Flanders as a knowledge hub in the current Benelux life sciences ecosystem

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At the heart of Europe, Benelux is like a drop of ink spreading its influence internationally; an in-depth study conducted by KBC Securities placed Belgium as Europe’s leading country for biotech in 2024. This year's edition of Knowledge for Growth, hosted by the life sciences cluster flanders.bio celebrating their 20th anniversary, highlighted the vibrant Flemish life sciences ecosystem. The event took place in Antwerp, Belgium on May 15th and 16th, where industry professionals, scientists, investors, policymakers, and more gathered to share their knowledge and insights and answer why the region of Flanders, and the Benelux overall, are doing so well in this vibrant landscape.

It all started with…

“The Benelux has a long tradition of drug development, for at least 70 years,” says Jan Wauters, Science & Technology Counselor at Flanders Investment & Trade, a government agency working on the internationalization of the economy in Flanders. “This is reflected by new innovations and remains a focus area that keeps on growing.”

“Flanders also firmly established itself as a leading hub in plant biotechnology, driven by cutting-edge technologies from companies, universities and research institutes like VIB and ILVO. Agrifood innovation in the region is expanding rapidly. As Flanders continues to push its boundaries, it not only contributes significantly to global food systems but also positions itself as a key player in tackling some of the most pressing challenges of our time.” says Kim Hertegonne, Agrifood Program Manager at flanders.bio. 

But for the ecosystem’s growth to take root, a supportive and committed government is needed. “This includes not only financial support, but also creating a positive environment for innovation, a good tax system for research and subsidiary mechanisms such as VLAIO,” explains Wauters. Not every country benefits from this, but Benelux is managing it exceptionally well. However, we need to be aware that communication is key to safeguarding this relationship. This means a two-way channel: informing the government about advances in the ecosystem and informing the ecosystem about new decisions and policies. “Dialogue between the captains of industry, the academics, and the government needs to be maintained. The government can’t take appropriate action without continuous interaction with all the different players in the ecosystem,” states Wauters.

Dialogue between the captains of industry, the academics and the government needs to be maintained.

We should keep looking forward, paying attention to areas with room for improvement. Wouter Piepers, CEO of flanders.bio, mentioned in a press release by flanders.bio and VIB that they are proud to have played a significant role in facilitating connections and collaborations for 20 years, but that there is no place for complacency. Challenges such as stability in regulations and legislation for life sciences companies, attracting and retaining top talent, funding availability all across the R&D value chain, fostering collaboration, and maintaining an edge in an ever-growing competitive global and European environment, remain critical for the entire industry.

As flanders.bio continues to tackle these challenges, they stay committed to innovation and growth of the life sciences ecosystem in Flanders, Belgium.

Innovation is not confined by borders

Over the years, the attention of the life sciences ecosystem shifted from traditional pharma and chemistry to also include biotechnology. With Benelux’s strong foundation and legacy in plant, industrial and health biotechnology, universities and biotech research institutes could evolve to their full potential. They are omnipresent throughout the ecosystem, driving excellent research and the inflow of talent while creating a good environment for technology transfer. To translate academic research to industry, clinical trials are also needed. “In the Benelux, there’s a lot of attention paid to and expertise in clinical studies,” says Wauters. “Because of the densely populated region, a lot of hospitals and patient populations are located close to each other. Belgium already has at least 100 hospitals, including university hospitals that deliver excellent quality and are known worldwide for their clinical study centers.”

To stay ahead of our time, we need to broaden our horizons and keep learning from other countries as well as attracting international companies to come work in the Benelux. Flanders Investment & Trade, together with the different clusters, play an important role in this part. “We need to be a constant antenna for our Flemish ecosystem and the Benelux,” says Wauters. For example, Connect San Diego was and is as a non-profit organization providing mentorship to tech and life sciences entrepreneurs. They were one of the factors in the success of their life sciences ecosystem. “Also for Flanders, mentorship is extremely important,” explains Wauters, “experts and CEOs who invest time in start-ups to share their experience without monetary incentives, this is up and coming now in the Benelux.”

We need to be a constant antenna for our Flemish ecosystem and the Benelux.

What about the future?

Reflecting on these achievements, Flanders has much to celebrate. However, for the ecosystem to continue functioning smoothly, all the relevant components must be included and supported. Jan Wauters elaborates on the challenges ahead: “We have quite a bit of funds active in this industry, but not a lot which can provide large sums to enable small companies to grow into unicorns. Companies that do grow big, such as argenx, have done so to a significant extent thanks to funding from abroad. Our ambition should be to have home-grown investors active in our ecosystem who can provide such large investments.” But monetary support is not enough to keep up with therapeutic innovations. “We should look at enforcing our production capacity for new biological drugs. We have strong activities in the field of traditional medicine production, but there are new biological medicines such as cell- and gene therapy. These types of technologies are often produced regionally, so Benelux companies who want to develop these new innovations need the infrastructure to do so,” explains Wauters.

Katrien Lorré, Program Manager Health at flanders.bio, expressed similar sentiments: “New critical therapeutic modalities are entering the health space as was illustrated by Steven Oliver (J&J) during his opening plenary speech.” Furthermore, we need to keep attracting talent and ensure good environmental factors for entrepreneurs to put these innovations into practice, “We need more incubators and accelerators that offer additional value to pure real estate, for example, with the presence of certain strategic partners. In other words, we need infrastructure where small companies can grow as part of a dynamic and complete ecosystem,” says Wauters.

Opening plenary at Knowledge for Growth 2024 with moderator Fatma Taspinar and keynote speakers Elke Duwenig, Steven Oliver. Reshma Shetty joined the panel discussion online

According to Jérôme Van Biervliet, Managing Director of VIB, there’s a bright future ahead. He mentioned in a press release by flanders.bio and VIB that, as a co-founder, VIB has witnessed the impact flanders.bio has had on the life sciences industry in Flanders. Looking back on last year’s results and the state of the ecosystem, it is clear to him that there are still challenges ahead. However, VIB is confident that through collaboration and a shared ambition to drive innovation in scientific research, Flanders is well-positioned to maintain its leading role in the biotech industry in Europe.