Commercial Biotech Center
Over the past decade, Flanders has transformed longstanding excellence in the academic life sciences into a flourishing commercial center of biotechnology, mostly in Ghent, Leuven, and Mechelen.
A recent case study of biopharmaceutical innovation systems by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), which examined eight European nations, confirms Flanders ascendancy in biotech, ranking Belgium first in innovation and industry, and second in science.
Flanders has the second highest rate of clinical trial protocols per capita in all of Europe, and is home to Europes second largest hospital. The region currently employs about 20,000 in the life sciences, and after the U.K. and the U.S., has the worlds highest number of drugs in development.
Flanders has also steadily increased investment in venture capital in biotech per capita, and now maintains the highest rate of investment among eight EU nations. Catherine Verfaille, Belgian native and a world-renowned stem cell researcher, recently announced that she is leaving the University of Minnesota to found a stem cell institute at Leuvens Catholic University.
As one of the leaders in the early development of biotech, Flanders is where the first transgenic plants were developed, the first DNA sequence of a gene was determined, and where tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) was discovered.
A study conducted by the Flemish government in 1994 showed that to commercialize its life sciences and move to the international markets, it needed to improve infrastructure. The Flemish government decided to invest $125 million over five years, doubling the areas research budget overnight, and re-evaluate the system every five years.
To foster collaboration among Flanders four universities and 850 researchers, the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology (VIB), was founded in 1995 to facilitate technology, said Rudy Dekeyser, vice general director.
We operate in a very hands-on manner by supplying seed financing, conceptualizing and writing a business plan, and assisting in the development of a team and in the due-diligence process, Deykeyser said. One of seven incubators in the region with 8,000 m2 hectares under construction, the VIB BioPark in Ghent is expanding.
VIB focuses on human health (cardiovascular/angiogenesis, neurodegeneration, oncology, and inflammation), microbiology, and plant systems biology.
Recently, Catholic Universitys Peter Carmeliets, M.D., Ph.D., group received the Galenus Prize for being the first to show the importance of vascular endothelial growth factor, or VEGF, in amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Dr. Carmeliet is a co-discoverer of VEGF, a major figure in angiogenesis research, and recently showed that VEGF has an important function in the central nervous system.
VIB has helped establish a number of biotechs, including DevGen, CropDesign, and Ablynx. In 2004, VIB and a number of biotechs set up FlandersBio to actively promote entrepreneurship and bring together companies doing R&D-based life sciences, research institutions, funders, and equipment providers, to attract other companies, investors, suppliers, and skilled labor, said its head, Els Vanheusden, M.D.
Together, VIB, FlandersBio, and the Flanders Foreign Investment Office are collaborating to build the regions biotech capabilities.