Interview with Ion Arocena, General Manager of ASEBIO
What is your vision of the current point in time in the biotechnology sector and its importance in the development of Spanish industry?
We recently published the Asebio 2020 annual report at the end of June, which reflected a very positive picture of the sector. First of all, the number of businesses in the sector has grown over the past year to 790 companies whose main activity is biotechnology. These businesses have generated a significant economic impact of more than 10 billion euros to Spanish GDP. These companies account for 0.8% of GDP, have increased their turnover, and have added more than 117,000 jobs to the Spanish economy. We have also observed a significant increase in private investment in 2020, almost 50% higher compared to 2019, which is a historical record.
We are very optimistic because this image shows a clear recognition of the value that biotechnology has created throughout this time. In particular, we have seen the relevance that our sector has had during the fight against the ongoing pandemic, which has made us beneficiaries of social and economic recognition due to the confidence of investors.
Are we clearly moving towards an economy based on biotechnology?
Totally. We have always had great confidence in this, but the coronavirus emergency has underscored it more than ever. Biotechnology has been fully involved in finding solutions to the challenges posed by the SARS-Cov-2 virus, first by developing diagnostic technologies in record time. In April and May of 2020, Spanish companies were already manufacturing antigen tests and so on. Then the vaccines came. Not even experts in the sector could have foreseen the availability of different vaccines that we produced in such a short time.
We could also highlight sustainability. We don’t fully comprehend the challenges posed, for example, in terms of maintaining the integrity of the food chain and ensuring supplies: producing and supplying safe food for the population as a whole in critical circumstances that not all countries have been able to overcome. All this has been possible in large part due to the technology and innovation in various sectors, to which biotechnology contributes significantly: guaranteeing productivity in the field, the sustainability of production, and the safety of supplies are all essential elements that the population cannot do without.
In terms of innovation and technology, what difficulties is the sector facing in terms of advances in social biotech development, which seems so essential? Does the sector have sufficient public and governmental support?
This is another issue that has underscored the situation we are experiencing. Making a comparative analysis, other countries have had a greater capacity in terms of defining the necessary resources to accelerate the development of their products and services, as is the case of the development of the Covid-19 vaccine, which was clearly supported in several European countries.
Here in Spain meanwhile, we have lacked that response capacity, largely and primarily due to the difficulties we face in obtaining sufficient financial resources. This situation has meant that we could not be “in the lead” despite having good candidates for vaccines in Spanish research. But we had neither the industrial capacity nor large development companies. And the government resources, supported by the CDTI and the Carlos III Health Institute, which we deeply appreciate, have not reached the level of what other countries have allocated and have left us at a clear competitive disadvantage. We tried hard, but we lagged behind.
The Asebio 2020 annual report also highlights that the pandemic has increased the arrival of biotech products on the market by around 70%, which shows that the sector has the foundations but lacks the punch and resources to “take off” in efficient and competitive conditions with respect to the countries we compete with on a global scale.
Continuing along these lines, how will Next Generation funds help companies in the biotechnology sector?
We have high expectations, as the sector has shown and proven its value throughout the coronavirus pandemic. If we don’t get that recognition now, when will it be? When society as a whole has ascertained that we have been “present” at all times, working against the pandemic and providing the solutions that have been put on the table?
Currently, we need that recognition to be accompanied by an investment effort that serves to bolster our sector.
At Asebio, we believe that the Spanish Recovery Plan is, without a doubt, a unique and unprecedented opportunity, even beyond the biotechnology sector. Above all, we believe that it is essential to recognize the transformative role of R&D&i in a country. Considering that the Next Generation funds aim, in a certain way, to drive economic recovery and establish more robust and sustainable foundations for growth, R&D must be a primary focus in this recovery plan. This implies changing the reality in Spain and making different commitments and, in some cases, the reforms necessary to address the weaknesses of the ecosystem. These are due not only to financial shortfalls, but also structural, cultural, public-private collaboration, training, and other shortcomings.
What expectation is there for universities such as IQS to contribute to the biotechnological industry and as part the framework of this transformation?
What we have been observing, and what some of our partners have shared with us, is that it is very difficult to recruit qualified professionals in certain segments of the sector. If the recovery plan truly seeks to be transformative and change the country’s productive foundations, training has to be a fundamental element of change and people must be part of it. We’ll have to invest not only in infrastructure, but also in talent. With this in mind, Asebio is an advocate for this comprehensive vision in which people are an essential component of the recovery plan and, therefore, universities and educational centres as well.
Our view is that collaboration between higher education and business, through universities such as IQS, is totally essential. It is evident that we have a serious problem with this collaboration in many areas, in terms of transfer, although I prefer to talk about technological cooperation, because it doesn’t involve a linear issue, but is about working together, hybridizing, and cooperating in an extremely dynamic manner.
From this point of view, of course, universities must form part of the recovery plan, with the tools and instruments that make all the joint efforts to promote the change this country needs a reality.
At the end of September, a new edition of BioSpain is being held featuring a mixed format. Is this event a great challenge considering the circumstances we’re currently experiencing? What difficulties have you encountered? What developments will this edition present?
The 2020 edition had to be postponed and we have chosen to use a hybrid format this year to make greater participation possible. The most fundamental component will be held in-person on the 29th and 30th in Pamplona. The entire fair and the conferences that last throughout week will be held in a virtual format, and there will be partnering meetings that can be held in both formats. We have positioned it as an international benchmark event, and this is a way to maintain an international component, which is quite complicated considering the current mobility restrictions.
After this difficult period that we’ve gone through, we hope that we can flip the switch a bit and start thinking about the future, focusing on the recovery and fostering partnerships between the different agents in the system including companies, investors, academic institutions, and so on. We hope to strengthen this trend of growing alliances and collaborations, which are fundamental driving elements.
We are seeking to make BioSpain 2021 an initial approach towards a certain normality, and we are trying to create networking opportunities for people who attend in person. We will address current topics of interest to the sector such as personalized medicine, advanced therapies, fighting against emerging pathogens, and more topics in line with the interests of companies in the sector.
The United Nations promotes global sustainability through its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Do you think we are doing our duty to proceed in this direction as a society? How can biotechnology help in this area?
We are experiencing a very intense period of change: digitization, ecological transition, and so on. In a way, the 17 SDGs are an umbrella for all this. Europe has made an effort to look towards the future, but now it’s time to provide the means and align interests so everyone moves in the same direction. However, this is often rather complicated because there are always winners and losers in all change processes.
As stated above, science, technology, and innovation have already been highlighted as fundamental and essential elements both for the process of changing to a more sustainable model as well as for social and economic progress and survival itself.
Biotechnology is very present and features in 11 of the 17 SDGs and in many of the foresight and reflection documents that the European Union has produced. We believe that our sector has much to contribute and the resources to contribute with to take advantage of the opportunity presented to us as a society: we have solid scientific production, we’re a global power, and we have an emerging base of biotechnology companies. All that’s left to do is make a strong commitment to the future!