Modern drug development, production, and supply is rarely a solo effort. Most companies outsource at least part of the process to a third party. Some smaller “virtual” firms rely on partners for everything from discovery through distribution. Increasingly, this collaborative approach is resulting in the formation of innovation ecosystems (IEs), says Alberto Bettanti, MD, PhD, professor, department of mechanical, energy, logistics engineering, and engineering management (DIME), University of Genoa, Italy.

“One of the primary stakeholders of IEs are large biopharma companies. They act as a magnet because they provide several comparative advantages. First, they have substantial finance capacities ready to be used in different ways, e.g., research contracts with universities, corporate venture capitalist transactions, or mergers and acquisitions,” he says.

“They also provide specialized infrastructure for drug discovery and development. Moreover, large biopharma share drug discovery skills to better connect with other actors and robust competences in product development.

“Finally, they can support distinctive market dynamics and knowledge sustained by marketed drugs datasets. Thanks to these comparative advantages, large biopharma generates sophisticated demand fostering active collaboration with startups, universities, and other stakeholders.”

Technological frontiers

Bettanti and his team looked at the impact these ecosystems are having on drug production in a recent study, focusing on a cluster of drug companies and services organizations in Lombardy, Italy, as a case study.

They found that evolving drug industry needs, particularly those of smaller companies working on complex biopharmaceuticals and cell and gene therapies, are driving development of novel manufacturing technologies.

“The mission of biopharma startups and technology suppliers is to work at the technological frontier, both as temporary enterprises—startups—and as permanent innovation-driven firms.”

As a result, the companies that cluster around biopharmaceutical developers tend also to be innovation focused, Bettanti says.

“Companies that form part of an ecosystem usually have distinctive innovative capabilities, both core, such as the development of biodrugs, advanced therapies, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, recombinant proteins, and complementary, like development of breakthrough platform technologies and services,” he continues

“Second, they are highly oriented towards developing and pursuing a single idea or project and put all their resources to this endeavor. Because of their unique inclination to take risks, they are crucial to IE value creation.”


The research suggests innovation ecosystems like the one in Lombardy will continue to evolve as suppliers respond to changing demands across the wider health technology sector.

According to Bettanti, “The research outcomes support the concept of the IE as a system continuously evolving through specific driving forces rather than one operating at a static maturity level.

“The main market is the biopharma market, which is the source of demand for biologic drugs, advanced therapies, monoclonal antibodies, vaccines, and recombinant proteins, addressing target patients.

“The complementary market is the health and med-tech market, which sustains demand for beyond-the-pill platform technologies, for example biomedical solutions, medical devices, diagnostics, medicine 4.0 and digital technologies.”

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