Why do we believe in Nordic life science?

January 27, 2016 Guest Contributor

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Guest post by Anna Sandström, Science Relations Director, AstraZeneca


While my high-speed train whirls its way across the broadest part of Sweden, from Gothenburg to Stockholm I am finishing my dinner, and as I lift the glass I once again start to philosophize about why some people tend to see a half-empty glass, rather than a half-full glass. In the same way, why do so many of us always tend to have a romantic and glorified perception of the good old days, rather than embracing and feeling energetic about the possibilities of the future?


This kind of reflections have come regularly to me since I chose to join the largest biopharmaceutical company in Sweden a couple of years ago.


Yes, I agree, the former Swedish company Astra was a marvelous success story, especially during the last decade before it became a truly global company through the merger with Zeneca in 1999, when the proton pump inhibitor Losec became the world’s most selling medicine. The Swedish life science industry was also vibrant, cutting-edge and even leading within some therapy areas and in generating radically innovative medical devices back in the so-called good old days.


The reason I am not too sentimental about all of this may be because I watched it happen from the sideline, more as an observer, an analyst, in my previous job roles. Maybe that is also why I have a more optimistic view upon the future. Because, despite local footprint reductions in recent years I strongly believe in the potential and the future of life science in this part of the world.


We just need to widen our perspective a little bit.


When AstraZeneca in 2013 announced the site in Gothenburg as one of the company’s three strategic R&D hubs (the two others in the UK and US), a clear prerequisite for this was to be able to operate in the whole Nordic life science ecosystem—and to become a more active and dedicated player. We did not see the growth in Denmark, driven mainly by Novo Nordisk, but also companies like Lundbeck, as a threat, to us it rather meant increased possibilities. For instance, we concluded it would be easier to attract an international top scientist within the cardio-metabolic disease area to Gothenburg if he/she knew there would be realistic job alternatives in the region, the day they wanted to try their wings outside our company. That is what it looks like in the Bay Area, in greater Boston, the golden triangle in the UK and in the area around Basel in Switzerland, to mention some of the most well-known hot spots for life science around the globe.


However, a strong research and development base in both Sweden and Denmark does not take us all the way to becoming such a hot spot, although it is a good start.


Therefore, we looked further. We saw that the desire to develop new industries in order to prepare for the post-oil era in Norway had led to funding of promising life science research, especially within the oncology area, and that in Finland they have a number of exciting biotechs and startup companies and a will to try new, innovative treatments. When you add the well-developed patient records, biobanks, registers and academic institutions like Karolinska Institutet and Gothenburg University as well as several leading university hospitals, the region as a whole is no doubt getting interesting.


Our Nordic collaborative and non-hierarchical ways of working are also attractive to our type of business where cross-sector collaboration is instrumental to success. And we have seen several government initiatives to introduce more seamless ways to interact between academia, industry and the healthcare system. These initiatives can help us to harness the potential of the breakthrough science performed here. Our challenging discovery research is focused on not only treating the symptoms of disease but to cure, back or stop progression of disease. Public-private partnerships spur these endeavors.


However, we cannot just stand still and be satisfied; we need to collaborate more—and we need to collaborate better and smarter. We need to act, not just talk.


That is why we have intensified our academic collaborations within this region in the past few years. In fact, two of AstraZeneca’s largest academic collaborations are with Karolinska Institutet (around the unique Integrated Cardio Metabolic Center) and Science for Life Laboratory. Another recent example is the collaboration with the Wallenberg Centre for Protein Research.


That is also why we have taken an initiative to open up and discuss about the science we do; for example through a series of meetings we have called “Nordic Outreach,” where we have met with academia, smaller companies, policy makers and investors in Oslo, Copenhagen and Helsinki. And a meeting in Gothenburg will take place May 31, with a focus on SMEs.


It is also one of the drivers behind the decision to open up our R&D site in Gothenburg to emerging biotech and medtech companies as well as academic groups. At the BioVentureHub, 15 companies have now become part of a unique, open and collaborative scientific community with the same access to all facilities as AstraZeneca staff and without AstraZeneca having any stake in any of those companies.


We all need to see the possibilities, rather than continue to live in the past.


These initiatives are a start. There is more to come. From others and us. For the benefit of our company. For the benefit of other companies. For the benefit of the region.


And, most importantly: for the benefit of patients all around the world.


Meet executives from AstraZeneca and other large pharmaceutical companies looking for partners at BIO-Europe Spring® 2016 international partnering conference in Stockholm, Sweden, April 4–6, 2016.


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