Lyon: Jewel In the Crown


Lyon’s innovative roots, favourable location, educational excellence, and collaborative culture are all helping to make the city a premium life science, pharmaceuticals and biotech hub, not just in France, but globally.

The Roots of Innovation

Lyon’s position as one of the top 20 global centres for innovation has been long in the making. Jean-Charles Foddis, executive director of Aderly, the Lyon area economic development agency, points out that “Lyon has long been recognized as an industrial and merchant city, back to the Renaissance and the beginning of the silk industry. As far as it may be, this still explains much our present economy. The capital of silk had to develop banks for commercial reasons, chemicals in order to dye silk, and international networks in relation to those innovations. Lyon still epitomizes these values: being open, industrial, and innovative. Though the silk industry is no longer a major sector, Lyon still relies on two historic sectors: the chemical and health industries that were developed consecutively.”

“Lyon still epitomizes these values: being open, industrial, and innovative”

Jean-Charles Foddis, Aderly

David Kimelfeld, VP in charge of economic affairs at Métropole de Lyon concurs with Foddis on the contribution of Lyon’s manufacturing legacy to its current successes but also attaches importance to the region’s rural setting in fostering a culture of life sciences. Kimelfeld notes that “Lyon’s thriving life sciences industry is also due to the close proximity to animals in the region … Scientists had the opportunity to work on these animals and use their blood to create treatment; serums were thus created from this process and [the industry] thrived.”

Within this favorable ecosystem, key individuals have also contributed to Lyon’s life science and innovation pedigree. Stephane Legastelois, president and CEO of Indicia Production & Platine Pharma Services lays credit squarely at the feet of the Mérieux family. An entrepreneurial Lyon dynasty which has founded companies such as Sanofi Pasteur, bioMérieux, and Merial, Legastelois asserts that “Lyon has always been a center of industrial biology, due in large part to the Mérieux family’s influence in this sector for over 100 years. All biotech managers can credit their existence to this family’s initiatives, and in this regard, all are like sons in a family tree, branching off in their own direction.”


Location, Education, Collaboration

In a global landscape more interconnected than ever before, Lyon’s physical location is a major advantage. Aderly’s Foddis underlines the fact that the city is located “at the crossroads of Northern and Southern Europe, with well-organized connections to every country on the continent within two hours.” Bruno Masurel, head of the international division at Lyon Chamber of Commerce (CCI Lyon) agrees, arguing that location is the “first and foremost” factor in Lyon’s life science and healthcare pedigree; before going on to say that “we are located in the heart of Europe and well connected to the rest of the world.”

The region’s future success seems to be assured through its strong educational environment. Lyon hosts 130,000 students in its various institutions, 13,000 of which are foreign and Aderly’s Foddis highlights the fact that “many major schools excel in specific subjects such as business and engineering.” For Indicia’s Legastelois, not only is the quality of scientific education in Lyon a cause for celebration, but its specificity has helped create a “very dynamic and sophisticated market.” Legastelois explains that, “it is common, at least in Lyon, to find managers leading companies that started their careers in research and studying sciences, only moving to business later. In France, unlike other countries, there is little overlap in universities between science and business. Here you become well versed in scientific disciplines, and then move on to learning business in the field, or studying at business school.”


Université Claude Bernard Lyon 1 and École Normale Supérieure de Lyon have particularly strong pedigrees in science and health and, according to Legastelois, have helped generate “a very healthy mix of companies of various sizes, including SMEs … this serves to demonstrate the importance of academia in the city, which serves as a factor for industry innovation and growth.” The Lyon model of collaboration between these various actors—public and private as well as multinational and local—is, according to CCI Lyon’s Masurel, “very favourable for innovative companies.” Masurel explains that, “Our pôles de compétitivité (competitiveness clusters) foster R&D projects [because] our experience tells us that investment in R&D is too high for one company—especially an SME—to bear, hence a shared model is favorable for all actors.” This is borne out by Foddis in that, “life sciences today account for 600 firms and 60,000 jobs. Lyon is now world number one for vaccines and diagnostics for humans and animals and one of the world’s leading vaccine production centers.”

Distinctively Lyon

Lyon is positioning itself not only as a biotech hub to rival that of Paris, but as an international heavyweight in the field, capable of challenging Amsterdam, London, Singapore, Boston, and Raleigh. Métropole de Lyon’s Kimelfeld highlights three specificities in Lyon that make it stand out from the crowd; “our complete chain of players from research to production and commercialization,” “the close link between human health and animal health, which for a lot of infectious diseases is very important,” and “the agility of the system … Lyon is not as large as Paris or Amsterdam but has a good healthcare and life sciences base and it is easy to develop connections and projects in this region.”

Philippe Archinard, president of Lyonbiopole feels that the region is “markedly different to other clusters because “of its foundation, which originates with large industries,” whereas “other clusters in France started for instance with a greater focus on academia and SMEs.” CCI Lyon’s Masurel pinpoints yet another string in the region’s bow by highlighting the fact that “Lyon has a strong entrepreneurial spirit, as it is a strong industrial region: the region is economically very important to the rest of France and first in many sectors; we may not have many decision centers, but we have always been driven towards innovation.”

Writer: Patrick Burton

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