BioWorld International Correspondent

PARIS The European Union should adopt common measures to stimulate its biotechnology industry, setting the goal of being head-to-head with the U.S. by 2007 and ahead of it by 2015.

That was the message delivered by the president of France Biotech, Philippe Pouletty, to an informal seminar of European industry and research ministers on the theme, “Fostering innovation: the European research and innovation area,” held in Gerona, Spain, on Friday and Saturday.

Biotechnology is a “broad economic opportunity driven mostly by human health care,” said Pouletty, who also is chairman of the Franco-American company DrugAbuse Sciences Inc., of Los Altos, Calif., and Paris. The worldwide pharmaceutical market is EUR300 billion (US$260 billion) a year and growing at 12 percent to 20 percent a year, “fueled by population aging, improved drug efficacy, faster new drug development and unmet needs in the environmental, food and animal health sectors.”

Already, “more than 50 percent of new drugs are developed by biotechnology companies, which mostly did not exist 10 to 15 years ago,” and the proportion will reach 70 percent within 10 years, Pouletty said. But he warned his audience that “Europe is and may stay behind unless you make rapid and comprehensive decisions.”

The U.S. has led the biotechnology industry since 1978 because of “well-funded academic research, an established entrepreneurial spirit, early success stories and strong people networks between academic researchers, young entrepreneurs, patent and corporate lawyers, experienced venture capitalists, dedicated investment bankers and analysts, big pharma executives and Nasdaq investors.” That does not mean Europe should “just mimic the U.S.,” however. “France is not California, Munich is not Boston, Barcelona is not Denver,” said Pouletty. On the other hand, “European scientists, clinicians and entrepreneurs are as good as, sometimes better than, their U.S. colleagues. They do succeed when operating in the right environment.”

To create that right environment, France Biotech is calling for the EU to introduce special pan-European tax status for young, innovative enterprises and make Europe an “entrepreneurial zone” by creating a favorable environment for innovative companies.” To start with, suggested Pouletty, the EU should “immediately make our European research, corporate, tax and regulatory environment THE most attractive, worldwide.” In that event, he said, “entrepreneurs, scientists and investors will flow in.”

To ensure risk is properly rewarded, a European Corporation for Innovation should be set up to provide tax exemptions to entrepreneurs, investors and corporations across Europe, becoming the “first example of harmonization between European tax and labor laws.” The EU should set the goal of “EUR5 billion in annual subsidies to private biotech companies by 2003,” which “would attract a further EUR5 billion to EUR10 billion a year of private investment.”

In addition, financial support in the form of state- or EU-guaranteed long-term bank loans should be extended to biotechnology companies to assist their transition from start-ups to young pharmaceutical companies and help them develop through “external growth, mergers and acquisitions within Europe and takeovers of U.S. biotech companies.” Other specific measures proposed by Pouletty included the establishment of a single Europe patent requiring just one filing for the whole EU, the development of European networks of excellence for clinical trials, and the provision of grants to biotech companies for Phase I/II clinical trials to speed up drug development. In addition, regulatory agencies across Europe should set a six-month market approval target for new drugs.

For the longer term, Pouletty called for the public-sector biotechnology research budget to be doubled every five years and for EU funds to be invested in “a few major academic research projects that will sustain future industry growth.” He mentioned several avenues of research in particular: the processes of, and therapies for, aging; the prevention of cancers; smart drugs, nanotechnologies and bioelectronics; and body parts and cell therapies.