Wallonia’s life sciences cluster is bursting with activity

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BioWin is Wallonia’s competitiveness cluster (pôle de compétivité) for life sciences. You could also consider it as the FlandersBio of Wallonia. A lot of innovations are happening in the southern part of our country, as for example in the listed companies Celyad and Bone Therapeutics. We had a little chat with Sylvie Ponchaut, the leading lady of BioWin and owner/co-founder of IPinnova, on the importance of interconnecting small and larger enterprises to ensure a strong cluster capable of nurturing more high-end innovations.

“In the past, scientists — for example, those working for small companies — were completely disconnected from the academic groups performing research in exactly the same field. Both parties found it very difficult to connect with larger players. By reinforcing the life sciences cluster in Wallonia, BioWin facilitates better and stronger collaborations.”

What does “facilitating better collaborations” involve?

BioWin supports the interconnectivity of the life sciences cluster in Wallonia with four core activities:

  1. Development of R&D programs involving academia and industry. Industrial partners coordinate the consortia, but academic groups develop the research programs. Currently, BioWin has 40 R&D programs in the cluster’s portfolio, worth roughly 120 million euros.
  2. Development of training sessions for members, job seekers, students, PhD students, entrepreneurs, and professors. BioWin provides up to 30,000 hours of training per year.
  3. Setting up international R&D opportunities and creating international market opportunities for its members.
  4. Establishment of platform programs involving different members and stakeholders, such as, for example, the biobanking network in Wallonia and a consolidated animal facility for Walloon academia.

We strongly believe that the development of the sector is tightly linked with the availability of qualified people.

BioWin has different categories of members: They can be large, startup or medium-sized companies or academia. In total, BioWin counts 180 members, of which 7 are large players, 150 SMEs, 5 academic partners, and the rest are mainly service providers and consultants. Ponchaut says: “We help startups to get funding from the Walloon region for their R&D programs and to set up European research proposals that fit within the H2020 program. We also connect the companies with other European life sciences clusters, and hence create new international marketing opportunities. Another kind of service is the development of adapted or customized training sessions for startup companies. Qualified people are key for the success of startup companies.

“Since the startup of BioWin in 2006, scientists working in life sciences in Wallonia have been interacting more, which is very important,” explains Ponchaut. “Large enterprises need small players as a gateway to the newest technologies, while small players need the large ones to get market access and funding. At the same time, breakthroughs often come from academia, but they need companies to be able to leverage these.”

Today, 10 people are working at BioWin to make all this happen. In the beginning, they were solely funded by the public, but like many other clusters in Europe, they are obliged to get 50% of their resources from the private sector. So in accordance with European regulations, BioWin is a 50/50 private-public partnership.

From cell therapy to radiopharma

Cell therapy and radiation applications are booming in Wallonia. Ponchaut comments: “We have five companies here developing cell therapy products. Some of them are listed companies such as Bone Therapeutics and Celyad. Not just Wallonia, but Belgium is a champion in cell therapy.

Large enterprises need small players as a gateway to the newest technologies, while small players need the large ones to get market access and funding.

“Did you know that Wallonia produces almost half of the isotopes used in nuclear medicine worldwide?” continues Ponchaut. “Promising technologies are being developed in radiopharma, for example at IBA and the Institute for Radioelements (IRE). Other, smaller players, such as Trasis, develop isotopes to label pharmaceutical molecules in specific devices or cartridges. Elysia is also active in this sector.” Belgian companies active in the radiopharmaceuticals field are grouped into the Rad4Med network.

Wallonia also has a strong history in immunology and vaccines, thanks to the presence of GSK. There are also companies, such as iTeos and Celyad, that are active in immune-oncology, a technology that has been gaining a lot of attention lately. In the field of medical devices, innovative niche products are being developed, such as, for example, Cardiatis’s new type of stents, which can be inserted via a small chirurgical procedure and are much safer to apply than traditional stents.

Wallonia vs Flanders? Or shall we promote Belgium as a whole?

“We, Wallonia, are leaders in subsectors such as cell therapy, or the development of vaccines. In other subsectors, such as medical devices, Flanders is more evolved,” answers Ponchaut. “But, if we consider Belgium as a whole, it is clear that in Europe, we are at least in the top 10 of life sciences. On a global level, we are very well positioned. BioWin has developed many connections, and we will continue to consolidate with other parties, such as, for example, with FlandersBio. This will benefit our visibility on an international level.”

Sylvie Ponchaut is a pharmacist by training. She obtained a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences from the de Duve Institute. Subsequently, she became a postdoctoral fellow, researching cardiac biochemistry at the de Duve Institute and the biochemistry of nutrition at UCL. She gained her first professional experience at UCL’s tech transfer office. She was also involved in the creation of the VIVES investment fund. She managed UCL’s patent portfolio and looked into the investment dossiers of different companies. After becoming an expert in the negotiation of contractual agreements concerning IP rights, she started her own company called IPinnova in 2008. Through IPinnova, she got in touch with BioWin, where she started in 2009 as scientific director. Since 2014, she has also been BioWin’s managing director.