We probably take it for granted that our life expectancy has significantly improved over the last century. What used to be almost unimaginable has turned into reality. We have managed to eradicate a growing number of diseases and invented technologies to tackle energy, food and environmental needs. All thanks to biotechnology, one of the driving forces in meeting those needs.
In modern science, the use of living systems and organisms to develop or make products, i.e. biotechnology, is indispensable. Yet, the immense scope of this technology is still unknown territory for many of our citizens and politicians. No other sector is better placed to respond to society’s challenges like new pandemics, food security and climate change.
Since the beginning of 2020, our lives have completely changed. COVID-19 took over. If there is one thing this crisis has reinforced, it is the value of biotechnology for society. An epic wave of collaboration and solidarity arose. From extra testing capacity, research and clinical tests, to the possible production of a vaccine, our Belgian biotech ecosystem plays a leading role internationally.
Companies like Novasep, Univercells, Etherna, Biogazelle, UCB, J&J, GSK, Pfizer and many more are relentlessly engaged. Renowned Belgian scientists and/or entrepreneurs like Jean Stéphenne, Paul Stoffels and Peter Piot are highly recognized for their thought leadership. On top of that, the Belgian Government decided to invest €20 million in new specialized infrastructure, “vaccinopolis”, driven by the University of Antwerp (UA) and the University of Brussels (ULB), to accelerate vaccine development and clinical trials.
Belgium clearly knows how to surf the waves of promising biotech. A moment to be cherished, beyond COVID-19. Many new technologies are in their starting phases. Think of nanobodies or cell and gene therapies, like CAR-T, that offer groundbreaking new opportunities for cancer and rare disease treatments. Or plant hybridization techniques to optimize yield production and development of biomass products to develop our bio-based economy.
The time is now to take some decisive steps and anchor our future-oriented biotech sector firmly within our country. Three elements are crucial:
- Our industrial production capacity should be reinforced as one of the motors for economic recovery.
- Our ongoing technological innovations should be supported by modernizing and simplifying the current regulation.
- Our country must position itself wisely in the new European EU4Health investment program.
Belgium is well placed to envisage sound policy decisions that support innovative and risk–taking approaches. Almost 100 years ago, King Albert I, in his mythic speech in Seraing, urged us to focus on science as the basis for the economic development of Belgium. It led to the creation of scientific institutions as of the 1930s in our country. Let’s have that same ambition today, raise the bar and scale-up our Belgian biotech for a healthier, more productive and more sustainable economy. We can all agree we are living through challenging times. Needless to say, challenges also bring opportunities. The COVID-19 crisis forces us to think differently and work more decisively with attention to the societal perspective. Let’s make sure to use the agility of our Belgian biotech as a continuous motivation for future industrial policy decisions. Let’s continue to surf the waves of promising Belgian biotech!
About the author
Tineke Van hooland is Deputy Secretary-General of bio.be/essenscia, the recognized voice of the biotech community to boost innovation and industrialization in Belgium and beyond. Over the past 16 years, Tineke has held several leadership positions in biopharmaceutical companies at corporate level. She has an in-depth knowledge of External Affairs in Life Sciences. Tineke is also founder and CEO of epic 10. Through her dynamic and no-nonsense approach, she is often consulted as a board member and keynote speaker. Tineke is also a female leadership advocate and has authored a number of opinion pieces on empowering women. Her motto: ‘Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm’ (Emerson).