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Investors warm toward Norwegian biotech with cancer innovation park

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By Cormac Sheridan
Staff Writer

DUBLIN – Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg helped focus a spotlight on Norway’s emerging oncology cluster this week by performing the official opening of the Oslo Cancer Cluster Innovation Park, the first stage in an ambitious program to bring together in a single setting a critical mass in cancer research, education and cancer-related commercial biotechnology.

The first phase of the Oslo Cancer Cluster Innovation Park comprises a NOK1 billion (US$121 million) investment in a 36,000-square-meter facility, which houses a biotech incubator for oncology start-ups, Norway’s Cancer Registry, the Institute for Medical Informatics and Pathology at Oslo University Hospital and several other start-up and established biotech and biopharma firms.

Unusually, a high school is also located at the site, and its students will have the opportunity to interact with scientists working in the park. A second stage, comprising 8,000 square meters is in development, Jónas Einarsson, the founder and driving force behind the initiative, told BioWorld Today. Eventually, the plan is also to rehouse the adjacent Norwegian Radium Hospital (originally built in 1932) in a new facility on the site as well.

Despite Norway’s considerable wealth – the country’s oil-fueled sovereign wealth fund was valued at $800 billion at the end of 2014 – it has always adopted a cautious approach to investing in its science and technology infrastructure. “Everything is supposed to be sector-neutral,” Einarsson said.

Unlike certain wealthy countries in the Middle East or in Asia, Norway is not attempting to buy success by importing elite research institutions or Nobel-prize-winning rock stars – and it has produced two home-grown laureates, neuroscientists May-Britt Moser and Edvard Moser, who shared the 2014 prize in medicine or physiology with John O’Keefe.

“Basic research is not bad at all,” Einarsson said. Persuading government to go further than that has been the problem. “What we’ve been struggling with is to get them to understand that to get anything beyond publishing papers we have to invest in the next stage.” Even so, there is evidence to suggest that the biotech climate in Europe’s far north is starting to warm up.

Einarsson is CEO of the Norwegian Radium Hospital Research Foundation, which operates an evergreen seed fund, valued at NOK300 million to NOK400 million, in terms of cash on hand and investments made. It is has long been an important source of seed funding for early stage biotech firms, but the success of Algeta ASA, which Bayer AG acquired for $2.9 billion in 2013, and of Nordic Nanovector ASA, which upsized its IPO to NOK500 million in March, has raised the visibility of the sector substantially. (See BioWorld Today, Dec. 20, 2013, and March 23, 2015.)

“It’s been almost a paradigm shift,” Einarsson said. The sector has attracted some NOK1.2 billion (US$145 million) during the last 15 to 18 months. “We’ve attracted Norwegian investors who have not looked at this sector before,” Einarsson said.

Co-investors include Gjelsten Holding AS, an industrial holding company; Inven2, the research commercialization arm of the University of Oslo and Oslo University Hospital; Birk Venture, a young Norwegian venture capital firm; and Healthcap, the Swedish-based VC firm that was the largest shareholder in Algeta.

Immuno-oncology is the main focus of the first wave of tenants in the new incubator. They include Ultimovacs AS, which is conducting phase I/IIa trials of a therapeutic vaccine directed against human telomerase enzyme, UV1, in patients with prostate cancer, non-small-cell lung cancer and melanoma. The vaccine is based on synthetic peptides derived from tumor epitopes identified in long-term cancer survivors who had been treated with various telomerase vaccines or with telomerase-transfected dendritic cells.

Lifandis AS, formerly Hunt Biosciences AS, is a publicly owned company that offers industry partners an entry point to Norway’s longitudinal health study Hunt (Nord-Trøndelag Health Study). That has amassed biological samples from individual and family health histories on about 120,000 people over several decades, which are linked to national and regional patient registries.

Another tenant, Normetrix AS, is developing novel cancer biomarkers, based on academic discoveries. There’s also Lytix Biopharma AS, which is developing an oncolytic peptide, LTX-315, currently in a phase I/IIa trial in patients with solid tumors.