For decades, the French biotech scene has been catching up to key strongholds such as the U.S. and U.K. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, the French government last year bet €7.5 billion on an ambitious project to turn France into Europe’s health innovation magnet by 2030.
France is one of Europe’s most established hubs for biotech research. The nation hosts leading life sciences research institutions including Institut Curie and CNRS, in addition to heavyweight companies including DBV Technologies, Cellectis and AB Science. Upcoming companies are supported by leading venture capital (VC) firms such as Sofinnova Partners, Jeito Capital and Kurma Partners.
For a long time, however, a lot of French biotech talent has been attracted away from the country to the U.S. and the U.K. For example, prior to reforms in 1999, it was illegal for French academic scientists, like all civil servants, to own shares in companies based on their innovations, meaning many took their business elsewhere. Since then, the nation has raced to catch up.
“What France lacked for a long time was the translational people, the biotech executives able to transform [life sciences] research into products,” said Antoine Papiernik, Managing Partner at Sofinnova. “The environment has improved massively in the last 20 years. But it is time to double down.”
The COVID-19 pandemic provided a jolt to the French life sciences scene, just as with the rest of the world. The world-changing event exposed weaknesses in healthcare innovation and provided a huge incentive to strengthen the life sciences industry.
“France is at an inflection point for healthcare innovation, after several years of stagnant growth,” said Rafaele Tordjman, founder of Jeito Capital. “Prior to the pandemic, French entrepreneurs felt too often that they had to seek funding abroad, particularly in the U.S.” One big reason for this was that investing in healthcare requires knowledge and sophistication, which was a turnoff for many investors.
In the aftermath of the pandemic’s first waves, cash surged into biotech companies and VC firms like never before. Around the world, novel technologies such as messenger RNA (mRNA) therapeutics were harnessed to develop life-saving COVID-19 vaccines. But while France’s life sciences industry was a big beneficiary of the biotech gold rush, French players weren’t among the leading vaccine developers.
“There was the initial [disappointment] among the public and in the government that no French company had managed to bring forward a COVID-19 vaccine, even though Valneva actually got into the race by the end,” said Papiernik. “This generated a whole debate about what needed to be done to bring life sciences innovation to the forefront.”
Even without considering the pandemic, more still needs to be done in France to increase awareness about the importance of investing in healthcare.
“People are living longer, which means that there is an aging population and, in the meantime, two-thirds of diseases still don’t see significant therapeutic innovations,” explained Tordjman. “There is a huge opportunity for investors in France who are willing to deploy cash towards life sciences companies.”
To jumpstart the life sciences industry, the French government led by Emmanuel Macron launched a €7.5 billion ($7.9 billion) project last year dubbed the Healthcare Innovation 2030 plan. The central focus is to turn France into the European leader in health innovation by 2030. The many strategies in play include creating biotech innovation hotspots, streamlining the organization of clinical trials, and simplifying the market access system for new treatments.
Since mid-2021, Tordjman has been visiting multiple nations as France’s Special Envoy for Health Innovation. Her aims include promoting France’s ecosystem for international entrepreneurs and scouting out what other nations are doing well in life sciences.
Good examples of ecosystems attracting biotech innovators are the U.S. and the U.K. The U.K., for example, is home to the famous ‘Golden Triangle’ region, which encompasses the biotech hotspots of London, Oxford, Cambridge and Stevenage. “Key to their success are policies that support startups throughout their life cycle, talented entrepreneurs, and a wide network of highly skilled investors with plenty of cash to invest,” noted Tordjman. “Only when all these stakeholders work together is there a real chance to deliver innovation to patients.”
Tordjman also pointed to the U.K.’s life sciences network OBN as a great example of the benefits of supporting and bringing together the U.K.’s life science companies, partners and investors.
Much emphasis is being placed on bringing together the various stakeholders in France as well. Healthcare Innovation 2030 itself was drawn up based on discussions between more than 500 experts and stakeholders, including investors, companies, public administrations and hospitals. The initiative also proposes establishing an agency for healthcare innovation in 2022. This agency is designed to facilitate dialog between different players in the life sciences industry to foster growth.
“Investors are increasingly knowledgeable about the life sciences sector, and many more investors are ready to deploy cash towards innovative startups,” said Tordjman. “The French government’s commitment to fostering domestic innovation, with plans to deploy billions of euros in medical infrastructure, tax credits and financial support to digitize production and attract manufacturing from abroad, is a great step towards making France a global leader.”
The plan is creating a lot of optimism from players in the industry regarding the future of French life sciences innovation.
“France is on the right track,” said Papiernik. “The U.K. is still a model of development of its biotech industry, alongside the U.S. The U.K. also has the advantage of the English language, which makes it easy for anyone to go and work there. But post-Brexit, I would argue that France has the opportunity to become the magnet in continental Europe.”
In a written response to the release of the Health Innovation 2030 project, the French National Academy of Medicine cautiously welcomed the increased awareness of the need for healthcare funding. However, the Academy warned that France’s health research landscape is too complex with many redundant agencies. It recommended simplifying the structure of life sciences research in France and giving scientists more freedom to undertake fundamental research with less of an “administrative straitjacket.”
If France’s plans to grow its biotech scene are realized, the rest of Europe could also reap rewards. The European Union has its own pharmaceutical strategy, which was launched in 2020 to streamline the progress of novel medicines to the EU market.
“I always say that the whole is better than the sum, so I don’t see this as a zero-sum game and France should not see itself as competing against other European countries to attract talent and foster innovation,” said Tordjman.
Papiernik added that France’s Healthcare Innovation 2030 project and the EU’s pharma strategy, particularly the EU’s startup-focused Scale Up program, seem totally in sync.
“All EU countries gain a clear advantage by working together, rather than competing,” Papiernik said. Nevertheless, France could become the major attraction for talent in the EU because “its life science innovation ecosystem has more critical mass than most European countries. And that will help to bring entrepreneurs from outside of France to come and work in local biotech.”
Not just France, but the whole European biotech industry has a lot of untapped potential when compared to those of the U.S. and China. A report by McKinsey & Co in June 2021 found that Europe’s growth in early-stage biotech funding trailed that of the U.S. and China. Europe’s total went up by 13% per year over the last six years, while the U.S. and China’s biotech cash grew by 17% and 18%, respectively.
However, the same report revealed that Europe hosts 43% of the global top 100 life science universities compared with 34% in the U.S., and trumps its competitors in terms of scientific publications.
“European talent is a lot less costly than in the U.S. and China, and turnover is a lot less prevalent,” remarked Papiernik. When considering all of these advantages, there is “a strong rationale for why Europe has a chance to become a lot more competitive in the next decade.”
Cover image via Elena Resko