BioWorld International Correspondent

LILLE, France - About 50 new biotechnology companies will have been created in France this year, according to a study presented by Pierre Anhoury, a partner in the Paris office of Deloitte & Touche, at the European Biotechnology Crossroads Conference here Oct. 16.

Commissioned by the French industry association, France Biotech, the survey gives an overview of the situation of the country's biotechnology sector in 2002. With 259 companies, France is in third place in Europe behind Germany (with 540 firms) and the UK (with 430).

Of France's 259 companies, 24 were less than a year old as of mid-2002, according to Deloitte & Touche, leading it to predict that the number of new companies established in 2002 will reach 50 by the year's end, boosting the total to over 280.

Half of the French industry is engaged in human health activities, 18 percent in agrifood, 9 percent in animal health, 9 percent in environmental applications and 8 percent in research equipment. Within the human health segment, Deloitte & Touche estimate that French biotechnology companies have some 170 compounds in development, over 100 of which are at the preclinical phase, but Anhoury said he expected no more than two or three to reach the market.

He also said that the French biotechnology industry had generated three commercial products, but acknowledged that they all are produced by SangStat, of Fremont, Calif., which is an American company founded and run by a Frenchman, Philippy Pouletty, who also is CEO of the Franco-American company, DrugAbuse Sciences, and president of France Biotech.

The main therapeutic fields being targeted by French companies are cancer (15 percent), infectious diseases (13 percent), the immune system (10 percent), the central nervous system (9 percent) and metabolism (8 percent). In diagnostics applications, there is an even greater emphasis on oncology (17 percent), followed by genetic diseases (12 percent), the immune system (9 percent) and the central nervous system (9 percent).

Nearly three-fifths of French biotechnology companies operate out of a single site, while one-quarter have two sites, 11 percent have three and 6 percent have four or more. However, the survey did not specify the number of French companies with sites outside France.

Fully one-third of the companies surveyed said they were not engaged in any partnerships with third parties, while 30 percent had entered into between three and five research or other collaborations, 20 percent between six and 10, and 6 percent in more than 10. The longer companies exist, the more likely they are to have entered into one or more collaborations, Anhoury said, but he declined to speculate on whether that was a cause or effect of longevity.

The preferred partners of French biotechnology companies are academic institutions or public research establishments (48 percent of the total), followed by industrial companies (26 percent) and other biotechnology companies (24 percent). Almost three-fifths of their partners are located in France, one-quarter in other European countries and 11 percent in the U.S.

Growth by merger or acquisition has been confined to a small minority of French biotechnology companies up to now (13 percent), but 44 percent of those surveyed said they planned an external growth operation within the next two years. That 44 percent consisted of all those with past experience, plus 31 percent of those that had not yet adopted that strategy.

An unexpected finding was that the number of research and development staff is growing more rapidly than the total work force as the industry matures. While the total number of employees increased by 43 percent between 1999 and 2001, the number of research and development staff more than doubled, and their share of the total work force rose from 22.2 percent to almost 40 percent during those three years. Moreover, Deloitte & Touche estimate that the proportion will be up to 54 percent by the end of the year and will reach fully 72 percent in 2003.

One explanation for this phenomenon given by the CEO of Paris-based Hybrigenics, Donny Strosberg, is that researchers in young biotechnology companies often are still employed by public sector establishments and, thus, are not on the payroll of the firms they work for.

For the purposes of this survey, Deloitte & Touche defined biotechnology as "any technological applications stemming from life sciences that use biological systems or their cellular compounds, recombined or not, to produce materials and services." The biotechnology activities of large pharmaceutical and agrifood companies were excluded. Questionnaires were sent to all French biotechnology companies, and 130 of them (half the total) replied.