Lithuania’s Biotech Potential

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Lithuania’s biotech sector has grown by between 20 and 25 percent over the last five years and accounts for over one percent of the entire country’s GDP. Key industry stakeholders are, however, split on whether Lithuania truly holds the potential to become a biotech hub that can stand alongside nations such as Ireland and Singapore.

“In general, the biotechnology sector is very suitable for Lithuania as it does not require large resources, except for knowledge, technologies – which you can invent yourself – and experts.”

Prof. Vladas Bumelis

Lithuania has been ambitious in its plans to develop its biotech industry in recent years, with business, scientists and the government signing a resolution in May 2017 establishing the objective of making Lithuania the hub of health technologies and biotech innovations of Europe by 2020. More recently, in 2017 a EUR 200 million investment in three state-of-the-art facilities was announced that the country hopes will establish it as a bio-economy.

Prof. Vladas Bumelis, commonly regarded as one of the forefathers of Lithuanian biotech and the man coordinating the construction of these new facilities, explains that “One facility will produce large amounts of protein medicine from microbial cells through genetic engineering, another one will produce medicine from the cells of mammals.

The third factory will be for performing cell therapy.” Bumelis is forthright in his opinion that Lithuania and biotech are a good match, asserting that, “In general, the biotechnology sector is very suitable for Lithuania as it does not require large resources, except for knowledge, technologies – which you can invent yourself – and experts.” Bumelis continues, “in the future, everyone will talk about Lithuania as a country with a bio-economy, just as Switzerland is the country of the best quality watches and banks. We need to build our country according to what we are able to do and what we can do, concentrate on that, and not rush about in different fields of activity.”

Kristina Garuoliene, Lithuania’s vice minister of health, is similarly optimistic on the country’s biotech potential, noting that “Lithuania can lay claim to a historical legacy of biotechnology manufacturing through Biotechna, which was acquired by TEVA back in 2004. As a result of this heritage, Lithuania possesses a certain amount of skilled talent and human capital ready to serve the industry in this arena. When you juxtapose this knowledge pool with the infrastructural capabilities that we have, then the idea of Lithuania cultivating a vibrant biotech space becomes more realistic. Moreover, it is current government policy to make some regulatory adjustments to render the country more appealing to this category of inward investment flows.”

Mantas Katinas, general manager of Invest Lithuania, is also keen to highlight specific biotech success stories as cause for confidence. He posits that “Some of the most prominent success stories in Lithuanian life sciences come from biotech. TEVA and Thermo Fisher Scientific are companies with turnovers of around EUR one billion annually and both are ranked among the most profitable companies in the country.

Thermo Fisher Scientific has established its center of excellence for Molecular Biology here and with almost 100 researchers employed at the facility, the company has the biggest private R&D center in the Baltic region. Employing almost 800 people in the Lithuanian facility, the company astounds with its lean management and has recently received a Shingo prize, rewarding its accomplishments.”

Furthermore, as Romanas Ramanauskas, manager of Business Development at UAB Biotechnologijų Parkas and chairman of the Lithuanian Association of Biomedicine and Biotechnology Companies, points out, although Lithuanian biotech companies are not yet numerous, many have become very profitable and are already contributing significantly to the national economy. He declares that “At least 12 of the 25 companies active in the biotech sector generate substantial revenue and profits.

A proportion of the companies within the sector are only at the stage of investing into research (which may take many years); hence they cannot boast of financial results as yet. The third category of companies within the sector is the beginners (startups). These 25 companies have just over 1,600 employees; nonetheless, Lithuania generates over one percent of GDP from biotechnologies. This exceeds Switzerland (0.91 percent) and the USA (0.43 percent).”

However, not all stakeholders are quite so ebullient on the issue of Lithuania’s potential as a biotech hub for Europe. Audrius Tutlys, Teva’s country manager in Lithuania, cautions that although, “Lithuania has officially expressed grand ambitions to become a European center for biotechnology by 2020, in my opinion, this still remains very much an aspiration rather than a hardcore reality on the ground.” Tutlys continues, “Ultimately, industry is going to require rather more support from the authorities in this direction if we are to really raise Lithuania’s positioning as an attractive, competitive and compelling destination country for FDI investments in the biotech world.”

Also presenting a rather more circumspect point of view is Leonas Kalėtinas, executive director of the Lithuanian Innovative Pharmaceutical Industry Association (IFPA), who points out that while the aim of positioning Lithuania as Europe’s biotech center by 2020 is laudable, “it is important to manage expectations around this topic because, right now, this is still very much still in the planning phase and the requisite capabilities needed to attain this objective are not yet in place.”

Whether or not Lithuania can achieve its lofty ambitions remains to be seen, but the country’s ambitiousness and willingness to aim high cannot be denied. As Vladas Bumelis concludes, “If one does not have vision or a futuristic approach, then there would be no ideas or wishes to do something that has never been done before. I believe that we, Lithuanians, should be leaders, and that we should move forward instead of complaining that someone has overtaken us.”

Writer: Patrick Burton

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