Sweden is fast making a name for itself as a leading life science nation. Helena Strigård, vice-president and policy director at SwedenBIO, tells Health Europa how.
Sweden boasts a long and proud tradition in science, research and development which has seen it consistently ranked among the most innovative countries in the world by the European Commission, Bloomberg, and the World Intellectual Property Organization.
Its commitment to R&D spending (approximately 3.42% of GDP) is particularly evident in the life science industry, which was highlighted in 2012 as an especial opportunity for growth in the government’s research and innovation bill.
Home to the internationally renowned medical university Karolinska Institutet, the (soon-to-be) world’s most powerful neutron source, and MAX IV, the globe’s foremost synchrotron radiation source, Sweden is fast forging ahead as a leading life science nation.
Against this background, the non-profit association SwedenBIO advocates on behalf of its more than 230 members for an innovative and internationally competitive life science industry, backed by sustained investments in research and development and strong government support.
Here, vice-president and policy director Helena Strigård tells Health Europa more about the association’s role in promoting Sweden’s thriving life science environment and looks ahead to the future of the sector.
The Swedish government has made life science one of its research priorities – what are some of the main elements of this support, and how important has it been in strengthening Sweden’s position in life science?
Supporting research, innovation and co-creation in the life science sector has been a long-standing strategic priority of the Swedish government. This continuity, across governments, has been important for the life science industry in Sweden. It helps reduce risk aversion among companies and has resulted in a strong research and innovation system surrounding life science.
Illustrative of this commitment is the recent establishment (February 2018) of an Office of Life Science in the Government Offices, which is to develop a national strategy for life science. We appreciate that the government demonstrates that life science is a national priority.
More importantly, the commitment has been demonstrated by major investments in state-of-the-art national and international research infrastructures such as MAX IV, SciLifeLab and the European Spallation Source (ESS).
The most recent governmental initiative, Genomic Medicine Sweden, is a first step in the long-term implementation of precision medicine in the Swedish healthcare system and will be implemented via medical genomics centres based at our university hospitals. The initiative is being launched with the explicit aim to help develop world-leading diagnostics and precision medicine, primarily focused on hereditary diseases and cancer, and, at a later stage, on other more complex diseases and microbiomics.
What would you highlight as some of Sweden’s key strengths in the life science space?
Sweden’s strength as a life science nation would not have emerged without the heavy investments in R&D of both the public and private sectors. We have a strong academic research tradition and in addition well-developed national biobanks and national quality registries. These act as a national resource for both academia and industry for the development of pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and software.
One particularly interesting segment of life science in Sweden which I would like to highlight is precision medicine. It has just been mapped for the first time by SwedenBIO. One of the findings of this report is that precision medicine companies in Sweden have sprung out of academia in two out of three cases. They are also very active in receiving funding both nationally and from the EU framework programmes and are often found in tech hot-lists.
We often criticise ourselves for not delivering enough output in terms of actual commercialisation of the heavy investments in research, made by both the public and private sectors. But this shows that maybe we are being too harsh on ourselves – the output is materialising now. I believe that we stand before a shift with more and more innovations steaming from strong support mechanisms for university spin-offs as well as close collaboration between academia and companies. The Uppsala incubator is ranked No. 4 in the world. They are apparently doing something right.
Another area where we show strength and where a lot is currently happening is the development of biological drugs. A large testbed, co-funded by GE healthcare and the public sector, is underway in Uppsala. It will work as an open hub for innovation. At the AstraZeneca BioVentureHub in Gothenburg, there is a similar successful concept, where SMEs gain access to AZ research infrastructure and employee competence.
In what ways do you think the life science sector could be better supported to facilitate further growth and competitiveness?
The life science sector in Sweden is characterised by many small companies. This means that the ecosystem is not complete. A mix of small, medium and large companies is vital to ensure a flow of competence.
The number one priority of the Office of Life Science should therefore be to create the proper environment for these companies to grow. And for that, we need capital, a lot of capital – as well as competence in various areas, not least board expertise. Although recruiting skilled experts in Sweden is quite easy, growing the industry means we may need to look beyond our borders.
Put differently, Sweden needs to be attractive for establishments and investments from other parts of the world. And we must not forget to market our strengths. There is a Swedish saying that ‘a good product sells itself’. Unfortunately, that is not entirely true. In order to tap into the international pools of capital and competence, we need a coherent approach to market the Swedish USP. Otherwise it will go unnoticed.
How does SwedenBIO work to support the life science industry in Sweden?
SwedenBIO is the Swedish Life Science Industry Organization and works to build professional networks, to share knowledge, and to be a strong voice in the public debate representing the industry.
As one example, we organise the Nordic Life Science Days (NLSDays). This is the largest Nordic partnering conference dedicated to the life science industry. Since its inception in 2013, the event has nurtured a community of people from the world of life science and created a unique place to do business, gathering over 1,300 delegates in 2017. NLSDays also attracts leading decision makers from biotech, pharma and medtech as well as finance, research, policy and regulatory authorities.
Vice-President, Policy Director
This article will appear in issue 5 of Health Europa Quarterly, which will be published in May.