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We have to make the politicians understand that if we don't take biotech seriously then tourism will be our premier industry in the future.
As the exhibition floor of this year's BIO 2008 International Convention in San Diego (CA, USA) was being cleared, and as its 20000-plus attendees were making their way back to their homes and offices across the globe, Eric Poincelet, Commissioner General of EuroBio, was immersing himself some 9000 km away in the preparations for what he hopes will one day be a true equal to this mammoth US event.
Poincelet's plans for EuroBio are as ambitious and far-reaching as those that propelled the US event to its current place of world domination.
There is a long way to go, not least because the European industry has a lot of catching up to do before it can claim any kind of parity with the US. However, Poincelet is quick to point out that European biotech is simply 10 years after the US and not 10 years behind.
EuroBio began life in 1997 when the French government initiated a European biotechnology networking event known as European Biotech Crossroads. This was, however, according to Poincelet, a "very French" type of event. Industry was not much involved; rather, it aimed to assist the new generation of researchers "to find a job and discuss the biotech sector."
Eric Poincelet: career in brief
At this point, Poincelet was appointed by Raymond Barre, the former Prime Minister of France (1976–1981) to help launch what became BioVision, the World Life Sciences Forum. Although industry was involved with this, Poincelet was frustrated as it was still very much 'society-oriented'. "I could see the US Bio event developing at that time," he says, "and I realized that we needed a meeting for the life sciences industry here in Europe, but nobody was doing it. We had partnering events, financial seminars and conferences here and there, but nothing like the US BIO convention."
When Poincelet left BioVision he was approached by the French Ministry of Research to broaden the scope of the European Biotech Crossroads. He started in 2005 by renaming it EuroBio. "I repositioned it at the interface of industry and research, with industry first, and I basically tried to copy the US event using everything that I thought worked and discarding what I thought didn't work."
Poincelet and his team implemented BIO's four-pillar structure — the conference, the partnering event, a careers fair and the exhibition. By 2006, EuroBio was being attended by more than 4000 people. This year's event (Paris, 7–9 October) is expected to attract more than 5000.
But for all its 'internationalization', there is a provocative engagement this year with some of the more controversial issues surrounding biotech in Europe, an approach that smacks, admirably, of a particularly French mentality. "We will be asking questions such as why have we spent so much money, for instance, on the common agricultural policy (CGA) during the past so-many years and why so little on the development of research and innovation," says Poincelet. "This a strong statement, but it shouldn't be seen as a provocation. It should be seen as a way of thinking about the future. Every European citizen is spending approximately 8364100 per year on growing sugar beet or whatever's in the framework of the CGA, and only 836414 on research and innovation, which is what should be shaping the 21st Century. We're not saying that we should reduce the money spent on the CGA — we're suggesting that maybe there should be a Common Research Policy!"
Despite the growing success of his event, Poincelet is acutely aware of the ongoing disparity between US and European biotech. Indeed, the disparity within Europe — between the UK and the rest of the continent — is also a significant one: the UK industry constitutes 40% of the European biotech industry. It comes as no surprise then that the presentations at this year's EuroBio are in English, despite the show being tagged 'the life sciences event of the European Union presidency' (that is, France). The stronger UK infrastructure has yet to lend its support to the European industry, according to Poincelet. "Nearly 10 years ago, I was dealing with UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and I had the feeling they were playing very bilaterally between the US and the UK, but ignoring the rest of the continent. This attitude may have changed since then, but I remember saying to a senior official of UKTI at the time that the UK should remember the African saying: 'When you kill your friend to feed the lion, you become the lion's next meal.' If you go below the critical mass that makes the biotech sector in Europe big enough to be attractive, then you will disappear."
Ten years later, Poincelet believes this is exactly what is happening. Europe has not yet achieved the critical mass it needs. "We have to make the politicians understand that if we don't take this seriously then tourism will be our premier industry in the future."
Of his UK experience, he says that he was surprised to see that the London stock exchange was not putting any priority on the European life sciences industry. Instead, there were priorities on Canada, China and Russia. "What we've done with EuroBio is make sure that the New York Stock Exchange, together with Euronext, really puts life sciences high on their list of priorities," he adds. "We're putting together a pipeline between the US and Europe so that the financing comes from the US because we're not getting it from Europe."
Faced with these ongoing funding and support difficulties, we have to ask whether Europe will remain too fractured to work as one with each country too preoccupied with its own nationalistic concerns to pull together in the interests of a truly European biotech force. Certainly, this is a theme the October event is prepared to tackle head-on — one of its debates is entitled 'Nationalism is the greatest enemy of biotechnology in Europe.' Poincelet sees Europe divided into two 'camps': the Anglo-Saxon members and the Latin members. "The big split," he says, "is between those two worlds. However, through events such as EuroBio they can start to realize that if they're not united then it won't work. United we stand, divided we fall."
Poincelet sees hope, however, in the growing buoyancy of the developing biocluster regions, particularly in the Latin south. The bioclusters in Milan (Italy) and Barcelona (Spain), he says, are making great strides in the industry. "They have realized how important the health and eco-industry sectors are, and they are really putting themselves together to become the best in Europe and the best outside Europe."
Perhaps then, EuroBio's job could be a simpler one of fusing the "three categories of European cluster" successfully together. These are the big, country-specific clusters (or megaclusters); the smaller but cross-border metaclusters, such as ScanBalt; and the niche clusters that focus, for example, on green biotech.
The bioclusters are "a very healthy thing," says Poincelet, "because what happened in the US 10 years ago is taking place here now. In the US, you now have maybe nine leading clusters; in Europe you have 12–14 big clusters."
To mobilize this potential European strength and solidify the united front, we need to size up to the US. Poincelet believes we need to take inspiration from history. "The wealthiest time in Europe was during the Renaissance period when the cities were working together as part of metaclusters. Venice (Italy) worked with Vienna (Austria); Milan (Italy) with Warsaw (Poland). The boundaries were not between countries but between clusters, and this is what could happen with biotechnology in Europe."
This could be our greatest hope for the development of a truly great European biotech industry, so we have to be thankful that Eric Poincelet and his team at EuroBio remain tirelessly committed to making it happen.