BioWorld International Correspondent
BRUSSELS, Belgium - Making biotechnology research work better across national frontiers in Europe is one of the concrete tasks that the new president of EuropaBio has set.
Feike Sijbesma, who runs the life sciences division of DSM in the Netherlands, is focusing heavily on backing European research in his approach to his new role. He told BioWorld International in early November - just days after his election - that a key to success for Europe's biotechnology industries will be to forge more effective links between the universities and companies scattered across the continent.
In his view, some of the valuable national initiatives to promote biotechnology research need to be extended more widely to be fully effective. A €200 million allocation for stimulating genomics research that now has been agreed to in the Netherlands is working well in stimulating private-public cooperation, by providing 1 euro of state aid for each 2 euros that academia and companies put into designated products. "This way you know you're stimulating the right area," he explained, admitting to caution about the merit of subsidy mechanisms in which only the government takes the risk.
But he finds that DSM cannot always use that sort of support for the transnational cooperative research projects it runs with partners in Germany or other neighboring countries. "The Dutch money stops at the border," he pointed out. "We'd like to extend this Dutch initiative to the rest of the European Union. That is what we need in the EU. We are still below the U.S. level of public-private transfer and cooperation."
He terms the approach he now is preparing to push for with the EU policymakers "making the most of Europe's diversity." Since Europe always is going to differ from country to country, "it's a fact. We can complain, but it's a fact. So we just have to find how can we deal with it best." He added that EU policy should try to derive advantages from it to stimulate innovation. It should make use of Europe's "different angles and approaches in promotion of research, ways of working and focus on product areas," but it should do it transnationally, he insisted.
There are areas where diversity is not so advantageous, however, he said - particularly in terms of regulation of biotechnology. Here, Europe should work harder to harmonize its rules, he said. "Products have to be developed and sold at least on a European basis - otherwise it is too small-scale."
He highlighted continuing deficiencies in the degree of European harmonization. The EU's rules on biotechnology patents are good, but are not being implemented in many of the member states, he said. The EU's medicines agency in London has helped by providing a single authorization procedure for biotechnology-derived medicines, but could do more to assure harmonization of quality and safety requirements, and in communicating better with smaller biotechnology companies to help them better understand the EU rules that already exist.
The lack of a single body in the area of food safety is "a handicap," he said, expressing the wish that the nascent EU food safety agency should be given greater powers in terms of decision making so it could offer authoritative guarantees of safety for biotechnology-derived products. "EU consumers don't want to be reading labels. They just want someone to guarantee safety," he said. He urged cutting through some of the current EU confusion over biotechnology regulation with a simpler form of EU regulation, based on a simpler analysis. "If it's not safe, withdraw it. If it's safe, leave it on the market."
The new president of Europe's most broadly based biotechnology lobby group readily admits, however, that there are limitations to what can be achieved in his two years in office. "No trade association can force society in a particular direction. That is the function of politics." So in relation to building a vigorous biotechnology sector, he said, "If Europe does not want it, Europe will not get it."