After decades of investment, Catalonia has secured its healthcare and life sciences hub status, accounting for more than half of Spain’s pharma exports and with more clinical trials than any other region. The birthplace of many of the country’s pharma success stories, Catalonia boasts a strong scientific output by European standards.
The level of entrepreneurial spirit varies from region to region since some of them, due to historical reasons, were able to develop the full value chain and have people with expertise in the settings that allow biotechs to succeed; that is the case of Catalonia.
Ion Arocena, head of the Spanish Association of Biocompanies, AseBio
As the pandemic’s first wave of infections gained steam in Girona – a relatively small Catalan city near the French border – in March 2020, and hospitals filled and began to crash, local authorities started looking for diagnostic laboratories to confirm infections of the novel coronavirus. At that moment, Hipra, a low-profile yet hugely successful animal health company, was about to move some operations to a new laboratory in its headquarters.
One of the world’s top developers and producers of animal vaccines, the company had been operating numerous diagnostic laboratories for years, servicing animal health customers. Hipra was well-known locally, so local hospitals asked them for help with PCR tests. They started collaborating free of charge, providing more than 35,000 PCR tests.
It was not the first time that the company thought that its animal health expertise could be of service in human health, but it was not until the pandemic hit Girona that Hipra decided to make the jump. With the help of local authorities, started developing a human vaccine for the first time, a COVID-19 vaccine. As of early June 2022, the candidate is under rolling review by the EMA.
“We were encouraged by the local agency… to try to develop and produce a COVID-19 vaccine candidate. They supported the company from the very beginning and at a certain point we realised that the R&D, scaling-up and production of human and animal vaccines were not so different,” recalls Carles Fàbrega, Hipra’s managing director of its newly created Human Health division.
The episode could very well be a case study that illustrates why Catalonia has consolidated as Spain’s healthcare hub. The region has the strongest life sciences manufacturing base in the country, with many Hipra-like companies in both human and animal health, and an entrepreneurial mindset that enables those companies to pivot when the time comes in search of the next best thing.
“The level of entrepreneurial spirit varies from region to region since some of them, due to historical reasons, were able to develop the full value chain and have people with expertise in the settings that allow biotechs to succeed; that is the case of Catalonia,” says Ion Arocena, head of Spanish Association of Biocompanies, AseBio.
Judit Anido, CEO of CataloniaBio & HealthTech, concurs: “Historically, Catalonia has been entrepreneurial, and this mindset is in the DNA of the region. Furthermore, the Catalan health ecosystem has a high level of science developed in the region.”
Catalonia excels in research and clinical trials because of a unique ecosystem which is considered one of the best in Europe, ranking around 5th in the continent.”
Carlos Rubió, Chairman of Laboratorios Rubió
Catalonia represents more than 40 percent of the Spanish innovation capacity in life sciences, according to public-private foundation Biocat. The region’s healthcare and life sciences ecosystem is made up of over 1,200 companies and 89 research entities, generates EUR 34.2 billion each year and accounts for 7.3 percent of the regional GDP, and employs more than 230,000 workers.
The region is the second largest pharma market within Spain, behind Andalusia, and accounts for 15 percent of the total Spanish market by revenue, according to IQVIA.
Per 2020 data, Catalonia’s biotech and pharma pipeline is made up of 41 drugs and therapies in clinical development, seven of which are in phase III (Grifols, Almirall, and Salvat have two assets each, and Reig Jofre one). In addition, the autonomous community remains the main exporting region of life sciences products in Spain, accounting for over half of the country’s total exports in 2019.
The region’s healthcare has a clear momentum following the pandemic and continues to be one of the main industries for its economy. “Despite the pandemic, last year was exceptional,” says Robert Fabregat, CEO of Biocat, a public-private foundation in charge of promoting Catalonia’s health ecosystem. “Health startups in the BioRegion managed to raise EUR 238 million in 2021, a new record. The life sciences and healthcare system in Catalonia grew from representing 7.3 percent in 2018 to 8.7 percent of the region’s GDP in 2021.”
Different to other regions, Catalonia’s strength comes from a willingness to promote the private sector, as acknowledged by the Minister of Health of Andalusia, Jesús Aguirre. “Spain’s national healthcare system is characterized by universal access, quality and gratuity. It is a successful system that compares favorably against any other in the world, it is similar to the British model. Being decentralized, you can find different models depending on each region; there are some focused on the private sector such as Catalonia’s.”
After all, Catalonia is home to some of the largest Spanish pharmaceutical companies: Grifols – the global plasma giant –, Esteve, Almirall, and Ferrer.
“Catalonia’s production of successful companies is not an achievement made overnight, it is due to historical reasons and a distinct entrepreneurial culture… Catalonia excels in research and clinical trials because of a unique ecosystem which is considered one of the best in Europe, ranking around 5th in the continent,” believes the chairman of Laboratorios Rubió, Carlos Rubió.
Nevertheless, Mr. Rubió warns that a lack of resources could hinder the region’s further development.
“The issue remains the same, a lack of financial resources. It is truly a shame to see locally developed innovation that must venture into international markets in search of funding… While the Catalonian authorities are performing their duties as expected, not many things can be done without sufficient budget. The region strives to provide an above-average service, but it has a large deficit with the central government and is therefore unable to cover the expense.”
It is, after all, the most indebted region in Spain.