We’ve put together a list of the best biotech companies in Europe to celebrate their invaluable contributions to science and the development of the booming industry that biotech is today.
Though the beginnings of the biotech industry are commonly traced back to the US, Europe has stepped up as a major contender and ally in the biotechnology field. Though the names and achievements made by Europe’s biotech companies are many, we have decided to narrow it down to eight key companies that deserve to be in the spotlight as some of the best biotech companies in the continent, both by their significant contribution to technological development and their financial success. They’ve set great examples for those entrepreneurs and small companies that want to make it to the top one day. Enjoy!
Cambridge Antibody Technology, co-founded in 1989 by Sir Greg Winter and David Chiswell, is known for having changed how antibodies are made today. “There wasn’t much interest in antibodies in the early 90s,” Winter told us, “but we had the idea of developing some completely novel technology where we could make billions of antibodies and fish out the ones we wanted.”
The company pioneered the technique of phage display, which was used to create Humira (adalimumab), the first fully human antibody and the world’s best selling drug during the last few years. After selling and licensing several human antibodies to big pharma, Cambridge Antibody Technology was acquired in 2006 by AstraZeneca for £702M (around €1Bn back then) and merged with MedImmune to create AstraZeneca’s current R&D arm, which still uses the technology developed at the company to generate new antibody drugs.
Its founders have gone on to continue shaking the biotech world. Greg Winter founded Bicycle Therapeutics, which develops a new type of drug combining the best of peptides and antibodies, and David Chiswell is now the CEO of Kymab, which aims to further improve how antibodies are made.
Micromet was created in 1993 as a spin-off of the University of Munich’s Institute of Immunology. The company started focusing on cancer diagnostics to detect micrometastases, but with the help of biotech veteran Patrick Baeuerle as CSO, the company took a turn that was key to its success.
“One of my missions as CSO was to transform Micromet from a cancer diagnostic into a therapeutics company,” Bauerle told us. “To this end, we tried to in-license two monoclonal antibodies from Centocor, an opportunity that however evaporated when the company got acquired by Johnson & Johnson. What looked like a disaster in the first place created the opportunity to develop a bispecific T cell-engaging antibody that was in-licensed from inventors at Munich’s LMU.”
This drug eventually became the blockbuster Blincyto (blinatumomab), the first bispecific antibody to ever be approved by the FDA. The technology used to create Blincyto attracted a $1.2Bn (€930M back then) acquisition by Amgen.
Founded in 1997, Actelion is one recent big success story in Europe. In 2017, the company was acquired by Johnson & Johnson for a massive $30Bn (€28Bn). The possibility of an acquisition deal had been discussed for the previous months, with Sanofi and J&J making increasing bids until Sanofi fell through.
Before the acquisition, Actelion was Europe’s largest and most valuable biotech. After the deal, the company did not fully renounce the spirit of independence that it had shown over the years, having rejected offers from the likes of Elliot Advisors and Shire. Actelion’s early-stage R&D and €930M funding were spun-out into a new company, Idorsia. The new venture is run by Actelion’s ex-CEO, Jean-Paul Clozel, who said, “I really look forward to creating another Actelion with Idorsia.”
Solexa, founded in 1998, is the company responsible for the development of next-generation sequencing technologies used routinely today in genomics research. The technology, which dramatically reduced the time and money necessary to sequence DNA, was invented by researchers at Cambridge University and turned into reality by CEO Nick McCooke.
“I came out with the slogan of the ‘thousand-dollar genome’,” McCooke told me. “It feels as if it’s always been around, but back then, no one had really thought beyond the old Sanger sequencers. We knew we couldn’t achieve that immediately, but our calculations showed it was possible.“
A few months after its IPO on the Nasdaq, Solexa was acquired by Illumina in 2006 for $600M (around €485M then). Nowadays, Illumina still uses the technology developed at Solexa and controls the majority of the global next-generation sequencing market. The research team that worked there is now mostly spread between Oxford Nanopore and DNA electronics, two companies that are further improving NGS to make it faster and cheaper.
Abcam was founded in 1998 by Jonathan Milner. He was frustrated byhow difficult it could sometimes be to find good quality antibodies and decided to make ordering antibodies for research easier than ever. “I was amazed by how you could order books on Amazon back in 1998, I thought this could be applied to research antibodies as well,” he told us.
Abcam started off as a search engine that gathered antibodies from over 500 companies. Soon it started to grow, entering the London Stock Exchange in 2005, where it’s valued at over €2Bn today. In 2011, the company took a strategic turn and started making acquisitions — six up to this date — to produce its own antibodies and other research tools, such as immunoassays.
After the acquisition of Actelion, Genmab, founded in 1999, is now Europe’s most valuable independent biotech, with a market cap of over €9Bn on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange. Co-founded by Jan van der Winkel, now CEO, the company focuses on making new therapies for cancer. Its technology consists of two next-generation antibody platforms, one for bispecific antibodies and another for antibodies targeting immune effector cells.
“From the beginning, Genmab was always very focused on products rather than technology, because we think that, in the end, it’s products that will create a really strong company,” van der Winkel told us. Two of Genmab’s antibodies are already in the market, Darzalex (daratumumab) and Arzerra (ofatumumab). The former is licensed to Johnson & Johnson and the latter to GSK. The company is also developing antibody-drug conjugates that deliver toxins to tumoral cells.
Founded in 1999 and based in Mechelen, Belgium, Galapagos started off as a service company that produced adenoviruses to serve as DNA shuttles for gene therapy. The company then pivoted into using its platform to identify new targets for drug discovery. Its drug candidate filgotinib is one of the keys to Galapagos’ success in shifting towards its own R&D pipeline.
After a partnership with AbbVie fell through, Galapagos teamed up with Gilead to develop filgotinib. They recently released positive phase III data that will support its marketing approval as a treatment for rheumatoid arthritis. The drug is being tested as a treatment for multiple other inflammatory conditions in a dozen clinical trials.
With over 700 employees and valued at over €5Bn, Galapagos has become one of Europe’s most valuable companies. Its CEO and founder, Onno van de Stolpe, who has stayed with the company for almost 20 years, seems to have plans for it to remain independent. “I’ve never had the urge to move away from Galapagos,” van de Stolpe told us. “We’ve evolved so much over time from a biology to chemistry outfit that it has remained very interesting to run.”
Ablynx was founded in 2002 following the discovery that camelid animals — camels, llamas, alpacas and the like — produce an unusual form of antibodies. Their antibodies are very small compared to human ones, making it easier to penetrate the target tissue. They can also be produced cheaply in bacteria, whereas human antibodies require expensive manufacturing in mammalian cells.
“It took a number of years to validate our technology and get people to understand how it could solve problems that they couldn’t solve with any other platform,” CEO Edwin Moses told me. “In 2006 we had lots of bright ideas, but we hadn’t proven the technology could really work. A few years later we could really show people it could do very special things and that made it relatively easy to attract hugely high-class partners.”
The company managed to do most of its technology development without the help of any partners. Everything changed when Ablynx’ lead drug candidate scored a phase III success.
Just a few months after a successful Nasdaq IPO, Ablynx was acquired in early 2018 by Sanofi for €3.9Bn. The company had rejected an offer from Novo Nordisk earlier that month that sent its shares up by a massive 60%. Soon after the acquisition, Ablynx’ lead antibody got EMA approval to treat a rare blood disorder.
This article was originally published on September 2017 and has since been updated. Images via Shutterstock