InConversation: HMi meets… Sylvie Ponchaut, MD of BioWin

Sylvie Ponchaut, MD of BioWin

BioWin, the health cluster in Wallonia, Belgium, has a mission to accelerate the innovation that meets tomorrow’s public health challenges and develop the knowledge, employment and competitiveness of all players in the health sector ecosystem.

It is the regional reference for all stakeholders in health, biotech and medtech research and innovation projects and brings together all the innovation players in Wallonia’s life sciences field, with the goal of stimulating regional economic redeployment. There are 250 members from the private, public and academic sectors.

In 2025, a European Biotech Campus aimed at developing healthtech talent and to support start-ups and scale-ups will open for business. Offering state-of-the-art infrastructure and services it will be the home of a new on-campus multi-operator and multi-partner professional training centre and business accelerator dedicated to the development of talents, skills and businesses in the biotech and health industries.

In preparation, BioWin – with the support of the Walloon government and private companies – is spearheading ‘Talent Now’, an initiative to tackle recruitment shortages and challenges in the healthtech industry. Public and private parties (including GSK, UCB, Univercells, ThermoFisher, Takeda and Janssen) are joining forces to respond to the specific and urgent requirement for talent in the biotechnology and healthtech sectors.

‘Talent Now’ was developed based on the outcome of a quantitative and qualitative study on the needs of biopharma, medical technology and data science companies. The study highlighted the shortage of diverse profiles at different education levels in large, medium and small companies. Roles in high demand include scientists, project managers, engineers, production technicians, operators and developers.

Key findings revealed that 50% of the required jobs are in biomanufacturing and 30% – 40% in R&D activities, indicating the high potential for development in the sector

The three-year project, has three main objectives: to develop a talent recruitment strategy/increase the pool of available talent; to centralise the recruitment and development demands of the industry and develop hiring and training solutions with companies, operators and the network; and to increase synergies between players in the field of continuing education and training to stimulate and reinforce collaboration

Rising digital importance

The biopharmaceutical industry is the region’s main driver of economic growth, accounting for 34% of Wallonia’s total exports, and the region has become a recognised player in the research and development of innovative biotherapies. It is one of Europe’s leading biomanufacturing centres.

Maintaining its position in a highly competitive international market, Walloon’s biomanufacturing sector needs to integrate innovative solutions into its production methods. As such, BioWin, with partners CETIC and essenscia wallonie, has launched BioMan, a new project dedicated to the digitalisation of bioprocesses to improve the competitiveness of manufacturing companies using advanced digital technologies.

HMi caught up with Sylvie Ponchaut, BioWin’s managing director, to find out how more about these projects.

HMi: How would you summarise the role of BioWin?

Sylvia Ponchaut: BioWin is a health competitiveness cluster. The cluster was created 15 years ago as an initiative of the government with strong supported by industry.

BioWin, one of five clusters in Belgium, went to Wallonia in 2006, where the region already had a critical mass of academic and industrial expertise. We have a mission to consolidate the ecosystem.

The first type of activity we develop in the cluster is collaborative research and development. In a nutshell, we open calls for projects twice a year, and companies and academia are invited to submit research proposals. The cluster selects the best project proposals and submits them to the government.

We select the best project proposals, but the government decides whether to fund them or not. But 85% of the projects we’ve submitted to the government have been funded.

HMi: How do you choose?

SP: We have clearly defined selection criteria, essentially focused on scientific excellence, economic impact and feasibility. The science and economic impact represent the basis of the decision.

The process is conducted by independent experts that meet with the candidates, which have 90 minutes to pitch their project and to answer questions. It’s important for us to have international experts that are really up to date in the topic of the project proposal.

We have a strong selection process, with very clear criteria and international independent experts.

HMi: What is your key focus?

SP: We essentially focus on biotech and biopharma, but we also include med tech – it’s a health cluster so med tech is included, and we have more and more companies active in the development of medical devices, and in vitro diagnostics in Wallonia.

More and more projects are based on digital health ‒ in patient data, in artificial intelligence. And we have a critical mass of companies and expertise in nuclear medicine – radiopharma and radiodiagnostics, because we have companies and clinical and academic experts in the field.

To summarise, its biopharma including bio manufacturing; it’s med tech and digital; it’s radiation. They all apply to us. They are all clustered around the Wallonia region and that’s where we have strength.

Our second mission is talent development, and that’s where we have ‘Talent Now’. We need to ensure a qualified workforce in Wallonia because it’s critical to the growth prospects of the companies in the cluster.

So, we work with high schools and universities – in collaboration with players in the field –  to develop talent.

We also have an international mandate. The government asks us to represent the region outside of the country, so we play a part in creating visibility abroad for the biotech sector in the country and the region. We also organise networking events in collaboration with some international bodies where they have a critical mass of similar industries and complementary expertise.

We are charged with being better connected to other ecosystems.

And the last obligation we have is to help members with fundraising. We help companies with their business plans, help them prepare the pitch and provide access to our large network of investors in Belgium and abroad.

The full mission is research and innovation; talent development; international activities; and support for the companies.

HMi: Are you funded by the Belgian government?

SP: Yes. Not by the federal government but it’s the regional government that oversees this kind of activity. There is a European rule that says European clusters must obtain half of their resources from private revenue.

HMi: Is it difficult to find funding from the private sector?

SP: It was difficult to begin with. When we started, we were 100% subsidised by the government, but we’ve been forced to modify our business model to be compliant with the European rules.

We have membership fees; we benefit from consultancy fees from any firm in the consortia that obtains funding from the government; we get a fee for helping to develop project proposals; and we also collect a success fee when we are involved in helping companies raise money from investors. We also earn some revenue from holding events and we have some sponsorship from strategic partners, such as Deloitte.

We are lucky to have a strong pharma sector in Belgium – and in Wallonia in particular, so it was not too complicated. It took as three years to reach that 50/50 balance, but it didn’t prove too difficult.

HMi: Do you take stakes in any of these companies?

SP: No. No investment.

HMi: What challenges does the industry face?

SP: The first challenge is sourcing talent. The number of FTE working for of members since 2006 has more than doubled. We were close to 10,000 direct FTE in 2006 and now we are at 20,000 in Wallonia. If you take the indirect and indirect jobs, we reach 50,000 full time equivalent working for companies in the cluster. And this does not include people in academia, those in research centres and people in hospitals – we have a lot of people working in clinical research in Belgium and we are number one in Europe.

So, 50,000 people working for the sector today, and we expect that over the next three years we will need another 3,000 full time equivalent in the sector.

It’s across the whole range of production activities, essentially because of the industrialisation of these bio products and the development of different CDMOs in Wallonia that has created a lot of employment in the region. We need 800 to 1,000 full time equivalent per year.

So, it’s very important to update the different universities and high schools about this situation. It’s important to federate the entities in charge of long-life training and, probably, it will be necessary to recruit outside of Belgium. That’s the reason why we created this public private partnership with different companies where they have problems recruiting talent.

They have decided to materialise some processes and to work in collaboration with different organisations to develop a new project portfolio, to digitalise some content and to use innovative ways of developing talent, with augmented reality or virtual reality, for example. This project has agreed ambitions.

It’s a short-term project, because after the Talent Now project ends, there is another big initiative underway in Wallonia: the development of a European biotech campus. We are currently developing the buildings and the infrastructure to be ready for opening in 2025.

BioWin was asked to develop Talent Now to be ready for when the campus opens in 2025.

The close proximity will benefit the research and development efforts there. It will entice talent into the campus.

HMi: How is the project progressing?

SP: We started on the project last December, working closely with six industrial partners and the government. It’s interesting to see that companies are ready to invest not only money but time to help us in developing a portfolio of training sessions. Government support is also key; they have dedicated some experts to the project.

There is a lot of enthusiasm surrounding the project. The public and the private partners are really motivated.

So now, we have defined the roadmap and we’re ready to get going. We’re on the starting block and ready to implement the operation.

It’s a pleasure to work on the project because there is a clear need for training in the ecosystem, and I’m delighted that we have decided to share what we develop within the group with the wider market. What we develop is not only for the six industrial partners in the consortium, but also for the benefit of the entire ecosystem.

HMi: How do you see the cluster developing?

SP: We see opportunities in areas where we have a competitive advantage, where we have strong R&D operations in different fields, for different indications, with different therapeutic approaches.

There are a lot of opportunities in collaborative projects, ones that include academia and industry, in the development of innovative industrial processes dedicated to the development of vaccines, of biologics. So, vaccines, monoclonal antibodies, cellular therapy, Advanced Therapy Medicinal Products (ATMP).

Companies have improved a lot of traditional production processes using data and artificial intelligence to create efficiencies and to ensure continuous manufacturing. Digitalisation is an essential innovation angle if Wallonia wants to consolidate its place among the European leaders in biomanufacturing

In Wallonia, we have large companies, like GSK, but we also have many CDMOs and M&A activity in the global CDMO sector has been increasing since the pandemic.

MaSTherCell was acquired by Catalent here on the campus and acquired Delphi Genetics the following year. Those transactions may have consolidated the landscape, but we still have many very innovative midsize companies on site in such a small region.

Innovation and digitalisation of industrial processes is clearly a strength for us as we move towards industry 4.0.