Belgium: The Health & Biotech Valley of Today and Tomorrow

December 15, 2021 Article BioVox

As part of the ‘Health & Biotech Valley of Tomorrow’ initiative, the Belgian government recently signed a charter together with stakeholders from academia and industry, pledging to cement Belgium’s status as a biotech powerhouse in the next 10 to 20 years. Over the next few months, working groups will translate recommendations of a consultancy report into a concrete strategic plan for the future of the country. Amongst other topics, experts will evaluate ways to encourage more collaboration, provide financial stimuli, and make better use of health data.

This article was authored by Andy Furniere.

In recent years, Belgium has firmly established itself as a frontrunner in biotech. Strong biotech clusters have emerged in multiple Belgian hubs, including Ghent, Charleroi, Leuven, and Liège. These clusters are hotspots for collaboration between world-class universities, research centers, hospitals, start-ups, SMEs, and large international companies. The cross-pollination in this fertile ecosystem has led to exceptional local expertise, especially in technologies such as messenger RNA (mRNA), plasmid DNA, cell and gene therapy, and monoclonal and polyclonal antibodies.

The health and biotech industries are already vitally important to the Belgian economy and workforce. The country currently ranks third in the EU for biopharmaceutical exports, with a total of €56 billion generated in 2020. Belgian biotech and pharma companies directly employ more than 40,000 people – twice the European average – and many more indirectly.

Showcasing strength during the pandemic

During the pandemic, the Belgian biopharma sector demonstrated its strength by producing and exporting 700 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the rest of the world. The country’s contribution recently drew praise from the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. “It was in Belgium that the new, life-saving mRNA vaccines were for the very first time produced at a large scale,” she stated. “It is from Belgium that Europe sends a big part of its vaccines to countries all over the world.”

“The coronavirus crisis was a real wakeup call: health is at the very heart of every individual’s life.” – Alexander De Croo

The COVID-19 crisis has however also increased the competition for Belgium on the global stage. The pandemic served as a wake-up call for many other countries to strengthen their own biopharma ecosystems, so that they are better prepared and more resilient in the event of future health crises.

“You notice that many countries are kind of envious of our assets and have started to copy us,” said Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo to the Belgian TV channel Kanaal Z. “We now have to get ahead again, to be able to maintain our unique position in the long run. To achieve that, we have to think of a strategy for the next 10 to 20 years.”

How to stay ahead of the pack?

To maintain Belgium’s world-leading position, De Croo initiated the action plan ‘Health & Biotech Valley of Tomorrow’. Experts of the global consulting firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) assessed the country’s current position and identified the next steps necessary for Belgium to achieve its goals.

In its report, the BGC asserts that it is crucial for Belgium to act in five specific areas: Belgium should reinforce its competitive position in talent and attractiveness to businesses; unlock the potential of its rich health data sources; stimulate regional and cross-border collaboration; deploy an end-to-end approach across the biopharma value chain; and accelerate its involvement in innovative platforms such as cell therapy and digital therapeutics.

“We have made tremendous progress in recent years; the future now lies in consolidating and strengthening this ecosystem.” – Jean-Christophe Tellier

The report goes more into detail, suggesting different measures that could help to further build the country’s talent base, for example. These include recommendations to develop pre-university orientation programs encouraging enrolment in STEM programs, and to introduce new immersion programs and business courses to stimulate the entrepreneurial mindsets of life sciences students and researchers. The report also suggests designing more programs that build new skills for the future, such as the EU Biotech School & Health Hub – a cutting-edge training center with a corporate accelerator which should be up and running in Gosselies (Charleroi) by 2025.

Working together to continue the Belgian success story

On the basis of the BCG recommendations, several working groups are evaluating the best ways to support innovation, economic attractiveness, and training. All Belgian biopharma stakeholders are involved in this large-scale consultation: industry, federations, regulatory bodies, public services, academia, and academic hospitals.

“We have made tremendous progress in recent years; the future now lies in consolidating and strengthening this ecosystem,” stated Jean-Christophe Tellier, CEO of UCB. “If we are successful, we can become the Boston of Europe.”

Frédéric Druck, Secretary-General of bio.be, agreed: “Let us ensure that this ambitious R&D bioplatform is the catalyst for creating an investment climate conducive to Belgian biotech innovations and pioneering production platforms in the future.  A change case whereby we can all make the most of Belgian biotechnology – together.”

The working groups will include methods to make better use of Belgium’s rich health data, by connecting data sources, improving accessibility and the use of analytics. Discussions will also focus on fiscal and financial stimuli for the sector, such as ways to improve company access to growth capital, and how to make innovative medication available to patients more rapidly.

Read this article about how Belgium has all the ingredients to be number one for real-world data in healthcare!

By the end of April 2022, these working group discussions should have led to a strategic plan for the future of Belgium, with concrete policy suggestions. Following the signing of the charter, in the presence of European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Prime Minister De Croo stated:

“The coronavirus crisis was a real wakeup call: health is at the very heart of every individual’s life. For years Belgium has invested massively in its talents, in research and development and, thanks to numerous partners, in production tools capable of providing tangible responses to 21st century diseases and pandemics . We should be proud of this and we should definitely keep going. In a changing and more competitive international environment, we must bolster our ecosystem and equip ourselves with a long-term strategic vision to ensure that Belgium takes its place as the Health & Biotech Valley of the future at the very heart of a connected Europe. That’s our ambition.”


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