The BioRegion of Catalonia—A Unique Life-Sciences Hub in Europe

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Albert Barberà, PhD

Barcelona is set to host two well-known pharmaceutical events in the upcoming calendar year: CPhI (October 4–6, 2016) and BIO Europe Spring (March 20–22, 2017). The city is the heart of the BioRegion of Catalonia, believed to be the most dynamic bioregion in Spain and one of the most active in Europe.

The globalization of the life-sciences sector clearly brings us to pay close attention to international trends. Growth over the past two years has been marked by demographic changes, an increase in chronic diseases, the expansion of emerging markets, advances in treatments and technology, and by the pressure from governments and suppliers to cut costs, improve outcomes, and prove value. The industry and also the society are, therefore, in a transition period.

Convergence among industries. With breakthroughs in science and technology over the past decade, the healthcare and life-sciences sectors (such as pharma and biotech, medtech, and digital health players) appear to be converging. Not only is each of these sectors important in its own right, but they are becoming increasingly reliant on each other. For example, if a pharmaceutical company wants to offer beyond-the-pill or beyond-the-molecule solutions, it will have to work together with medtech and digital health providers. Hospitals that want to cut pharmacy spending will need to get their pharmaceutical suppliers involved in risk-sharing agreements.

There is also a trend toward consolidation, not only in the life-sciences sector, but also among traditionally different sectors. The next big mergers and acquisitions (M&A) operation could possibly be between a large pharma company and a large telecommunications company.

Pharma and biotech companies must face new challenges. Pharmaceutical companies are increasingly advancing in transforming their value chains. A decade ago, the value chain for a pharmaceutical product was totally or mainly controlled and carried out within the company. Then, a paradigm shift started towards outsourcing, first of secondary activities and later, in some cases, of core or main ones, which enabled pharma companies to cut costs and use their resources more flexibly. Now, a disintegration of the value chain can be observed toward different partnering structures where small biotech firms are no longer companies bought by pharma corporations but partners in different sorts of collaboration agreements.

The main challenge that the pharmaceutical industry faces is to evolve from being drug suppliers to being health and disease management companies. This change will require open communication between healthcare agents and the community of patients.

Innovation is the main driving force for growth in the pharmaceutical industry. But with decreasing R&D productivity, the pharmaceutical industry is now beginning to embrace the concept of open innovation, with companies being more willing to collaborate with external partners and make their platforms more accessible as open research tools.

In terms of end products, the trend is to move toward beyond-the-pill solutions. Faced with the risk of the patent cliff and competition from generic drugs, pharmaceutical companies have recognized that partnering with medical devices (hardware) and digital health (software) players is not only necessary but also innovative if they want to differentiate their products and be able to offer better customer services.

The BioRegion of Catalonia

According to the Biocat Report 2015, the BioRegion of Catalonia brings together 734 companies and 89 research organizations, including 41 research centers, 15 university hospitals, 11 universities offering life-sciences studies, 13 science and technology parks, and large research facilities such as the Alba-Cells Synchroton, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC), and the National Center for Genomic Analysis (CNAG) (1).


Despite being one of the smallest countries in Europe by population, Catalonia has more pharmaceutical companies per capita than any country in Europe except Belgium. The Spanish pharmaceutical industry is mainly concentrated in Catalonia, where 40% of the sector’s laboratories are located. The largest in the sector-all Catalan- are Grifols, Almirall, Esteve, Ferrer, Bioiberica, Reig Jofré, Uriach and Lacer. Barcelona is also home to the world’s top biopharmaceutical companies, including Amgen, Novartis, Roche, Sanofi, Bayer, B. Braun, Boehringer Ingelheim, Chiesi, Hartmann, Lundbeck, and Menarini.

Spain’s Catalonia region is also ranked fourth among European countries in terms of biotechnology companies per inhabitant (behind Sweden, Switzerland, and Israel). Between 2013 and September 2015, 75 new life sciences companies were created in the BioRegion. The companies in the life science sector employ more than 42,000 workers and post yearly turnover of €14.36 billion, which is equivalent to 7% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of Catalonia.

Catalan biotech and pharma companies

Generic drug production, small molecules and anti-infective agents are the main areas of activity of the pharmaceutical companies in Catalonia, but the research and the production of molecular diagnostic products is slowly gaining ground. Research into peptides and proteins, often linked with more efficient, precise drug-delivery solutions, stands out among the activities in biotechnology companies, along with the production of antibodies (see Figure 1).

Cancer (often focusing on rare diseases) is the main therapeutic area for Catalan biotech and pharma companies, with 38% of all companies working in this field (see Figure 2). Examples include the experimental drug Oryzon licensed to Roche in 2014 in an operation valued at $500 million and the compound being developed by Minoryx, which received more than $21.7 million in funding in 2015, both of which have orphan drug designation. Dermatological conditions (31%), infectious diseases (28%), and central nervous system disorders (28%) are the other main therapeutic areas, after cancer, that Catalan biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies are working on.

On the other hand, Catalonia performs more clinical trials than any other region in Spain, mainly in oncology Phase II (17%) and III (44%) studies. The recently launched Barcelona Clinical Trials Platform was built to maximize the potential of the region providing a single point of access to some of the main university hospitals and to national primary care network (2). As of January 2015, the platform members are participating in 2,740 active clinical trials, with 13,498 patients recruited.


1. Biocat Report 2015, Catalonia Life Sciences and Healthcare Outlook, (Barcelona, 2016).
2. Barcelona Clinical Trials Platform, presentation available at

About the Author

Albert Barberà, PhD is CEO at Biocat. Biocat has been actively involved in building the Catalan healthcare and life-sciences ecosystem since 2006. Created by the government of Catalonia and the Barcelona City Council, Biocat seeks to boost public and private stakeholders in the BioRegion (including companies, research organizations, hospitals, science parks, and other support bodies to innovation) and to transform knowledge and technology into economic growth and social impact.