Belgium: the number one biotech country in Europe!

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For the third year in a row, Belgium has been ranked the number one country in Europe for biotech! Belgium is consistently included in the top five countries on a number of measures. But when it comes to the total market value of all public biotech companies in Europe, Belgium really takes the cake with a huge 24% slice. Furthermore, despite pressure from the pandemic, the value of Belgian biotech companies has increased by no less than 56% in the past year to €42 billion, putting 2020 on course to be a record-breaking year in a positive way. The great news was presented by KBC Securities at the virtual State of the Union organized by and VIB for this year’s Knowledge for Growth.

The biotech sector is at the heart of Belgian business, a fact which truly showed in this year’s State of the Union. With nearly a quarter of the total European stock market value, Belgium ranks ahead of all other European countries, including the next best: Denmark (21%), Germany (18%) and Spain (9%). The stellar reputation of the Belgian life sciences continues to drive a “brain gain”, with foreign investors, companies and highly skilled workers making their way to our country join our renowned ecosystem.

A record year for Belgian fundraising

Despite the unprecedented events associated with the corona crisis, 2020 has nevertheless already proved to be a strong year for biotech investments. Perhaps driven by a newfound understanding of the value of the life sciences industry, investments in Belgian biotech companies have actually risen, contributing to the 56% increase in the value of Belgian biotechs in the past year. Nathalie Van Den Haute, head of Equity Capital Markets within KBC Securities’ corporate finance team, was positive when precenting this year’s figures:

“Although we feel the breath of Denmark on our necks, Belgium remains the biotech Mecca for Europe. The biotech sector, like many others, experienced a sharp decline in March this year, due to the corona crisis, but the life sciences companies have nevertheless performed very well in recent months.”

Her statements were backed up by the KBC Securities data presented at the State of the Union. It seems that, just like last year, the European success of the Belgian biotech sector can largely be attributed to the major players such as UCB, argenx and Galapagos. They allowed the stock market value to rise sharply with the development of promising drugs against a number of important diseases. Van Den Haute emphasizes that the figures date from August 14, 2020, and therefore do not take into account the recent price drop of Galapagos. The Belgian biotech giant lost about a third of its market value after the FDA failed to approve their lead candidate filgotinib for rheumatoid arthritis. The drug has since been approved in both Japan and the European Union, driving shares back up, but the setback was a major one. Van Den Haute maintains that confidence in Belgian biotech nevertheless remains strong:

“Despite the decline in Galapagos’ value due to the Filgotinib setback, Belgium has retained its position in first place. Investors regard the sector as a safe haven. Not only are biotech companies’ valuations less driven by short-term fluctuations in sales, but the crisis also clearly demonstrated the importance of the sector. It is therefore not illogical that the biopharma indexes outperformed the general indexes such as the Bel20 and the S&P 500. We already expect 2020 to be a record year for Belgian fundraising.”

Record high investments

Again, the figures very much support Van Den Haute’s positive outlook. Despite the pandemic, this year has already included some mammoth financing rounds. Another giant in the ecosystem, immunology company argenx raised more than €780 million this year, driven by the positive phase III clinical results of one of their antibody-based treatments for a rare autoimmune disease. That is the largest capital increase ever of a listed European biotech company!

Smaller Belgian biotech companies also gained market value. These companies, valued at less than €1 billion, saw their stock market value increase from 2.2 billion to 2.6 billion euros in the past year. In national terms, this means Belgium now ranks fourth in Europe after the UK (in first place at €4.6 billion), France (€4.3 billion) and Sweden (€4.0 billion).

The growth in stock market value among the smaller Belgian biotech players can be attributed in large part to the IPO of iTeos. At €890 million extra market capitalization, the iTeos IPO became the third largest IPO ever of a European biotech company. Another of only a handful of European biotech IPOs to launch in the past 12 months was Hyloris, whose extra market capitalization rose to €267 million.

The average market value of the smaller Belgian biotech companies has risen, from €171 million to €259 million, which of course is partly due to the strong performance of iTeos. The average nevertheless puts Belgium in second place in this category in Europe, only outdone by The Netherlands.

However, it wasn’t all good news: it seems that previously listed Belgian companies such as Bone Therapeutics, MDX Health, Biocartis and Mithra have had a much tougher year. This goes to show that there are still plenty of points for improvement and more support may still be needed for these smaller biotechs in the future.

Potential for further growth

The 2020 results may only be the start of greater things to come. For some time now, the Belgian biotech sector has been gathering momentum. The number of new biotechs are evidence of this movement: in the last five years, more than 60 life sciences start-ups were founded in Belgium, of which more than 20 were in the last eighteen months alone. Kenneth Wils of PMV, another of the State of the Union presenters, confirms this trend but also cautions that there is work left to be done:

“Despite COVID-19, the first half of 2020 was effectively another strong half year in terms of capital rounds, confirming the trend that capital rounds are getting bigger and bigger. However there still appears to be a gap in the financing of medtech companies is both in the very early stages and in the Valley of Death between regulatory approval and first sales.”

Read this previous BioVox article for our January predictions on Belgian biotech in 2020.

Dirk Reyn, Chairman of the Board of Directors of, concluded:

“We can be very proud of the fact that more and more of our companies are top of the world. Additionally, we’re seeing an increase in interest from foreign life sciences companies wanting to establish themselves in Belgium and more large foreign investors wanting to invest here.

The ‘Belgian Biotech Valley’ remains unique in its concentration of critical players on a small surface area, ranging from biotech to large pharmaceuticals and increasingly also the digital health sector, driven by institutions such as imec. This attractive environment is maintained by the presence of well-trained employees, experienced biotech investors, and a lot of monetary and political support. To maintain our strong position, a stable political and regulatory climate, access to more growth capital and strong STEM training are essential.”