BioWorld International Correspondent

Biotechnology stakeholders in Norway have grouped together under a new banner - Life Sciences Norway - in order to raise the profile of the country's emerging biotechnology sector.

The move has both a domestic and an international agenda. The bodies behind the initiative, the Norwegian BioIndustry Association, the Research Council of Norway and the Norwegian Trade Council, want to attract overseas flows of capital and scientific skills to Norway. But they also want to impress on the country's government the importance of developing a coherent national biotechnology game plan.

"Our aim is to convince the government here to move forward with a more focused biotechnology strategy," BioIndustry Association President Ole J rgen Marvik told BioWorld International. While the government is supportive of the sector, he said, it has not put in place specific measures to stimulate its development. "We see in a number of European countries that there is more awareness of the great potential of biotechnology."

The new umbrella grouping is taking its cue from current European Union efforts to foster biotechnology. (See BioWorld International, March 26, 2003.)

Although Norway is not a member of the EU, it is, along with Iceland and Liechtenstein, a member of the European Economic Area, which supports free trade across the extended region, legislative harmonization and access to EU research programs.

Norway, Marvik said, has a strong science base, but in comparison with Nordic neighbors such as Sweden and Denmark is a late starter in developing a native biotechnology industry. "When it comes to the maturity of the commercial sector, I believe we are a couple of years behind," he said. "We don't really have this pharmaceutical tradition that you have in our neighboring countries."

He estimated that fewer than 1,000 people are employed in enterprises engaged in biotechnology-related activities. The average company size in Norway is small. "This is partly related to the fact that we have mainly local [sources of] finance," Marvik said. But the list of indigenous companies is growing. It includes Oslo-based companies Dynal Biotech ASA, which develops microscale beads for separation and purification; medical diagnostics firm Axis Shield ASA; GenPoint, which develops DNA-based microbial detection technology; photodynamic cancer therapy firm PhotoCure ASA; and two HIV vaccine development firms, Bionor Immuno AS, of Skien, and Lauras AS, of Oslo. Marvik is himself CEO of therapeutic antibody specialist Affitech AS, also of Oslo.

On the research front, a national functional genomics effort, FUGE, got under way last year, while the Research Council of Norway has launched a centers of excellence program in the country's four universities. Of the 13 inaugural centers to receive funding, just one is in the biotechnology field, the Center for Molecular Biology and Neuroscience at the University of Oslo. Life Sciences Norway also is prioritizing immunology, oncology, marine biotechnology and the conduct of clinical trials. It also wants an expansion of existing financial supports for companies, including tax incentives and research grants. But the organization is not being overly prescriptive as yet. Additional elements of its strategy will unfold over the next two years.