THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UNANTICIPATED:
The Good: A Mecca for Biotechs
Belgium's biopharmaceutical sector enjoys a leading position on a global level. The biotechnology industry is an increasingly
important player in Europe and has been playing a central role in supporting Belgium's economy.
Historically, Belgium boasts an impressive track record in biopharmaceutical innovations. Some of the breakthroughs made in
the country include the first unraveling of the DNA sequence of a gene, the discovery of tPA (for dissolving coronary clots)
and the discovery of the HIV drug Tenofivir.
From left: Laurette Onkelinx, Minister of Social Affairs and Public Health; Leo Neels, CEO of pharma.be (The General Association
of the Pharmaceutical Industry)
Today, there are over 140 biotechnology companies operating in Belgium (7% of all such companies in Europe) that accounted
for 16% of Europe's turnover and almost 10% of European R&D expenditures. Patrik De Haes, CEO of ThromboGenics, a successful
biotech spin-off from the Katholiek Universiteit Van Leuven (KUL), stated that although Belgium is a small country, "in terms
of biotechnology we are right on top."
Eduardo Bravo, CEO of TiGenix, the first and only company with an approved cell-based product in Europe and also a spin-off
of KUL and Universiteit Gent (UG), agrees that Belgium offers unique opportunities in biotech. "Belgium finds itself in a
privileged position for cell therapy due to the concentration of cell therapy companies located in the Benelux region, particularly
Yet Omer Saka, director at Deloitte submits that there is still room for improvement. "With the right policies and incentives
in place, Belgium could very easily become the European leader in the biopharmaceutical sector. I consider the biotech sector
to be the jewel in the economic and financial crown of the country." More specifically, Saka notes that "Belgium would benefit
significantly by setting this as a major objective for her industrial policy. The government therefore has to put the vision
out there to be the leading country, not just in R&D, but also in manufacturing biopharmaceuticals."
In part, Belgium's success in biotechnology can be traced to its excellent academic network, abundance of expertise and the
trend towards cooperation and clusterization in the industry. Belgium boasts an academic network of 16 universities within
a 60 mile radius and a high concentration of university hospitals. A 2008 study by The Scientist found that four out of the
top 10 universities in life science research, as measured by citations, are located in Belgium. This is the greatest academic
concentration of any country outside of the US.
De Haes notes that "in Belgium, the number of drugs in development per million inhabitants is the highest in the world, ahead
of the UK or the United States." Likewise, Bravo goes on to say that Belgium maintains a "favorable position that obviously
derives from the quality of its universities, especially with regard to the quality of the spin-offs they produce. With the
highest concentration of life science employees in the world, the country has become the birthplace of several world R&D centers
for the biopharma industry."