VIENNA, Austria - "Who's afraid of red, white and green?"
The answer is, not Europe. Or at least it shouldn't be.
Those colors represent the three applications of biotechnology - health care, industrial and agricultural, respectively - and paint a tri-colored picture of European biotechnology today. But of more concern is the European biotech of the future.
Five individuals were chosen to speak here Tuesday at the plenary session of the Cordia-EuropaBio Convention 2003, which has drawn about 1,500 registrants, including representatives from 170 companies in 30 countries. Their task: to detail the issues Europe faces as it chases the U.S. biotech sector in a race it wants to win.
Mary Harney, the minister for enterprise, trade and enterprise for Ireland, spoke first, outlining the steps necessary if Europe is to become "the most competitive dynamic" in biotechnology by 2010.
She stressed that research had to move from the laboratory to the market, and said that Europe needed to attract "the best brains in the world" if it is to compete with the U.S. Also, there needs to be greater mobility for researchers - to attract a top-notch scientist, you must allow him to bring his family to the country, for example - or scientists simply won't come. Intellectual property rights in Europe are hampered by the many governments, and she said she was "disappointed that we haven't agreed on a community patent."
There are ethical concerns, she pointed out, such as embryonic stem cell research. And while countries with differing views on the matter bicker over funding - whether it should be used for the science or not - time is wasting.
"A country shouldn't be blocked by others if it doesn't have issues with [embryonic stem cell research]," she said. "Other places in the world are moving forward."
Against the measuring stick of the U.S., Europe could fade further, she warned. She mentioned statistics that brand Americans as being 30 percent richer than Europeans, and said a survey suggested that percentage could balloon to 50 percent with time, if Europe follows its current strategy. But the tools are there to close that gap.
"Europeans are as smart as Americans," she said. "Americans are just smarter at realizing" financial rewards from innovation.
Feike Sijbesma, chairman of EuropaBio, asked that color/fear question. He spoke about moving toward a "colorful society" and growing the three aspects of biotechnology. He also mentioned intellectual property issues.
"Without IP, we don't get the investors ready to invest," he said.
Also, he suggested it is time to resolve the ethical issues of biotech and "decide what kind of biotech we don't want."
Leena Peltonen, head of the department of human genetics at the National Public Health Institute in Finland and chair of human genetics at the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, touched on biotech's scientific aspects. She noted that there are now 160 completed genomes, but chided Europe for not using all its resources.
"The European population is a niche for genetics, but Europe hasn't used that," she said.
However, she pointed to Europe's strengths, such as education that rivals the U.S., high-quality health care, well-developed information technology and a solid social infrastructure - one that's removed from the "every man for himself" business attitude that prevails in some cultures.
Ysbrand Poortman, chairman of the European Platform for Patient's Organisations, Science and Industry, used his time to detail how patients play a role in pushing all aspects of health care. He suggested that in the 1950s, patients basically were helpless - they were sick and didn't know what to do about it. Patients of today - and of tomorrow - Poortman said, have become a "driver of health care" through their needs.
Philippe Pouletty, vice chairman of EuropaBio and president of France Biotech, as well as a founder of Truffle Venture, put things bluntly. The EU's goal of seriously competing with the U.S. by 2010 is "not achievable, based on where we are," he said. At the current pace, he suggested instead a scenario of the EU being "better" in 2020, but trailing both the U.S. and the rising Chinese biotech sector.
Pouletty pointed to money - Europe significantly trails the U.S. In 2001, Europe recorded total biotech financing that equaled 30 percent of what the U.S. raised over the same period. For this year, Europe has raised in venture capital funding only 25 percent of the U.S. venture capital total.
Pouletty's keys to success for Europe are fourfold. First, it has to improve the image of biotechnology to the public. Second, there has to be a boost of academic research and development funding.
"Put billions, not millions, of euros behind the objective" to spend 3 percent of gross domestic product on research and development, he said.
Third, Europe must set tax benefits and regulations to make the European environment "the best worldwide" for biotech. Europe needs to be able to tell companies, "We'll get your drug approved in six months," he said.
Fourth, improve the financial environment, specifically by developing a European Union stock market.
"Nasdaq has been leading the U.S. for the past 25 years," he said, and noted in Europe instead the Easdaq and Neuer Markt failures.
Of course, all topics are nothing new - Europe has been well aware of its second-place stature to the U.S. in biotechnology terms for some time, which prompted Harney to say it's time Europe "put a lot more action behind the rhetoric."