Too Late for Biotechs?
"For the first time in French history, the French president pronounced the word biotech – just the fact that he can say this
makes us happy." The enthusiasm expressed by André Choulika, president of France Biotech, following October 2009 CSIS is shared
by many in the industry. France is now consciously seeking to catch up with biotech, and to retain its leading position in
the pharmaceutical world.
When it comes to biotechnologies it's hard to dismiss the successful development of its European neighbors such as Germany,
Ireland or the UK, which have begun to overshadow France. France's biotech infrastructure, both in terms of bioproduction
and research, is clearly lagging, a worrying sign in a world where biotechs represent about 50% to 60% of new drugs.
Albert Saporta, CEO of Stallergenes
But those who believe France's endeavor in biotech waters is something new should think twice. Historically through its vaccine
industry, France has been a pioneer in the use of living microorganisms for prophylactic purposes.
"The first biotech company was created by Jacques Monod at the time it was not yet called a biotech" jokes Alice Dautry, general
director of Institut Pasteur. While often believed to be a public institution, Institut Pasteur is actually a private non
profit organization and it has done much for France's reputation abroad. "If you look at the impact factor of publications
our Institute, in terms of infectious diseases, it is usually the second worldwide after Harvard University; we are also the
first in European immunology."
André Choulika, President of France Biotech
The institute sold its production unit to Sanofi-Aventis three decades ago and now only focuses on research on a contract
basis with big pharmas, becoming an incubator of biotechs. "Recently we have created 14 biotech and we are continuing", says
Dautry, adding "as a principle we create biotech only with the discoveries done at the institute and when there is a scientist
who wants to take over the technology we deliver it."
France already counts success stories. In a June 2010 press conference, Albert Saporta, CEO of Stallergenes, was hoping that
their sublingual grass pollen immunotherapy tablet, Oralair, could reach American patients in 2011, and that his company would
find a strong partnership in North America. Saporta was happy to announce the positive results of Oralair's phase III study.
He also pointed out that with a 2009 revenue of €192.8 million ($230 million), the company would be looking for acquisition
Stallergenes boasts one of France's best performing stock. With profits up 17% in 2009 and the latest US success, there is
no reason for the success story to end. Saporta reveals the company's secret: "These results are based on our method to allergy
treatments using a long-term approach through allergen immunotherapy, in contrast to a symptomatic treatment of allergies.
Stallergenes is looking to eliminate the disease through desensitization to the disease's root cause."
Christian Béchon, Chairman & CEO of LFB
Despite some successes, the panorama of France's biotech companies is far from rosy. French biotech companies are often underfunded,
isolated geographically and too small. "Abroad investors will only consider your technology and what breakthrough you could
represent for them. In France they see you as a young start-up trying to beg for money and they wave you out," regrets Choulika.
Hence, one of the more groundbreaking actions outlined in the CSIS is the creation of Innobio, a new biotechnology fund utilizing
a combination of funds from the Fonds Stratégique d'Investissement (FSI) – France's sovereign wealth fund – and multinational laboratories including Sanofi-Aventis, GSK, Pfizer, Roche, Ipsen,
Lilly, Novartis, Boehringer Ingelheim and Takeda. Such a fund is welcomed by risk-taking start-ups who continue to look for
new ways to draw attention to their work.
The biotechnology surge is not only coming from the bottom up. Industry giants are also making moves. "Following the CSIS,
Sanofi-Aventis and GSK invested €25 million each in the Innobio fund. In addition, Sanofi-Aventis is transforming a large
chemical production site for biotech site in Vitry-sur-Seine. Sanofi-Aventis has also been investing in a dengue vaccine plant.
For a large international company firmly established in France, it is our duty to work with small biotechnology companies,"
explains Christian Lajoux of the LEEM, who is also president of Sanofi-Aventis France.
In April 2010, LFB signed a partnership agreement with Sanofi-Aventis. LFB may not yet enjoy the same international fame as
Sanofi-Aventis, but it is a very important player in France not only as the leader for plasma derived products, but also as
the third largest supplier of drugs to hospitals. The company specializes in plasma derived protein and monoclonal antibodies.
"Our goal is to focus on rare pathologies and currently unmet medical needs," describes Christian Béchon, who has been heading
LFB since 2006.
The partnership agreement, explains Béchon, aims at "creating economic interest group called LFB Biotechnologies-Sanofi Chimie.
This long-term cooperation is intended to facilitate and develop mutual, preferential use of production resources based on
cell culture, biological product purification and pharmaceutical preparation. It will also lead to a joint bioproduction offering
for third parties."
Béchon sees this as a first step: "This collaboration project is an important step towards the reinforcement of France's wealth
in this area and comes on the heels of Sanofi-Aventis' announced launch of the Biolaunch project on the Vitry-sur-Seine (France)
site in May 2009 and the extension of the capacity of LFB's bioproduction subsidiary (Mabgène) in Alès (France), slated to
be operational by 2010. It is crucial that French pharmaceutical companies acquire their own bioproduction capacity. The development
of adequate installations represents a strategic industrial milestone for France."
Despite being leader on the French market, LFB is only the 6th largest player in the plasma derivate products. By legislation
and for ethical reasons, only plasma products from unpaid donations are allowed on the French market and LFB Biomedicaments
is the only entity authorized to fractionate plasma collected by the French National Blood Organization. One of the decisions
of the CSIS was to turn LFB into a joint-stock company.
Although he is conscious that LFB's size does not allow for immediate wide scale international expansion, Béchon is confident
that LFB can export the know-how they have developed. "LFB S.A. was chosen by the Brazilian government to assist the local
state-owned company, Hemobras, in building a fractionation plant in Brazil. In 2008, with the help of its subsidiary LFB Biomedicaments,
LFB S.A. completed the upstream plant design and in 2009 provided technical support to Hemobras, which will carry out the
plant in further stages."
If most people we interviewed acknowledge that France is 5-10 years behind when it comes to biotech, many also strongly disagree
with the fact that it is too late for France to catch up and are confident that France will find its own way. Lajoux is sure
that France will triumphantly overcome its current lag through phenomenal innovation that will break all existing models.
"Sanofi-Aventis's story has demonstrated over the past 30 years that it was possible to compete with existing international
giants. Sanofi-Aventis was the anti-model". He surely hopes France can replicate this success and catch up.