LILLE, France - Lille is the fourth largest city in France. It is north of Paris and quite near Brussels, Belgium, all the while being a relatively short train ride from London. Its locale has given the city the honor of being a crossroads.

So it was fitting that the city was host for the first European Biotech Crossroads conference - actually the sixth crossroads conference held in France but the first with a larger, European focus. The event brought more than 3,200 attendees from more than 35 countries and 180 companies. It provided exposure for 300 exhibitors. After two days of sessions, roundtable discussions, presentations and wine - this was France, after all, and wine was not only served at every meal, but distributed in goblets at the end of the first day - the message was clear: European biotechnology trails the U.S., and that is unsatisfactory.

While the conference was heavily weighted toward the French - more than 240 exhibitors were French companies - Europe in general has plans to push the science and spur its growth.

A French biotechnology company survey conducted by Deloitte & Touche gave a current look at the state of the industry in France, and by extension, a peek at European biotechnology overall, since France is a leader. Biotechnology has a slippery global definition, but for Deloitte & Touche, biotechnology means "any technological applications stemming from life sciences that uses biological systems or their cellular compounds, recombined or not, to produce materials or services."

Deloitte & Touche excluded big pharmaceutical and big agricultural companies from its survey, and made the stipulation that included companies have a physical settlement in France and have research and development expenditures in the country.

The survey, which was detailed by Deloitte & Touche partner Pierre Anhoury, showed France has about 259 biotech companies - a figure that ranks the country third in Europe, behind Germany's 540 and the UK's 430. France has about 15 percent of the estimated 1,800 companies in the European biotechnology sector.

Of those 259 French biotechnology companies, about 50 percent responded to the questionnaire. Half of them are focused on human health. Oncology leads as the No. 1 therapeutic area of focus, as well as taking the top slot for diagnostic applications. Twenty percent of the returned surveys came from the Paris area, not surprisingly, but 10 percent came from Lille itself.

Biotechnology in France is young - most companies are less than 4 years old and there are only 11 that have been in business for more than 10 years. But the science is growing here - Anhoury said Deloitte & Touche estimates that by the time 2002 ends, 50 biotechnology companies will have been formed in France this year.

But partnerships, often the key to biotechnology survivability, is lagging in France, according to the Deloitte & Touche sample.

"We were surprised to see that a third of biotech companies have no partnerships," Anhoury said, although he allowed that "many partnerships are confidential and these companies may not want to disclose that."

Half of the very young companies do not have any partnerships at all and, whatever the age, half of the sample group in France does not have academic partnerships. And while the industry may be growing in France, the external growth of biotechnology companies is slow - an alarming 56 percent of sample companies said they had experienced no external growth and didn't anticipate any in the future. Thirty-one percent had experienced growth and anticipated more.

Then there is the issue of patents. Although Anhoury told the attendees, "You can't survive without patents," many French biotechnology companies are trying to do just that - 37 have no registered patents at all, while a total of 10 biotechnology companies own more than 80 percent of France's biotechnology patents.

These are all areas of concern, but the survey did show that 148 new molecules are in development in France. Take those molecules, however, throw them in the development pot and touch it with the fire of clinical trials and they will boil down to "one or two medicines created by French biotech," Anhoury said.

The areas of concern may explain the consumption of wine, at least for investors looking to drop money into French and European biotechnology companies. But Philippe Pouletty, president of France Biotech, mapped out his ambitious plan to boost the industry. He hopes Europe is on even biotechnology ground with the U.S. in the 2007-2009 time frame and overtakes it potentially by 2015.

His plan has eight steps, the first of which is educating Europeans on the benefits of biotechnology, pointing out its quality as a financial driver and its capacity for improving and extending human life. This should help increase interest in biotechnology in Europe.

Pouletty told journalists at a luncheon that "R&D spells growth." And it can, but R&D also requires money, so Pouletty suggested that the European academic budgets for research and development be doubled every five years. And he said there is a need for a centralized filing procedure for patents, a step away from the individual country patent regimes that now exist.

For innovative drugs, Pouletty said the European regulatory agency should speed up approval times to six months, which would be similar to the fast-track approval times in the U.S. To help attract investors, he detailed a plan that would lower taxes and costs for innovative companies looking to find a home or grow in Europe, with the goal of Europe being the most attractive location in the world for investors and entrepreneurs.

He suggested the EU guarantee loans for mergers and acquisitions and product purchases. And Pouletty also would like to see a single European stock market.

Finally, he said biotechnology companies must promote the research and development of pandemic diseases often found in developing countries and let the world know that biotechnology is working on solutions for the entire planet.

Pouletty closed his presentation by showing a fictional news item dated March 2017 that reported on a European biotechnology consortium - led by companies from France, Germany and Poland - buying Abbott Laboratories, of Abbott Park, Ill.

It's an aggressive plan, as the gap between U.S. and European biotechnology has been widening in the past decade, not shrinking. And Pouletty's plan is far from set in stone. In fact, the French government has not publicly responded and has said it will do so later this year, when it looks at budget matters. That leaves plenty of time for European industry watchers and investors to anxiously ponder what might come next.

More wine, please.