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Plans to make the EU a global bio-hub

A cornerstone of Horizon 2020 will be to fund research tackling the major societal challenges facing the EU, for example climate change, health and ageing, resource efficiency and food security. According to Nathalie Moll, Secretary-General of EuropaBio, the biotechnology industry is central to tackling these challenges through its many applications in healthcare, agriculture and industrial biotech. However, she is also warning that a possible cut in funding and a sometimes unpredictable regulatory framework could hamper any final breakthroughs.

Biotechnology and the bioeconomy are set to benefit significantly from Horizon 2020. How do you believe the industry can best take advantage of EU funding?

A key development in Horizon 2020 is that we are finally seeing Europe shift from funding only research and applied research towards funding research and innovation. The EU’s eighth framework programme for research and innovation will be aimed at funding product development that will bring Europe a little bit further towards producing innovative marketable products and processes rather than just being a world-class research hub.

EuropaBio welcomes the emphasis under Horizon 2020 of the significant role played by industry-driven research, both as co-sponsor of public private partnerships (PPPs) and participants in programmes as evaluators and contributors. It is essential to our industry that MEPs and member states support the proposals for three PPPs that are currently under discussion – the new Innovative Medicines Initiative, the PPP for Biobased Industries (BRIDGE) and the Sustainable Process Industry (SPIRE) PPP.

In Europe, we have a large concentration of highly skilled scientists and we certainly produce a lot of world-class scientific papers and a good number of patents. However, we often lag behind the rest of the world in translating this top research into products and processes that can bring benefits to society. In addition to more predictable legislative frameworks, many of our competitors in other parts of the world have specific incentives for industry to scale up their innovation and research to marketable products at a far speedier rate than in Europe. In this sense, the PPPs proposed under Horizon 2020 should be a step in the right direction in helping biotech companies to scale up their world-class research and innovation and focusing their research.

It’s been announced that Horizon 2020 is likely to receive nearly €10bn less in funding than previously thought. What potential effect is this likely to have on the sector?

If confirmed, it very much depends how this cut in budget will be distributed throughout Horizon 2020. It would be a shame to lose one part of Horizon 2020 due to a reduction in the budget because at the moment the package makes a lot of sense. If we take the three pillars, you have a ‘why’ (tackling societal challenges), a ‘what’ (creating industrial leadership) and a ‘how’ (raising excellence in science). If any one of these three strands were to be dropped, Horizon 2020 would not have the impact that it’s aiming to have. Among other things, we would very much like to see funding for the PPPs in bio-based products and innovative medicines secured by member states and MEPs to give these two sectors the extra boost they need to be success stories for Europe and its citizens.

What impact do you think the newly announced EU Bioeconomy Observatory will have on the industry and making people more aware of its work?

It’s very encouraging to see the way that the EU institutions have spearheaded a lead role in promoting the bioeconomy, firstly by developing the bioeconomy strategy in 2012 (which encourages an interdisciplinary and cross-sectoral approach to policy making) and secondly by implementing a series of tools in order to make sure the strategy is implemented – the Bioeconomy Observatory is one such tool.

The observatory, announced by Commissioner Geoghegan-Quinn during the bioeconomy conference hosted by the Irish Presidency in February, will gather important data about the size of the bioeconomy in Europe. The observatory will also set a series of performance and innovation indicators – employment, productivity, social wellbeing, etc., not only to measure its progress in Europe, but also as a way to better communicate the bioeconomy. Communication and understanding of the value of the bioeconomy are crucial components to the success and market pull of the bioeconomy. ‘Bioeconomy’ is a term that can be interpreted in different ways by different people and it is important that it is promoted correctly across Europe. The observatory seems like an excellent step in that direction.

If the observatory is indeed only a three-year project, we will need a follow-on system in place that will continue to monitor data regarding how the bioeconomy is developing in different member states on a yearly basis.

A key focus for Horizon 2020 is bringing more new and innovative products to market. What results do you think we could see from the biotech industry?

We already have a whole series of products that address unmet medical needs, improve resource efficiency and reduce impact on the environment. Healthcare biotech is already estimated to account for more than 20% of all marketed medicines and it is estimated that by 2015, 50% of all medicines will come from biotech. Agricultural biotech protects yields so that farmers can produce between 6% and 30% more on the same amount of land, helping to protect biodiversity and wildlife while reducing emissions. And finally, industrial biotech transforms agricultural products and organic waste into products with the aim of substituting the need for crude oil as a starting material to help fight global warming and reduce the impact on the environment. However, if you’re asking ‘will Horizon 2020 bring more products to market?’ it can’t do this on its own.

Biotechnology products are strictly regulated and they only reach the market once they have been rigorously assessed and approved. The top priority in the EU should be to ensure that the existing product authorisation systems work efficiently and that citizens have access to products assessed as safe and the freedom to choose among these.

Given the economic situation we are currently facing in Europe, many governments are looking for ways to improve their national budgets. A fantastic R&I programme at EU level will not produce the products that are needed, for example for patients across Europe if those individuals are then denied access to life-saving medicine at national level for cost-saving reasons. European governments must look at the long-term sustainability that biotech healthcare solutions bring in terms for example of reduced hospitalisation costs, treating previously unmet medical needs or possibly facilitating the re-entry of treated patients (and carers) in the job market.

In the area of agricultural biotechnology, there is a lack of predictability in terms of when a product submitted for approval in the EU will be put to the vote for approval. As this is not the case in other parts of the world, we have a growing gap in product authorisation timelines between Europe and the rest of the world meaning we are lagging behind our competitors, becoming less and less attractive as a research and innovation region and are also facing serious trade disruptions given agricultural commodities are grown and traded internationally on a daily basis.

I strongly believe that we need to ensure a predictable and workable regulatory framework at EU and national level is in place so that we can transform our first-class research into products and processes that benefit European society.

What impact will Horizon 2020 have on allowing Europe to take the lead over other international competitors in the biotech industry?

I think Horizon 2020 certainly has modernised the way research funding is done in Europe, although you can’t expect a research and innovation funding programme alone to help solve the problem of industrial competitiveness. In order for an industry to become a leader in any part of the world, you need first-class research, support for the translation of that research into products and processes, a market and an underlying coherent legislative and policy framework that facilitates the entire process.

For example, if we look at the industrial biotech sector, there is a whole value chain that needs to be addressed in order for it to succeed at being a competitive sector in Europe. Access to high quality raw materials at competitive prices, the right funding for research and its scaling up to industrial level as well as the awareness in the market of the value of industrial biotech products and processes are all areas that require careful attention if we want industrial biotechnology and the bioeconomy to succeed in Europe.

The biotech industry believes that with Horizon 2020 we have an excellent tool for research and innovation funding – we fully support the concept behind it. We are delighted of the orientation towards grand challenges as well as of the greater emphasis being placed upon the innovation phase, which is so crucial to industry. We very much hope that no one pillar suffers from any possible cut that may come as a result of funding decisions by the European Institutions and look forward to being involved in making Europe a leader in the biotech revolution.

Nathalie Moll