PARIS - France is in the process of establishing a silicon suburb for its nascent biotechnology industry in Evry, 35 kilometers south of Paris.

Called the Génopole, it is designed to act as a hothouse for biotechnology research and development and is seeking to attract both public sector research establishments and private firms to a site aiming to become an international center of biotechnology excellence.

The government initiative dates to 1996, when a genotyping laboratory was established in Evry. The town was chosen because the French Muscular Dystrophy Association (AFM - Association Française contre les Myopathies) set up a laboratory there in 1990 to conduct fundamental research into the human genome.

Known as Généthon, that laboratory subsequently provided a home for Paris-based Genset SA's growing genomics research operation in 1995.

When the AFM ceased its gene mapping activities in 1996 to concentrate on gene therapy, its genomics research team was absorbed by Genset, which now operates a 10,000-square-meter research center in Evry that houses sophisticated high-throughput gene screening, gene mapping and polymorphism research facilities employing more than 350 people.

Following cessation of Généthon's genomics research, which had benefited from public funding, the government set up gene sequencing and genotyping laboratories in Evry to give France a public genomics research capability in addition to the commercially driven activities of the private sector. Public laboratories publish their research and make it available to the world at large, whereas discoveries of genomics companies, such as Genset, remain their intellectual property.

The National Sequencing Center (CNS - Centre National de Séquençage), otherwise known as the Génoscope, came into being in 1997 and now employs 120 people. It is assured of public funding of FFr80 million a year over 10 years.

Backing New Companies Among Goals

The National Genotyping Center (CNG - Centre National de Génotypage) is in the process of being set up with an annual budget of FFr50 million over 10 years and a 60-person work force.

The two public laboratories together with the AFM's Généthon laboratory and four companies - Genset, Rhône-Poulenc Group, Euro Séquences Gènes Services SA and Biofords Consultants SA - constitute the first occupants of France's biotechnology valley.

The Génopole was effectively created in January, when its director, Pierre Tambourin, a research scientist by profession, was appointed by the minister of national education, research and technology, Claude Allègre. Tambourin was given three objectives:

* Promote establishment of research facilities in the fields not only of genomics and genetics but also of information technology, robotics, applied mathematics and chemistry.

* Secure the commitment of the University of Evry to create biology and molecular biology departments with the help of substantial government funding.

* Encourage creation of new biotechnology firms in Evry and relocation of existing plants to the site, with the help of government funds and streamlined administrative and legal procedures to overcome traditional French barriers to the founding of high-tech, high-risk enterprises.

Tambourin told BioWorld International his task was to solicit and coordinate the help of public and private sector bodies in the attainment of these objectives; to develop incentives for encouraging biotechnology start-up firms at Evry; and to support future scientific and technological development of the site. The local Chamber of Commerce and Industry has said it could provide funding of up to FFr200 million.

The Génopole itself is a nonprofit organization, and although a public body, Tambourin stressed it “is not weighed down by French-style bureaucracy but has a flexible and efficient structure.“

“The idea is to move very fast,“ he said. “The state is not doing everything itself, but is using specialists, including venture capitalists, to get things done. So we will be relying on a network of external experts.“

As for resources, Tambourin will obtain what he requires from central and local governments, state agencies, industry and the AFM.

Among other things, the department of the Essonne, in which Evry is located, is advancing a total of FFr30 million - FFr14 million for the Génopole itself and FFr16 million to finance the construction of an international conference center by the AFM.

Tambourin said Génopole must also play a role in informing and educating the public. One way of accomplishing that task will be to invite the public to visit the center and tour its laboratories. He also is cooperating with the industry association, France Biotech, which has set itself the tasks of increasing awareness about the industry's problems and pressuring the authorities for changes in aspects of the regulatory, fiscal and legal environments that curb development of the sector.

The multifaceted mission of the Génopole will be a challenge. For one thing, Tambourin said, “Evry is a biological and educational desert. Evry University decided not to have a biology department.“

Attracting Public Institutes On Agenda

In addition to getting Evry to institute biology and molecular biology departments, one of Tambourin's first tasks is “to create a research campus“ consisting of a “core of researchers in the key disciplines.“

To that end, he is trying to persuade public research establishments to set up, or relocate, laboratories in Evry. Those organizations include the International Health and Medical Research Institute, the National Scientific Research Center, the National Agronomic Research Institute, the National Computing and Automation Research Institute and the Atomic Energy Commission, which is engaged in a variety of high-tech research and industrial activities.

In addition to conventional biology, Tambourin stressed the importance of biology-oriented information technology. “France is weak in computing,“ he said.

He attached almost equal importance to automation of all kinds, including robotics and neurotechnologies. “The aim is to have [1,000 public sector researchers] working at Evry within three to four years. The laboratories will be installed in buildings around the Génoscope,“ which houses the CNS as well as the staff of the Génopole.

The CNS will be fully operational by September or October and the CNG in full swing by early 1999, Tambourin said. Also starting in 1999, “we are going to organize high-level courses in gene sequencing and genomics“ in order to train future generations of genomics researchers. France has a longstanding commitment to publicly funded scientific and medical research, so Tambourin's task in this area is one of redeployment and centralization of what is at present a widely dispersed effort in the fields of biotechnology, genomics and genetics research.

Génopoles To Be Spread Throughout France

But developing a propitious framework for creation of new biotechnology firms might prove a bigger challenge, although he regards it as crucial.

“It is important for France to develop biotech enterprises so as not to be overtaken by other countries in sectors such as pharmaceuticals and agro-food,“ he said. “Since companies also do research, they will complement the public research activities carried out at Evry.“

Tambourin's goal is to expand the number of firms installed there to “60 within three years.“ That figure includes companies from other countries, not just French ones.

“We have received more than 15 applications already, including three from companies in North America,“ he noted. Two-thirds of the applications were from French firms, one of which is Neurotech SA, a company developing immortalized cellular vectors for gene therapy, which was founded in 1995 and is currently based in Orsay, another university town southwest of Paris. (See BioWorld International, May 28, 1997, p. 2.)

“Alongside these companies, we intend to promote the creation of startups by researchers using discoveries made in our laboratories,“ Tambourin went on. “We will take charge of them, including financially, providing them with seed money up to the point where venture capitalists start investing in them. We will also find them managers or developers to see their projects through.“

The Génopole's business creation scheme can be summarized by the slogan “Six months, 600,000 francs.“

This signifies that startups will receive initial funding of FFr600,000. The companies must contribute FFr100,000 themselves, while the Génopole will provide FFr200,000 and other state funding agencies FFr300,000.

A seed fund of FFr4 million to FFr6 million is being set up to finance the first 30 or so projects. In addition, a nursery dedicated to biotech seedlings will be functional by October.

The French biotech initiative will not be limited to Evry. “This is a national effort. Other regional Génopoles will be created around France,“ explained Tambourin. “And I am going to offer the European Commission in Brussels the possibility of making Evry a technological platform for the European biotech industry.“ *