Good environment for life sciences
On first sight everything seems rather small in the Baltic country of Latvia: It has 1.4 million citizens, about 8,000 students and only 5 universities. However, there is another face to the the Republic of Latvia: it produced about 25% of pharmaceutical and biotechnology products for the former USSR, according to Guntis Rubins, director of the Latvian Investment and Development Agency, and thus has a strong scientific base. The number of students has risen from about 5,000 in 2005 to more than 8,000 in 2006. On top of this, GDP growth rate has reached 10% last year. Because Latvia is a small EU member state with regard to the numbers employed in its innovation system (around 4,000), a major challenge for the country is to achieve critical mass in key areas and – because the domestic market often is too small – to expand export. One of the six focus areas of research funded by the Latvian government is biotechnology. Despite being only 51 (2004: 28) Latvian life sciences SMEs, according to figures provided by the newly-formed Latvian Biotechnology Association, the country seems to be highly attractive for investors, especially with regard to CRO arrangements and technology commercialization partnerships. Most of all, Swedish biotechs have recognized that the monthly wages are low. A laboratory head in biochemistry spends around EUR900-1,200 per month. According to SwedenBio, Latvia has already attracted several Swedish companies.
Nearly all of the life science and biotechnology activities of Latvia, which is member of the Scanbelt network, are clustered around Latvia’s capital Riga. Recently, Jelgava has emerged as a second center, according to the Latvian Biotechnology Association. The centralized network of all the relevant players in Latvian biotechnology is due to begin its activities at the end of November (www.latbiotech.lv). One of the organization’s chief responsibilites will be as to give information, where Latvian R&D partners can be found.
This will be needed alongside the
existing companies many biomedical services are offered by academic institutions, such as the Institute of Organic Synthesis, which runs a huge proportion of the clinical trials carried out in Latvia, as well as drug development services. Currently, the main capacity of the native biotech sector is not primarily focused on the development of proprietary pharmaceutical compounds, but on the cost-effective formulation and manufacturing of compounds as well as on wood-processing biotechnology and biofuel production. A biofuel funding focus was launched in 2003 by the Latvian government.
Funding and Research
The research and commercialization focus is currently in the fields of bioinformatics, pharmaceuticals (e.g. manufacture of generics, pharmaceutical ingredients), biomedical equipment, nanobiotechnology, and biotech manufacturing, according to the Latvian Biotechnology Association (see table 1). Additionally, Latvia initiated the establishment of a large population biobank in 2003 with public funds of more than EUR600,000. Under the IP management of the Latvian Genome Foundation, the project aims to take coded samples together with blanket informed consent from 1 million individual donors by 2009 for research purposes. If this is achieved, the biobank would exceed the capacities of the UK biobank. High-end instrumentation for performing proteome, PCR- and SNP analyses have been already established under the coordination of the Biomedical Research and Study Centre, the largest institution for biomedical research in Latvia.
The Latvian research strategy spanning 1998 to 2010, called for a ‘national concept of research and development, and lists life sciences (e.g. bio-medicine or drug design) as a key area for Latvian R&D system development. Current priorities include:
– the establishment of competence centers for the purpose of greater university-industry collaboration.
– R&D grants (in 2004 public funding for biotech R&D amounted to approximately EUR942,000) and
– the establishment of ‘centers of excellence’ as condensation points for commercial activities.
Most R&D spending went to the Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis, with EUR432,000 (2004), followed by the Faculty of Biology at the University of Latvia (EUR400,000), Riga Technical University (EUR80,000), and the Latvian University for Agriculture (EUR20,000), which together are home to 2,000 biotech students and have an annual output of about 50 PhDs and more than 100 masters, according to the first mapping results of the ScanBalt Bioregion.
Selected research institutes
The top research players are the Biomedical Research and Study Centre (Riga), which runs the Latvian genome database, a person identification database, and is developing chimeric viral proteins as vaccine, diagnostic, and gene therapy tools.
The Institute of Microbiology and Biotechnology (University of Latvia) has a focus on biodegradable polymers, biotechnological conversion of renewable resources, and enzymatic conversion of sucrose.
The Latvian Institute of Organic Synthesis has worked out 17 original and more than 60 re-synthesized medicaments, as well as their manufacturing process.
The SIGRA institute at the Latvia University of Agriculture focuses on feed technology, and veterinary medicine.
The young biotech sector will benefit from its low loan costs and significant national support for the sector. Investments into biotech are particularly anticipated with regards to the EU structural funds. Although the venture capital market in Latvia is at an early stage of development, there are already around 35 private equity funds that offer venture capital for innovative start-up companies and which cover operations in the geographic territory of Latvia. They usually cover all Baltic states and were originally established by EU or USA owners.
Selected Latvian life sciences companies
Asla Biotech Ltd., Riga biotech services, gene synthesis, custom DNA/RNA services, protein
firstname.lastname@example.org expression, polyclonal and pre-immune sera, monoclonal antibodies, www.asla-biotech.com cell lines, NMR spectroscopy of proteins, contract research
Biosan Ltd., Riga developer of laboratory instruments for sample preparation
Biotechnical center JSC Manufacturer of bioreactors
ELMI Ltd., Riga developer of laboratory equipment for medicine and biology
GenEra Ltd. 2001 spin-off from Biomedical Research & Study Center focuses on
www.genera.lv molecular diagnostics; genotyping, and DNA services
Grindeks Pjsc founded 1946, development, manufacture of final dosage forms,
www.grindeks.lv and pharmaceuticals, CRO for clinical trials
Lariphana Ltd. Drug developer, Aniviral dsRNA drug Lariphan with immunomodu-
lating and antiproliferative activity
Olainfarm AS established 1972, pharmaceutical ingredients, medicaments producer, www.olainfarm.lv CRO for clinical trials