The president of the Spanish Bioindustry Association makes an analysis of the current situation of the sector just a few weeks away from BioSpain 2016 in Bilbao, the major biennial event for the Spanish biotechnology sector.
You have been president of ASEBIO for around six months now. On your appointment you established three key objectives, all of which I understand are related to innovation in a sector that is already a paradigm of innovation. What is the current situation of regulatory, legislative and financial changes and the internationalization and transformation of the sector? Shall we start with the first?
In terms of the progress of regulatory, legislative and financial changes, we have been involved in many legislative processes as an interested party, transmitting the interests of the sector, including: INNVIERTE, a centralized purchasing process, the Science Law, the Entrepreneurs Law (getting advance tax credits for companies with tax losses), and the draft Royal Decree regulating the authorization of non-industrially manufactured advanced therapy medicines, among the most important ones. We have also managed to establish a regulated procedure for the deferral and fragmentation of debts deriving from R&D&I grants awarded through calls on the sub-programmes of Collaborative Applied Research and INNPACTO.
What about internationalization?
Internationalization is one of the most important of all the elements that facilitate the development of the biotech industry, occupying third place after staff training and cooperation with clients/suppliers, according to the ASEBIO 2014 Report. The evolution in the perception of internationalization in the biotech sector is a true reflection of its consolidation and maturity. Once companies have started getting products to more advanced phases of development and are developing growth and expansion plans that need capital, internationalization really comes to the fore and starts to be seen as a priority in their business development.
Internationalization has been a key factor in the survival of many Spanish companies during the economic crisis, and Spain is currently beating its historical record of exports in products and services. However, internationalization in the biotech sector is not motivated solely by the period of economic crisis that we’ve just come through but rather is an intrinsic characteristic of the sector and the level of maturity it has achieved. The biotech business is, by definition, a global business and hence companies are obliged from the very moment they are founded to become international.
For 90% of ASEBIO’s partner companies who were surveyed, internationalization is essential to develop their business. The main reason for a company not yet being active internationally is that it is still very young (71% of the reasons given by those surveyed). Some 88% of the firms surveyed are involved in some kind of international business, two percentage points above the figure in the 2013 survey. Some of the main international activities that the companies surveyed by ASEBIO are involved in include the export of products or services (68.75%); research partnerships or collaboration agreements (56.23%), European programmes (40.63%), licensing out (36%), trade offices (22%), licensing in (18.75%), representative offices (14%), Eureka programmes (14%) and production plants (6.25%).
The lack of economic resources is the main barrier when it comes to internationalization for 79% of companies, along with the lack of training in internationalization processes for 25% of those surveyed, language limitations (6.5%) and an underdeveloped business culture (4%).
In 2013 there were 43 companies with an international presence in 47 countries on five continents. Together they account for 159 subsidiaries abroad. In 2014, some 97 international partnerships were formalized, a drop of 10% compared to the previous year. Though it should be noted that between 2009 and 2014, international partnerships rose by 142%.
And what about transformation?
The emergence of the biotech sector in Spain happened at the beginning of this century with the creation of the first generation of companies based on public sector research. Before the crisis, there was enviable progress in creating companies and at the same time the first success stories started happening which demonstrated our ability to compete on the international stage. At the same time, the first specialist funds started to emerge which were key to the sector’s development. We’re now in a rather more delicate position. Despite the good news from companies such as Oryzon, Zeltia, Palobiopharma, Sanifit, and Mynorix, the lack of available capital for funding medium investment amounts and ever-shrinking public sector budgets have put the sector on the ropes, right at the time when we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
The biotech sector is mainly made up of small companies that are still in their investment phase. For this reason, the companies with better financing managed to get through the first half of the crisis quite well in terms of jobs and turnover. However, now that the economy is starting to turn around, the sector is experiencing some of its most difficult times. For this reason, now, more than ever, we need institutional and economic support.
You put a lot of emphasis on innovative public procurement. This is one of your main lines of action. How far should we be going?
In 2011, the Public Procurement of Innovative Technology was regulated in order for the government to achieve 3% of the General State Budget for this section in 2013. I honestly believe we have not yet reached this percentage, but you’ll need to ask the Public Administration for the exact figure.
There are many sectors that could benefit from buying technology from Spanish biotech companies, such as the health sector, the environment (bioremediation, revalorization of waste), food (food safety) genetic diagnostics (identification of substances and research), bioinformatics, energy (biofuels) and so on, and a huge number of public bodies could benefit from these developments, such as hospitals, ministries, councils, town halls, the police, civil defence, and so on.
ASEBIO believes that the public sector could made a stronger contribution to increasing national R&D&I if it made these public purchases in coordination with autonomous communities. In 2010, public procurement actions associated with innovation as part of the Plan of Action 2010 of the State Innovation Strategy reached 1,262 million euros, primarily through technology purchases.
The EuropaBio project clearly demonstrates that BioTech is a global goal for the EU. How is it coming along?
Biotechnology is intended to improve our quality of life and address present-day society’s main challenges, such as the constant growth of an ageing population, the problem of healthcare options and its affordability, the efficiency of the resources we use, food safety, climate change, the energy deficit and economic growth.
Up until now, biotechnology has also been a cornerstone of European competitiveness in terms of research and innovation, as well as in terms of industrial growth, the number of employees and the creation of new companies in Member States.
There is a Europe-wide commitment that is based on two cornerstones: access to innovation and a commitment to the environment. We are working to ensure that national public policies understand how important it is that the research advances of our companies and research centres get to the market, and that this is seen as an investment and not an expense; that it must be made sustainable, but not at the cost of patients. Furthermore, the bioeconomy and the circular economy are the basis of our industrial development with a view to improving energy sources and food health and to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and obtain more sustainable products and services from an environmental point of view.
This is the year of BioSpain 2016. What should biotechnology represent within Spain’s GDP?
Next week we will be providing up-to-date information on the representation of companies that use biotechnology in Spain’s GDP. There has been a constant evolution in the sector, to the point where in 2008 it represented just under 3% and by 2013 it was already over 9%. Indeed, this year we are holding BioSpain 2016, our biennial event which in 2016 we are co-organising with the Basque Government through SPRI. It will be held from 28 to 30 September in Bilbao.
What lines of action should Spanish biotechnology be following?
ASEBIO has worked hard to implement circumstantial and structural measures to relieve pressure on the treasuries of biotech companies in the short and medium term, leading on from the requirement to return the soft loans of the R&D Support Programmes rolled out by the Public Administration in the last few years.
At the same time, we that innovative public procurement is successful for the sector at every level of the administration and in every sector (particularly healthcare), meeting the commitments undertaken in the State Innovation Strategy in the style of the healthcare policies implemented in Galicia which won the National Innovation Award given to Sergas.
Furthermore, we believe that measures to stimulate the development of the private equity sector in Spain would facilitate a financial climate that would attract foreign capital for our companies and institutions, as well as public-private investment models in the field of the valorization of technology and concept testing. The promotion of mergers and acquisitions between biotech SMEs – by means of tax incentives, specific financial instruments, etc. – is another measure that would galvanize the biotech sector in Spain.
As and when the budgetary situation improves, we hope to see greater ambition in public investment in R&D&I. We also hope to deepen, in collaboration with public administrations, the recognition of innovation-intensive companies, such as biotech firms, getting rid of those aspects that make it particularly difficult for these companies to access these programmes, such as solvency criteria and the obligation to provide guarantees.
Another thing is the maintenance and optimization at an operational level of tax incentives for R&D&I. In particular, the creation of a motivational fiscal framework for innovation-intensive firms, recognizing the differential effort these firms make in R&D&I.
Finally, could you make an evaluation of biotechnology and the university sector? In what way do you believe that we should be changing university studies, relationships with the corporate sector, etc.?
In April last year we presented a series of recommendations to guarantee the competitiveness of Spanish public universities. In just 15 years we have created a network of more than 600 R&D-intensive firms, in many cases as university spin-offs. Regardless of their origin, 73% of biotech companies have some kind of scientific collaboration going on with universities. Some public universities play an active role building the Spanish biotech sector, such as the partner members of ASEBIO.
For these reasons, ASEBIO feels very strongly committed to Spanish public universities as a whole, and particularly to those universities that are members of the association, with which we have a very close and active relationship which includes support for research tasks, knowledge transfer and the search for placements for their students, amongst other initiatives. In addition, we have created, with the San Pablo University, a Master’s degree in the Management of Health Biotechnology Companies, the first edition of which concluded last June.
by Beatriz Cortiles