Medicon Valley: how the initiative shaped biotech ecosystems in Denmark and Sweden

Photo/Elena Resko
Medicon Valley

With a combined market value of over $7 billion, the life science sectors in Sweden and Denmark are thriving, with over a thousand healthcare companies being set up over the past few years. Much of this is owing to the cross-border cluster that spans regions of eastern Denmark and southern Sweden, the Medicon Valley.

Racking up more than DKK 45 billion ($6.64 billion) in investments, the Medicon Valley is home to Danish multinational company Novo Nordisk, which runs the world’s largest insulin plant. A driver in diabetes treatment, its diabetes pill Rybelsus was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a first-line treatment to lower blood sugar levels, earlier this year.

In the frontline of this cluster is the Medicon Valley Alliance, a non-profit organization that works to strengthen collaboration between the Danish and Swedish life science sector, with an interest in promoting the hub as an attractive destination for setting up healthcare companies, according to David Zepernick, director, member engagement and communication at Medicon Valley Alliance.

Medicon Valley Alliance: what’s behind the life science cluster

What the organization does is two-fold, explained Zepernick. It provides a pathway for companies and universities to apply for European Union (EU) funding for projects. Moreover, it enables partnerships between biopharmas for the further development of pipeline programs. 

To create a space for networking, the establishment, which was founded in 1997, has over 300 member companies and hosts around 30 events and seminars all year round. 

“It’s an attractive marketplace where our companies see a value in the membership,” said Zepernick. “And it’s not only that the content and the discussions are attractive, but that we’re also able to recruit and attract the right people…. My job and a substantial part of what we do here in Medicon Alliance is to make sure that we keep this engine with attractive content and interesting network opportunities running,” said Zepernick, who added that events are organized to also draw companies outside the region to access the platform and gain expertise from potential partners within the cluster. 

People prefer to do business with people who they’ve forged a relationship with, according to Zepernick. He explained that as it is a binational platform, seminars and networking meetings are usually held in English, which Zepernick believes could not only engage Swedish and Danish people – without having to pick between a native language – as well as to make it more accessible for experts from all over the world, particularly Europe. 

Medicon Valley Alliance’s ReproUnion project

One of the projects that Medicon Valley Alliance is focused on is in the treatment of infertility. As one in six people across the globe experience infertility, Medicon Valley Alliance’s ReproUnion is a collaboration between University of Copenhagen, Lund University, Ferring Pharmaceuticals and Skane University Hospital among others. The project is an attempt to address various challenges, including male infertility. A clinical trial examined 385 men whose biological samples were collected for biobanking and biomarker identification was carried out to determine the pathogenesis of infertility, in 2020. This was done to enhance research in the field of diagnostics, for a speedier tool to determine infertility. A similar study was done to tackle low ovarian reserve. Alongside this, the project is looking at whether coronavirus has an impact on the reproductive system, a subject that has gained attention recently. 

“Our flagship project has for many years been the ReproUnion project, which is related to infertility, which is, of course, a growing challenge in many countries, especially Western countries. The populations are just not reproducing themselves. That goes both for the Nordic countries but also for many other western societies … Our project that is aimed at boosting R&D within infertility, both male and female infertility, (we want to) make sure that we have a next generation of cutting edge scientists that can take this research further in this region, We are already one of the leading strongholds within that field based on both excellent research in in Denmark and in Sweden and we want to make sure that we can maintain that position and also in the future,” said Zepernick. 

A healthy gut, a healthy mind

In its line of work, Medicon Valley Alliance also specializes in microbiome health. It has been long understood that balancing the microbiome can be significant to lowering the risk of Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. The organization’s Microbiome Network enables members to collaborate on drug discovery, nutrition and probiotic development.

A prominent player in the field is Novozymes. Situated in the heart of the Medicon Valley, the company, which is a spinout of Novo Nordisk since 2000, is investigating the effect of psychobiotics, to heal the gut and in turn nurture good mental health. The gut-brain-axis, which consists of a network of nerves in the gastrointestinal tract is connected to a long, wandering nerve that extends from the brain stem. Apart from motor signals, the nerves carry sensory information that can discern the environment in the gut. Additionally, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which responds to stress by releasing hormones, can regulate pathways in the gut. The company has developed the probiotic ProbioBrain, which interacts with the cells in the gut that produce metabolites. These metabolites send messages to the brain, thereby targeting cognitive function. In a four week placebo trial, the drug was able to help individuals cope with stress and reduce mental fatigue.

Meanwhile, one of Medicon Valley Alliance’s newest members, U.S.-based Organon which has facilities in Denmark, is centered on women’s health. With a pipeline that focuses on bacterial vaginosis, breast cancer, contraception, endometriosis, polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and menopause, the company manufactures biosimilar drugs. These are similar to biologics – which contain complex molecules that are derived from microorganisms – but offer wider treatment options and reduce healthcare costs when compared to biological medicines.

“We have a very vibrant startup community within oncology,” said Zepernick, who added that Medicon Valley Alliance, while realistic about its position globally where larger clusters like in Boston, Basel and Britain exist, aspires to rank within the the top three in a few select areas of research, including diabetes, central nervous system (CNS) diseases and the microbiome.

Medicon Village: connecting Sweden’s life science ecosystem

While Medicon Valley Alliance pursues binational development in life sciences, Medicon Village, which is a member of Medicon Valley Alliance, looks to amplify the industry in Sweden.

Established in 2012 in Lund, the science park was previously a facility run by AstraZeneca that had closed down its operations in the city. This led to a crisis for the life science ecosystem in southern Sweden, as AstraZeneca was notable in driving growth in the sector. As a result, stakeholders from universities, the municipality of Lund, the healthcare region as well as private sector investors came together to form Medicon Village. Since then, the park has grown, with around 2800 employees and 180 companies operating currently.

The science park, which is owned by two organizations – one being a real estate company that manages the infrastructure and facilities, and the second is Medicon Village Innovation, which aims to promote research and development within the hub. Along with constructing labs and office spaces for companies, the science park, like Medicon Valley Alliance, provides a space to foster interactions between researchers from academia, according to Petter Hartman, CEO of Medicon Village Innovation.

On top of that, the park is involved in the NOME project – financed by the Novo Nordisk Foundation – which is a mentoring program where science parks in the Nordic region come together to offer companies support on their journey with experienced entrepreneurs who could assist them through steps – like how to talk to an investor and how to expand your company for an international market – explained Hartman. 

As the organization strives to attract investments to the region by working closely with the municipality, Hartman said: “We need to illustrate how we can work together to form an attractive offer, and what we could come up with that makes us more attractive than other regions in Europe. And drive some of the bigger initiatives where we can get both international funding and national funding from innovation agencies.”

One of the leading healthcare companies located in the science park is Xintela, which specializes in stem cell therapy and targeted cancer therapy. Based on its stem cell marker, integrin α10β1, the biopharma has developed XSTEM, for the treatment of knee osteoarthritis and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). Last month, the company announced that its preclinical trial was successful in stabilizing blood circulation, reducing lung tissue damage and blood clotting in people with ARDS. 

Securing funds: a battle for all

Financed by the rent paid by the companies, Medicon Village has adopted a non-profit model where it reinvests in academic research every year. 

However, one of the major challenges faced by the science park is the need for capital. “Since many of the companies are quite small, it’s super important to assist them in reaching new markets which can be quite expensive. So, you know, the internationalization journey is important. The companies here at Medicon village are not the only ones who experience these challenges,” said Hartman, who added that engaging with policymakers can help ease the burden of acquiring not only capital but also pulling talent.

Hartman believes that as the life science sector expands in the Swedish economy, politicians become more interested in fueling its growth. “And that became even more clear during the pandemic, because all of a sudden, it was super clear to everyone, that if we don’t invest in our healthcare system, if we don’t have, you know, academic excellence and good medical research, and if we don’t have companies that can produce and develop new vaccines, then, we are in trouble. So the political interests of the sector became even greater,” said Hartman. 

This has led to the emergence of Sweden’s life science strategy, which emphasizes creating and strengthening partnerships

Could the Nordics influence life science globally?

As Medicon Village directs its progress towards launching its latest lab house in 2024, Medicon Valley Alliance battles similar challenges with regards to acquiring funding, as it aspires to be on the forefront of Nordic life sciences.

“Today, we have a binational life science cluster, which is the largest in the EU, but nevertheless, not even explicitly mentioned in neither the national Swedish nor the national Danish lifestyle strategy. And I think that’s one of the things that we are trying, to reach out to the relevant decision makers, national decision makers, and make them aware that we’ve actually built something here, which is quite unique,” said Zepernick. “And we’re trying to convince national decision makers in both countries to embrace this vision, and not only focus on your narrow national interests. And sometimes that’s a challenge.”

“We would like to be at the center of gravity for life science. In the Nordics, I think we’re already there. So then why not aspire to also become the leading life science cluster in the EU? That will be the next step. And perhaps, that’s a more long-term perspective… But I think we would like to be the stepping stone to life science in the Nordics and eventually Northern Europe.”

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