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How the ‘EU Biotech School & Health Hub’ will anchor the future of biotechnology in Belgium

Frédéric Druck, Managing Director, essenscia wallonia and brussels & Secretary General, bio.be/essenscia and Didier Malherbe, Chair of the Board of Directors, BCI Pharma & Vice Chairman, Walloon Union of Companies (UWE)

The Belgian Recovery and Resilience Plan, recently approved by the European Commission, includes a strategic investment of €25 million in a brand new ‘EU Biotech School & Health Hub’ in Gosselies, near Charleroi. How will this state-of-the-art training center and business accelerator strengthen the future of biotechnology and biomanufacturing in Belgium and Wallonia? We asked Didier Malherbe, Chairman of the Board of Directors at BCI Pharma, and Frédéric Druck, Managing Director at essenscia wallonia & brussels, who both worked on this ambitious project together.

What is the aim of the ‘EU Biotech School & Health Hub’?

Frédéric: The biotech and biopharmaceutical industry is a key sector for the Belgian and Walloon economy. The ‘EU Biotech School & Health Hub’ will strengthen this position by focusing on talent development to support the further growth of the life sciences industry in our country. If we want to take and keep the lead in the health therapies and biomanufacturing production processes of the next generation, we need to train more talent with the right technical and digital skills.

Didier: This landmark project also has the ambition of becoming a multidisciplinary business accelerator dedicated to new emerging therapies and the digital transformation of manufacturing processes in the biotech and health industry. For example, specialized trainings can be organized on data management, artificial intelligence or machine learning and how these can improve and accelerate production, innovation and logistics.

Why is there an urgent need for such an initiative?

Frédéric: Studies show that the sector in Wallonia needs to recruit 2,400 talented and skilled employees every year for the next three years. An increase of 10,000 direct and indirect jobs is expected in the next decade. There is a structural demand for talent with the necessary competences and the sector is rapidly evolving towards the biomanufacturing techniques of the future, ready to produce breakthrough vaccines, leading diagnostics and Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products (ATMPs) based on cell and gene therapy.

Didier: Today, companies are sending their employees abroad for these kinds of specific trainings. We aim to provide expert education and skill training on biomanufacturing to enhance the international competitiveness of the sector in the long term. The ‘EU Biotech School & Health Hub’ will develop state-of-the-art infrastructure to attract top expertise from home and abroad and provide a wide range of partners with the right structure.

What kind of trainings will be developed and what is the target audience?

Frédéric: We will focus on trainings to cover the currently unanswered market needs, complementary to what Cefochim and ViTalent offer, the existing competence centers for the life sciences industry in Wallonia and Flanders. This is also an inclusive project that aims to train and reskill students and jobseekers from Belgium and abroad, as well as upskilling newly hired or more experienced workers from the sector.

Didier: One must see ‘the Hub’ as a multi-operator and multi-partner flagship project with international allure. A kind of one-stop shop that creates cross-fertilization, closes the gap between education and the job market and builds new skills for future-proof businesses. We expect the campus to be operational by the summer of 2025. To make sure the urgent business need for skilled people is answered, training programs will already be set-up in parallel with the facility construction. We have also kicked-off a collaboration with the BioWin health cluster as part of the 'Get Up Wallonia' plan. In partnership with the Walloon Government and with the support of companies such as Catalent, GSK, Thermo Fisher, UCB and Univercells, this should provide a clear vision on the training needs to be met through the launch of the 'EU Biotech School & Health Hub'.

Do you think the ‘EU Biotech School & Health Hub’ can attract additional investments in the biotech industry?

Didier: Certainly. We strongly believe this unique and versatile project will attract new investments and further grow the health and biotech valley in Wallonia and Belgium. This could turn out to be one of the main driving forces of the post-pandemic economic recovery. The area of Gosselies is ideally located at the heart of the existing biotech ecosystem, close to the Brussels South Charleroi Airport, allowing for international connections.

Frédéric: Belgium already hosts a unique and innovative ecosystem for the biotech and life sciences industry, right in the economic and political heart of Europe. This initiative is the missing link to connect all the dots. The open-minded business model will also create structural and cross-sectoral synergies between companies – from spin-offs, start-ups or scale-ups to multinationals – universities, research centers and digital technology providers. This will further strengthen the international attractiveness of the sector.

About the interviewees

Frédéric Druck

Frédéric Druck is the Managing Director of essenscia wallonia and essenscia brussels, the regional divisions of the Belgian federation for the chemical and life sciences industry. He is also the Secretary-General of bio.be/essenscia, the Belgian federation for companies active in life sciences and biotechnology. In 2019, he was also appointed Chair of Cefochim, the competence center that offers dedicated training programs for the chemical and life sciences sector in Wallonia.

Didier Malherbe

Didier Malherbe will be the project coordinator of the ‘EU Biotech School & Health Hub’. He has a vast experience in the public and private sector and in the biopharmaceutical industry. He worked as Executive Director at the FEB-VBO (Federation of Enterprises in Belgium) and was CEO of the biopharmaceutical company UCB Belgium for fifteen years. As co-founder of BioWin, the health cluster of Wallonia, he has a broad expertise in the Belgian and Walloon biotech ecosystem. Currently, he is Chair of the Board at BCI Pharma, Vice Chair at the Walloon Union of Companies (UWE) and Board Member of the Belgian Foreign Trade Agency.