BioWorld International Correspondent

ROSTOCK, Germany - During the Middle Ages, a group of cities in northern Germany banded together to form a co-operative trading network that developed into the Hanseatic League, which grew in power and came to dominate medieval trade across the Baltic Sea and areas of northern Europe.

Today, a fledgling umbrella body for biotechnology in the Baltic area - ScanBalt BioRegion - is attempting to emulate this historic role model, by creating a "meta-network" or network of networks to promote the emergence of a globally competitive region for biotechnology.

"What we are trying to do is to rebuild the Hanseatic League in a scientific way," said Horst Klinkmann, chairman of Greifswald-based BioCon Valley e.V., the biotechnology association of the German state Mecklenburg-West Pomerania.

The original concept arose out of interactions between BioCon Valley and Medicon Valley, the industry and research network spanning the greater Copenhagen area and the neighboring Sk ne region of southwest Sweden. ScanBalt is headquartered in Copenhagen and has expanded to include biotechnology networks from a region encompassing 11 countries with 63 universities and 870 life sciences companies.

"I'm pretty sure the scientific capability in this network of networks will be strong enough to be a significant challenge to the big biotechnology regions overseas," Klinkmann said. It also will be able to compete for funding from the European Union, he said.

As yet, though, only the Medicon Valley cluster has the maturity and scale to rival other leading biotechnology centers in Europe, such as Cambridge, UK; London; Paris; and Munich. Per Belfrage of Lund University in Sweden, who chairs the Medicon Valley Academy, said the region aims to become Europe's most attractive biotechnology location by 2005.

"In this area, we would have all the ingredients of what you would call a cluster," he said. The region, which has a population of 3 million, is now home to 95 biotechnology companies, as well as 125 medical technology firms, and is responsible for 60 percent of all drug and device exports from Denmark and Sweden. It has 11 universities, 26 hospitals and five science parks. It also possesses extensive resources of medical data.

"We have 50 million stored patient samples and we have patient records to go with them for three, four decades," Belfrage said.

The gap between it and the other participants in ScanBalt is, at present, extremely wide. "They don't really need us; we are junior partners to them," said Kristin von Kristowski at the Kiel-based technology transfer agency for Schleswig-Holstein Technologie-Transfer Zentrale Schleswig-Holstein GmbH.

Concerted efforts to build biotechnology sectors within both Schleswig-Holstein and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania can be traced back to the German government's BioRegion 1996 competition, which designated Munich, Heidelberg and Cologne as priority areas for federal biotechnology investment.

Schleswig-Holstein's biotechnology base is mainly located within the Luebeck-Kiel-Borstel triangle. It includes 84 life sciences companies, of which 30 are biotechnology firms. "It has to be stressed that more than 20 companies have been formed since 1996 - this big bang year - and 17 are spin-offs from local institutions," von Kistowski told BioWorld International. Three more spin-offs are in preparation at present, she said.

In Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, a number of spin-offs from former east German research institutes constituted the first wave of life sciences firms. These have focused primarily on medical devices and agribiotechnology. Newly created incubators in the cities of Rostock, Greifswald and Teterow will house the next wave. But there are problems.

"We need to attract money, mobilize people to encourage entrepreneurship - and good luck," said BioCon Valley CEO Heinrich Cuypers.

Other former Soviet bloc regions that are participating in ScanBalt - such as the Baltic States and Poland - currently lack both resources and experience to become successful on their own, Belfrage said. However, they have a strong tradition of natural science education, he said. "We look on this as a tremendous opportunity to bring them here," he said.

In the long term, these regions offer excellent investment opportunities because of their low costs. Medicon Valley wants to build links with their future entrepreneurs now.