14 Sep Interview with Ion Arocena – CEO at AseBio-Spanish Bioindustry Association
Ion Arocena: “We need to boost policies based on capital instruments and subsidies to support deep-tech sectors such as biotechnology”.
Ion Arocena holds a degree in Biology from the Complutense University of Madrid with Extraordinary Prize (2003) and a Master MBA from the EOI (2010). He has years of experience in scientific-technical and commercial viability assessments of technologies, projects and companies in the field of biotechnology. He worked as Technological Surveillance Technician at the Biotechnology Innovation Circle/OTRI UAM (2004-2005) and Evaluation and Commercialisation Technician at Genoma España (2005-2006). Subsequently, he was partner and Investment Director of the venture capital firm specialising in biotechnology, SUANFARMA Biotech SGECR and advisor-representative in Agrenvec, Vivia Biotech and Clavesuan. Since 2016 he is CEO of AseBio, the Spanish Bioindustry Association.
Do you think that the new Science Law and the Start-up Law can be a boost for the growth of biotech companies or do you think it could have been more ambitious?
With regard to the Science Law, at AseBio we believed from the outset that the reform was a unique opportunity to promote collaboration and transfer in our R&D system. For this reason, we did not hesitate to make a series of proposals and to participate in the whole process of modification. It was necessary to modernise our R&D&I system, and this Law lays the foundations for this change. We believe that the incorporation of open innovation models and the creation of spaces for joint work between the public and private sectors is very appropriate. However, we cannot forget the companies, such as those in the biotechnology sector, which are the ones that make it easier for this knowledge to reach society.
With regard to the Start-up Law, the modification that will most positively affect our sector is undoubtedly the one that will consider as start-ups those that are up to seven years old since their creation. This was one of our proposals, as the evolution and growth of companies in our sector is not like in other sectors. These are companies that invest in R&D and do not have a product to market for perhaps 10 or 12 years.
Do you think Spain has the potential to boost biotechnology as an economic engine?
No doubt about it. In fact, in the ‘Spain 2050’ plan, which is the National Long-Term Strategy in which a series of priorities have been set for the future of Spain, biotechnology is key to achieving five of the nine major challenges: to be more productive in order to grow better, to become a carbon neutral society, sustainable and resilient to climate change, to prepare our welfare state for a longer-lived society, to promote balanced, fair and sustainable territorial development and to broaden the bases of our future welfare.
Even now, under the Spanish Presidency of the EU, biotechnology and innovation will also be key in 3 of the 10 lines of action.
Our sector already contributes 1% of the GDP of the Spanish economy, just over 11,000 million euros, and employs more than 118,000 people. In 2020 it represented 0.9% with 10,336 million euros, in 2019, it was 0.8% with 10,131 million euros and in 2018 0.7% with 8,285 million euros. In these years, growth has been progressive even in years such as 2020 when the economy came to a standstill because of the pandemic.
Moreover, our sector not only has an impact on the economy, it also has a societal impact. In fact, biotechnology has an impact on 13 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
How important are regional scientific and economic policies for the development of biotech companies in a Bioregion?
They are very important and we are seeing it in specific examples. For instance, since 2016, Galicia has had biotechnology as a key sector and today it is in 6th position in number of companies and in R&D investment and 5th in average turnover of companies.
And more recently, Murcia, despite only having 25 biotech companies, has a Strategy (RIS4MUR) with which they hope to increase investment in R&D and the number of innovative companies. This has led to an increase in the number of biotech companies in recent years.
On the other side we have Madrid, which despite being number 2 behind Catalonia in terms of number of companies, turnover and R&D investment, we have seen little movement in recent years in terms of new companies created.
Are Spanish biotech companies at the forefront of current trends in healthcare (e.g., personalised medicine, advanced therapies)?
Spain is a powerhouse in advanced therapies. Our country ranks fifth in the number of scientific publications in the field of cell therapy in relation to GDP, ahead of countries such as South Korea, the United Kingdom and Italy. In the last five years, Spain has increased scientific publications in the three main types of advanced therapies (gene, cell and tissue).
Earlier this year, we published a mapping of advanced therapy capabilities of our partners, and found that we have more than 30 biotech companies with capabilities for the full development of advanced therapies, from early stage R&D to manufacturing, transfer and distribution processes.
Personalised precision medicine represents a paradigm shift in the way healthcare is delivered, incorporating more effective and safer diagnostic and treatment strategies, and providing solutions to ensure the sustainability of healthcare systems.
Looking at the products launched by our partner companies in the last year (AseBio 2022 report, product and service launches in the market), we can see that most of these focus on products for diagnostics and personalised medicine.
In the field of agriculture and food, our sector has very interesting examples of developing new sources of protein, improving agricultural production, developing plant varieties that are more resistant to pests and diseases, as well as crops with improved characteristics, such as greater durability or higher nutritional content.
In your opinion, what are the main problems facing Spanish biotech companies?
The challenges for companies are related to their innovative and deep-tech nature. To bring a product to market, they must invest heavily over a very long period to develop their technologies in highly regulated environments. By the very nature of biotech companies’ projects, with a strong research and development component, it is common for them to fail.
For these reasons, companies often find it difficult to access the finance they need and traditional public support instruments, such as loans, are often not adequate to support them.
We need to boost policies based on capital instruments and subsidies to support deep-tech sectors such as biotechnology, as well as leverage private investment in these types of companies with tax and other incentives.