWEX, the Texas A&M University System (Tamus) in the US and the commercial arm of Tsinghua University in Beijing, Coway International TechTrans Co. OWIN helps organisations in the region to forge links with the US and China. This relationship recently resulted in GlaxoSmithKline and Tamus announcing that the US Department of Health and Human Services had approved the establishment of a $91m influenza vaccine-manufacturing facility in Texas. All parties have been working on this project since early 2010.

“Belgium is a natural place to target when entering Europe,” says Brett Cornwell, associate vice-chancellor for commercialisation at Tamus. “Centrally located, it has real strengths in some key areas of interest such as clinical trials. Most importantly, it is home to AWEX, our trusted partner on the ground. It’s the vital local action point for Texas companies interested in setting up in Belgium. 

“AWEX provides key contacts, introductions to experts and possible management contacts, as well as introductions to capital. For Texas companies, OWIN is a conduit to Europe, China and further afield. But it is AWEX that brings it all together in Belgium and guides them through all the business regulations and introduces them to local networks.”

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