#TogetherAgainstCOVID19 - Interview with France Biotech

France Biotech has responded swiftly to the COVID-19 outbreak in France - read our interview with the association's Executive Director, Olivier Chabanon.

What role does your association play in the French Biotech ecosystem?

France Biotech is the French Association of innovative healthtech companies (biotech, medtech and e-health). We bring together the country’s leading companies in healthcare and expert partners and represent 300 companies and institutions in France.

France Biotech’s goal is to support the development of this industry in France by improving the legal, tax, financial, regulatory and managerial environment in which these companies operate and by advocating for their recognition as a leading-edge industry. Our core mission is to promote health innovation and help the sector’s start-up companies and SMEs to become successful organisations, capable of rapidly developing new therapeutic solutions and make them available and accessible to patients.

The COVID-19 pandemic requires collaboration across many fields, especially in the field of biotechnology. How can France and its vibrant biotech ecosystem contribute to the European response?

France has a long history of expertise and knowledge in various medical fields such as oncology, immunology, central nervous diseases and particularly in research against infectious diseases (diagnosis, vaccine development and treatments). The strength of public research institutions coupled with dynamic biotechnology companies with strong R&D programmes and the support of industrial partners make France one of the leading countries for contributing to the international response and R&D efforts. As soon as the crises hit, the response was almost immediate. In France for instance, over 30 French biotech and diagnostics SME started working on either treatment, vaccines, or diagnostic solutions. Some of these molecules are now in final stages of clinical trials.

On a European level, there has been cooperation and show of solidarity between member countries when dealing with procurement issues (medical equipment), and the clinical response with the transfer of critical care patients between neighbouring countries for instance. This collaborative effort has also been witnessed on a corporate level with alliances being forged between biotech and pharmaceutical companies: Sanofi / GSK partnership in vaccine development, Oxford University/AstraZeneca in the UK, Pfizer and BioNTech in Germany. France is playing and will keep playing a key role for the development of diagnostic solutions, vaccine research and treatments in response to the outbreak.

Many biotech companies across Europe have responded and show promising and highly innovative approaches in finding treatment against the virus. How did European-wide collaboration support these developments?

Collaboration is part of the DNA of biotech companies, whether it is for partnerships with academic research institutions for early stage research or licensing and co-development with pharmaceutical and industrial partners. For instance, today half of French biotech companies were created based on research and IP developed by academic or public labs and over 1/3 of collaborations of French biotech companies are undertaken with international stakeholders. Europe is composed of a dense network of research institutes and dynamic companies working together on developing solutions, whether it is for diagnostics, vaccine development or treatments against the virus. The European Commission has also reacted swiftly to the crisis in January 2020 by launching a dedicated fund through the Horizon 2020 programme to fund research on the coronavirus. The multi-country clinical trial DISCOVERY is another example of European wide collaboration and international efforts in speeding up the discovery of innovative solutions.

France Biotech reacted quickly to support the healthcare system in France and especially patients with chronic diseases by initiating the Health Innovation Coalition. Could you tell us more about this project?

The Health Innovation Coalition “Coalition Innovation Santé”, was initiated by France Biotech and three partners and associations. At the start of the epidemic in France (march 2020), physicians contacted France Biotech and raised the pressing issue of patients with chronic diseases (diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, cancer patients...) not being able to receive their treatments or follow-up at the point of care (hospitals), one of the reasons being that these patient populations were particularly vulnerable to the Covid-19 virus and could not risk being exposed. There was a need to identify all digital and ehealth solutions which would allow these patients to continue interacting with physicians and healthcare teams; digital and logistic solutions allowing tracing of medical equipment and samples were also in high demand. The Coalition was launched and with the help of an operator and partners including France Digitale, AstraZeneca and Medtech in France, over 100 projects from startups were submitted in 48 hours. Following the initial launch of the coalition, over 50 partners joined the coalition, including many pharmaceutical companies as well as patient associations. In the space of a few weeks, over 1 million euros were collected to fund the last steps of development of these innovative start-ups and projects. From the 400 + projects submitted, 20 were selected and benefited, when needed, of funding opportunities to launch their products and solutions for physicians and healthcare providers. This allowed hospitals and healthcare providers to benefit from solutions rapidly and to allow key players such as pharma to discover the fantastic range of innovation generated by startups in digital health. This great mobilisation of all stakeholders contributed, on a small scale, to help chronic disease patients benefit from innovative solutions rapidly, keep them as safe as possible and to limit the potential collateral damages of this crisis (lack of diagnosis, lack of follow-up etc.). It also demonstrated the swiftness, reactivity, and implication of all stakeholders of the value chain and how quickly these actors (biotech, pharma, ehealth, hospitals, patient associations...) were cable of mobilising during an emergency, all for a common goal.

In biotech R&D activities, collaboration and joint efforts come naturally in order to achieve successful outcomes. What role do national associations play in supporting start-ups and small-and medium sized companies in their search for innovative biotech solutions?

National associations in biotechnology play both a catalyst role and an advocacy role. Firstly, they act as a network, allowing people to meet, connect, share ideas and benefit from expertise, business development and financial opportunities, with the common goal of making innovative, effective, and safe products available to patients. Secondly, through their advocacy role national associations aim to ensure the best environment for biotechnology and innovative technology companies, allowing them to develop and grow, thereby securing highly-skilled jobs, contributing to the economy and increasing value for all stakeholders involved. Biotech companies involved in healthcare have the privilege to develop treatments and solutions that can save lives and diminish the burden of disease globally, a noble cause. Our role is to communicate both to the public and to decision makers and authorities - on National and European levels - on the tremendous benefits and potential of these technologies. By setting up the right policy framework, by encouraging innovation, investment and by communicating on both the economic and societal values of this thriving industry, national associations are a key representative for the biotech sector and indirectly for our future wellbeing.

The longer-term effects of the crisis on biotechnology in Europe can hit small-and medium sized companies and start-ups hardest. What necessary steps need to be taken to prevent this?

On the short-term, the immediate response by the French Government and administration was to help companies pass this crisis, particularly SMEs in order to preserve jobs as much as possible by setting up a furlough scheme and by providing financial help for companies and securing loans, reimbursement of research tax credits. Like many sectors of the industry, biotech companies have been hit hard. One of the major impacts relates to the delays experienced by research, delays for clinical trials, postponement of R&D milestones, and resulting delays for the time to market of companies, where speed and market access are key.As a representative for start-ups and SME, we have actively informed our members of all the measures put in place (tax reductions, loans, funding opportunities…) and have been quantifying the impact on the short and medium term for our member companies.

At a European level, the recovery plan announced could also be useful for biotech companies. Funding is key for our industry. With long development times and large capital requirements, healthtech companies rely largely on private equity and financial markets for securing their capital needs. One of the upsides of this crisis however, if there is one, has been on the importance of health and well-being in our society. In the last few months, both the research and healthcare communities have benefited from strong visibility, stronger than ever before, and have been consulted on major issues related to public health policy.

Medical research, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals are now seen as having a crucial role in our society by developing diagnostics, treatments and vaccines, technologies that were taken for granted ; companies are starting to be recognised as key players for improving the well-being of individuals and we hope that interest in these life-changing and life-saving technologies will continue to be acknowledged. We hope that this crisis has helped shift mindsets and has demonstrated the importance of supporting innovation and treatment development. One way to help secure this is by encouraging the creation of larger funds in Europe and particularly late-stage funds and by mobilising institutional investors to invest in these funds. Finding the right incentives for investment will be one of the key challenges in the decade to come whilst making those solutions available to patients will be the other.

Olivier Chabanon is the Secretary General of France Biotech. Prior to joining the association in March 2019, Olivier carried out most of his professional career in the financial sector, mainly with HSBC, where he has held several management positions. He holds a Masters degree in business law and a Masters in Management.