Heard in Brussels

A couple of outraged philisophical questions
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A couple of outraged philisophical questions

15.02.2012 - Europe likes to make life hard, creating situations where an idea must struggle mightily before it can achieve success, even when there is amore straightforward route (just look at the euro). Of course, in the world of biotechnology, this maxim can be applied pretty much everywhere (as we are masochistsin this trade), but the focus of my musings today are the topics of GMOs and embryonic stem cells.

Both have received hundreds of millions of euros from the public purse, yet continue to deliver a big fat zero to the European economy due to sloth and indecision on the part of those that control their fates. 

In the case of GMOs, it has long been obvious that Europe was never going to bean economic generator for its research.The question for Europe is - why did we continue to invest public money in GMO technologies targeted at the field if wewere never going to get it back? Europe is now so far behind the rest of the world in food-crop GM technology that a euro spent is a euro wasted. We should have had the strength to either counteract anti-GMO claims immediately (too late now) or call the political bluff and say "stop the research funding for field-based GMOs." But instead, Europe did what Europealways does, creeping down the middlepath, trying to offend nobody while building a sub-optimal R&D base with no exploitation.

You might be asking yourself what has triggered this contemplation from somebody who usually supports biotech in all it's many forms. It was the closure of BASF Plant Science, at a German research base that has been open since 1914. This was no closure on an epic scale, just 140 jobs, but it tells you that the life has bled slowly from commercial research in Europe until the company finally just called it a day and went off to live in America. So Europe - spend your money on building a biotech sector that delivers a benefit you can measure, don't wait for it to die quietly while you fanny about appeasing politicians who are chasing re-election.

That brings me to the 2011 embryonic stem cell ruling - you must have heard me rolling my eyes from the other side of Brussels when that was announced. Welldone Europe! Once again we have taken a technology where the EU had a leg upand killed its commercial potential. This time it wasn't even due to a public outcry. European citizens generally like the idea of stem cells - they can see the possible benefits and understand in general what they do. But if the ruling isn't overturned, you might as well cancel the funding. If Europe cannot benefit economically, then there is no point in funding the science.There isn't enough money to fund biotech where the door is closed to a return. The sector has spent decades persuading people to part with large sums of cash for high-risk technology, and it cannot justify its existence if the gate to clinic and market has been shut.

http://www.european-biotechnology-news.com/people/heard-in-brussels/2012-01/a-couple-of-outraged-philisophical-questions.html

23.12.2014 We have a new set of European Commissioners, and I thought that in this issue, it would be very nice to have a look at one of them through the lens of biotechnology. Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation Carlos Moedas is our man, and a quick look at his bio shows that he combines origins in engineering with a career in banking and real estate. You may interpret that as you will in terms of usefulness to the world of science.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

I was going to give a detailed analysis of Jean-Claude’s invitation letter to Carlos, but to be honest, it was so full of titles like ‘Commissioner in charge of Better Regulation, Inter-institutional Relations, the Rule of Law and the Charter of Fundamental Rights’ (yes, my friends that is a job) – that I thought we would just write our own letter of appointment to Mr. Moedas so that he knows what he needs to do. Here goes …

Dear Carlos,

You’re becoming a Commissioner in the new EC at a particularly challenging time for the European Union. As well as doing all the standard stuff – such as liking Europe, looking smart on the television and not fiddling expenses – we, the scientific community, would very much like you to prioritise the following activities in your portfolio:

1. Linking together research and infrastructure planning and funding at the European, national and regional levels, so that the next scientific breakthrough can be developed quickly to market/field or patient, rather than floating about until somebody from the US or China decides they will do it instead and the European taxpayer subsidises profits somewhere else and then has to buy the final product.

2. Making the best use of Europe’s brains by opening up the often clogged scientific pipeline between school, university and the wide world of biotech, and ensuring that talents are not lost for any reason throughout careers.

3. Empowering SMEs further to drive innovation into commercial reality, plus recognising where the skills and financial gaps are and plugging them.

4. Stop asking nicely for private investment in science and incentivise it to be an integral part of investment portfolios.

5. Ensure that when you spend public money on science, you spend wisely, spend big and spend consistently – big words and small money do not deliver crops, medicine or energy.

6. Join it all up. In a complex and fast-changing world, the bottlenecks often have little to do with the science and everything to do with a lack of money, regulatory barriers, access to downstream partners and getting the right skills at the right time.

To help you fulfil your responsibilities, the whole scientific community in Europe will guide you on your way. You are just about to find out what a passionate sector you serve. We look forward to working with you on the next step needed by Europe’s scientific community.

Yours sincerely

All of Us

Well, that should do it.


28.10.2014 This summer saw the first deadline for the new SME Instrument, and the evaluation feedback from the European Commission could be a wake-up call for small companies across Europe.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

The funding programme aims to accelerate SME development and help them bridge the financial valley of death. With up to €5m in funding available and no need for the usual EU consortium, this is a tempting opportunity.

Plenty of SMEs applied, and a select few made it into the €50,000 feasibility stage. However plenty did not and there was some strong feedback from the European Commission on why not, which was unusually direct ("just trying their luck, it's not a lottery"). This could be seen as a critical review of European SMEs in general, as Europe still strives to make viable business from science.

One of the key feedbacks was that SMEs focused too much on the science and not enough on the business, and we have all been around long enough in this sector to know that this is the case in many small companies. Fresh-faced from the lab and secure in the knowledge that their science is amazing, there is often much less attention paid to how you are actually going to sell that science, when it will earn its money, and who will pay for it. And this despite original business plans so big they could stop an elephant. This aspect was further reinforced by evaluator feedback on a lack of knowledge about competitors and just proposing a scientific idea without a pathway mapped out for its commercialisation.

The proposal guide-
lines were clear – they asked for specific business information. And applicants would have been wise to recognise the significance of what was requested. The bigger question is, does this reflect the business capability of European biotech SMEs? In building original business plans to gain seed funding, SME founders frequently get professional support, particularly first time CEOs, but are they actually able to implement a plan and turn it into reality? Or do they revert to being awestruck by the science itself, pointing and exclaiming “just look at that, who wouldn’t buy that?” Has the European SME sector managed to mature from its early days in the 1990s, when it really started to blossom as a business platform and suck up money? These are questions that may not bring comfortable thought processes to many, myself included. 

However, the SME Instrument, inspired by the SBIR programme in the US, could be a critical tool in forcing the business evolution of SMEs, particularly those piloted by CEOs new to the game. Nothing focuses the mind like chasing money, and if the SME Instrument makes people actually implement the business behind science, then the SMEs that triumph in the much sought-after project applications can only help Europe in its quest for business maturity.

26.06.2014 The launch of Horizon2020 and close of the first deadlines in February has shown the appetite of Europe’s researchers from industry and academia for funding.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

A huge number of applications were received, particularly for the two-stage applications, where success rates are as low as 4% for some topics. And pass rates could remain low even at Stage 2.

A silver lining

This is scary news at first glance, but we have to look at it in multiple ways. First, these were the first deadlines after a break between FP7 and H2020, so people had been waiting awhile for the Framework carousel to start turning again. Second, the two-stage application process opens the door to a huge number of speculative attempts at Stage 1, where the application is short. In some ways it’s annoying to think a half-developed idea could beat a carefully crafted effort. Indeed, exactly that has happened to enough EBN Member proposals.

Feeding the European fire

When you look at the big picture, however, you have to feel positive. Horizon 2020 is highly focussed on exploitation and raised impact. If evaluators are spoiled for choice with proposals that can deliver economic returns from biotech, then we can’t complain too much. Goodness knows Europe needs to deliver money back into the system from maturing biotechnology. I’m not talking about the kind of money that comes from the acquisition of an SME for a fraction of the public money that has been poured into making it ripe for purchase, but the genuine maturation of value within Europe. These short Stage 1 proposals also enable people new to EC funding to dip a toe in the water. Much better a failed Stage 1 proposal that gets you thinking about working in partnership and moving your technology forward than no effort at all because a full proposal was too difficult. Failed Stage 1 proposals need to keep their chins up – after all, you’ve started a journey, found some new friends and there are many adventures that beckon.

From small beginnings

The big question coming up is how the new SME Instrument performs. Part of me trembles at the thought of how many applications are cooking and how many will be disappointed. The rest of me is excited – at last, something to drive SMEs forward, masters of their own destiny! We’re cautiously circling the first deadlines in June, and I would imagine that the EC is also waiting with terror in its heart so see what the application process yields, and whether they’ll have to get extra USB sticks out of the cupboard to store all the applications. If you feel any tremors in cyberspace on June 25, you will know the SME Instrument has delivered a bouncing big baby into the nervous arms of its midwife.

20.05.2014 There are sinister moves in the world of data protection, and I need to mobilise you – my crack squad of guerrilla scientists. The EC is showing its ugly face, and it’s going to impact you.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

A new data protection regulation is being pushed through by the Commission, and it isn’t fighting fair. This is a regulation, not a directive like the one it replaces, and will be implemented word for word into national law, overwriting years of carefully developed legislation that protects consumers and science.

The regulation frankly sucks, and could have been written by a bunch of monkeys with typewriters. It potentially restricts access to data on a huge scale for research, and displays a profound lack of legal clarity or understanding of data use in science. It is so badly written that it will create legal uncertainty around any research carried out using pseudonimised or sensitive data, threatening products or processes from such research – a real killer for investment and exploitation. It will affect all research, so don’t feel smug if you are reading this from a university.

The ’ugly face’ is the strange situation where amendments from worried national governments appear to be sliding out of text prepared by the European Commission, which is very kindly helping out the current Presidency with some extra admin ’support’. Parliament is also confusing the scandal of data access by government security agencies with the use of data in research, and will vote through a draconian regulation that does nothing to stop the NSA reading your email and everything to stop you using data derived from patients, biobanks, etc.

Many governments oppose this, but run the risk of generating headlines about failing to protect their citizens. As we are close to elections, there is an almost tragic resignation to the fact that this regulation will come into effect, and efforts are being aimed at damage limitation rather than creating something genuinely useful. It is like replacing a brain surgeon with a child holding a blunt spoon. It didn’t always go right before, but it sure as hell is going to go wrong now.

This is a ridiculous and dangerous situation. European Commission, please listen to national concerns and improve this regulation. Make it legally strong, bring in specific, more sophisticated reference to the use of data in science, and listen to the countries that have spent years developing exactly this kind of legislation – they know what they are talking about. You are supposed to serve Europe, not impose your own underdeveloped opinions through a misuse of process.

And you, my fearless warriors, contact your MEP, your national government and your newspapers and tell them what this regulation will do to science in Europe. Make them bold enough to do something about it while they still can. If not, then the last one out of the lab should turn out the lights.

As we all know, the European Commission is under intense pressure to reduce costs and shed the image of being a gravy train. This is a favourite topic at the national level in the ongoing fight against the reign of terror from Brussels.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

The irony is that the era of eye­watering salaries and mansions on leafy avenues actually ended some time ago. While there are still plenty of Commission people who live very well ­– courtesy of getting their feet under the table back in the old days – many new staff face short contracts, lower wages and substantially less sexy perks. I am all for the European Commission employing people on a realistic level (i.e. like the rest of us), but I am having problems with additional changes in structure that somebody thought was an 'efficiency'.

One cut too many?

The EC is a huge funding body, driving innovation and industrial development across Europe. To do that, it needs passionate and motivated staff who are integrated into the heart of the scientific process. Based on what I have seen myself and heard from plenty of others, the increased use of external agencies to administer project funding isn’t serving collaborative research well. Sure, the agencies come cheaper and let the EC talk about reducing costs, but the direct result is that you get people paid to administer – not to add value to – world­class research collaborations.

Another irony is that there is a queue of people 10km long wanting to work for the Commission, and it includes talented scientists and project managers. So why make them just administer project reports? Managing collaborative research is really hard, we all know that, so why not invest a bit more to ensure that it actually works? These guys would work on the same salaries as you pay external staff. In fact, I bet that those external staff would jump at the chance to stretch their brains beyond correctly completed personnel tables.

Investing in results

The fact is that the European Commission will always take the heat for national issues. It is a useful whipping boy on any aspect of money because its budgets are so huge, and it always looks shifty because its answers are necessarily complicated. The Commission is not going to win any debates at national level, regardless of how much it cuts budgets, so it should stand up and say that it is proud to have skilled Project Officers working as partners with the projects that it funds. Then those projects have the maximum chance of delivering the results that they were funded to achieve, while the Directorates delivering the funding can also see the fruits of their labour and assess the effectiveness of their policies.

01.04.2014 Shhhhh, is that the sound of a chicken coming home to roost in Switzerland? Worried? If you are a scientist working internationally, you should be – and not just because you want a job in Switzerland.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

The result of the recent referendum on quotas for immigrants to the alpine country sounded a lot like the usual grumblings of discontent about how Brussels ruins your life by letting foreigners steal your jobs. Usually things like this have little real fall-out. This time however, there was a potentially disastrous impact for science in Switzerland almost immediately. The failure of the Swiss government to sign a free movement deal with Croatia - a direct result of the referendum - suspended talks for Swiss access to Horizon 2020.

Unintended consequences

I'll bet my last euro that this was not a topic of conversation when Swiss citizens were weighing up how to vote, and it is a massive wake-up call for all of us. The Swiss debate reflects arguments going on in our own countries, and the frankly disgracefully low turn-outs in elections. Voter apathy leaves the floor clear for people with 'interesting' views to shout loudly, and as they also tend to be keen voters, they often win. The Brits reading this will recognise the booming call of the swivel-eyed loon as it stalks the marshes of the south, and know the danger out there in the mist. If you are a scientist anywhere in Europe, you need to stand up and fight for the amazing scientific platform that it brings, and do some shouting of your own on why it is essential to vote to protect it. Switzerland has in fact done us a favour before the impending European elections by providing an example of what happens when you can't be bothered to vote, think that a sensible result must come anyway, or that results won't affect you. European science has already been hit by the repercussions of the Swiss referendum, years before the idiots that drove the yes campaign manage to implement quotas of any description. I want you to promise me now that you will start telling people how the science they need to save their lives, reduce pollution, grow their food and drive their economies (and cars) is delivered by international partnerships - a benefit that greatly outweighs a perceived blight upon their lives from people with different accents who might need to go to the doctor once in a while.

Every voice of reason counts

I also want you to promise that you will cast your vote in the European elections in May. It is time for scientists to rule the world, we can't trust anybody else to do it. As the great popular music combo Faithless would say, "inaction is a weapon of mass destruction". So head for the polls, my fearless warriors, and let the world hear our voice.

17.02.2014 I am spoiled for choice this month on things that make me happy about biotech. Three things have happened across Europe that confirm the field has great people that work hard, recognise the truth when it is kicking you in the ankle and aren’t afraid to try something different.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

Putting your money where your mouth was

The first was the news that the late Professor Sir Kenneth Murray, founder of Biogen, left £9m to the Darwin Trust of Edinburgh, and £2m to the Royal Society and various other organisations to support young biologists in doctoral studies. Here is a man who enriched the science and business of biotechnology throughout his career, and is now – even after his death – enabling promising scientists to follow his pathway in the best way … with hard cash. Professor Murray, we salute you and take a good hard stare at all those slightly less-deceased scientists who have made their money from mega-deals and exits. We know who you are, so if you are feeling both generous and perhaps slightly unwell, now is the time to reach for the quill and inkpot and make that gesture. Your kids won’t thank you, but we will.

A little ray of Golden sunshine?

Next is the great news that there is some positive spin in the press on GM crops, or at least something that moves the argument temporarily into a sphere of reality.  It is always welcome, even when both sides are masters of the PR (dark) art. People should think about the impact of crops such as Golden Rice on the health of people in economies far different from their own. Block this, actively denying nutrition to millions that need it based on your own principles – when you yourself have enough to eat – and what kind of person are you becoming? Someone who pushes over old people when they are indecisive in queues? Oh wait, that last one was me.

Good things come to those that mess about in labs

If proven to be replicable, the news that stem cells can be created just by dipping blood cells into acid is a great example of two things: (1) that it is critical to persevere with potentially great science, and (2) that you should always dream that you can have a breakthrough doing something really simple. Sometimes life is good like that.
So January was generous with great reports (apart from the being dead bit in the first story) and I have demonstrated all the impetuosity of a genius scientist by jamming them all into one test tube and heating it, rather than spreading them out over three sensibly planned columns. See you next time, and let’s hope that the gods of interesting science are as active in February as they were in January.

12.12.2013 Welcome to December, and a rather nautical analogy this month. I don’t mean the title of this piece literally of course – messing with nature is what biotech is supposed to do (in a well thought-out and good way, of course) and I stand up to be counted with all those people who mess about with what nature and evolution have so kindly provided.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

I’m referring instead to politicians who are seeking, with the best of intentions, to support the biotech sector and impose their own rather rosy view of what companies should look like. Trying to say what a biotech company should be is like trying to get a straight answer from a 10 year old to the question: “Why the hell did you do that?” You’ll get a different response every time, and it’ll be influenced by the least predictable of factors.

Navigating stormy seas

I have seen a number of politicians confuse high-risk, early-stage biotechs with 100-year-old engineering firms that have a Bentley parked outside. The mission of a biotech company is not to develop a firm with hundreds of employees (although that would be a nice side effect) but to deliver the firm’s technology to its destination. A company is a vessel for the precious technology that it holds. A firm is not the deliverable, but rather the small and leaky boat that must navigate a stormy sea. The current destination may not even be the final one. The goal might for example be a transfer to a larger boat, and a captain with a more luxuriant beard.

Too many politicians view a company’s size and age as the deliverable – but why would this be the case? You might keep your company afloat for 20 years, but if you delivered your product to its destination 10 years ago and you are now just bobbing about, then why does it still exist? If your technology is a platform rather than a product, that is a different question, of course – in that case, the technology is the very fabric of the company. But you can only continue to sail your boat if she is watertight, you have a good set of charts and there is a fair wind in your sails.

An eye on the Horizon

And this is where the politicians have to wise up. Don’t throw grant money at a company with your mission to attend its 20th Christmas party. Instead, give it to the company with a mission to celebrate the successful delivery of its cargo to its destination. And don’t worry about what happens to empty boats lost at sea. There are ZERO examples of successful entrepreneurs retiring and doing nothing. Most just end up building new boats, growing bigger beards and heading off on the next voyage.

So target the cargo, not the boat and those sunny shores of Europe’s biotechdreams won’t be far away. Leave the safety of the harbour and see where your voyage takes you.

19.11.2013 Hurrah for the news that a GM yeast has been developed that can convert crop waste into biofuel! Not just because this is an awesome thing in its own right (which it is), but also because it opens up the intriguing thought that we could start using those rascals to do lots of things that GM-doubters would like.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

This piece is not technically about something ‘Heard in Brussels‘ – rather a stream of consciousness from the inside of my head – but as my head is in Brussels, that will have to do.

What would we really like GMOs to be able to do? And what would instantly open the door to their warm embrace by people who previously thought that little Petronella would be intellectually stunted if a morsel of food sourced from a GMO passed her lips? Here I am specifically referring to the well-meaning monsters who feed their children organic beetroot-paste sandwiches (ignoring in the process their human rights by denying them actual food).

The brave new world of synthetic biology opens the door to any kind of GM capability that we like, so here‘s a few ideas on how we could sell it as the must-have middle class accessory for the following applications:

 By turning that supermarket T-shirt you guiltily bought for  Euro 2 into an organic, ethically-produced shirt, hand-woven by well-fed adults somewhere sunny that isn‘t falling down, war-torn or underwater

  By transforming your electric car from a mobile ‘rainforest resources on wheels‘ into something that has the energy footprint of a teenager on a sofa on a Saturday morning

  By enabling your local farming system to produce hummus, tahini, South American wine, and all those other things without which you can‘t have dinner parties, and so have to ship from the other side of the world, which rather rains on the ‘local produce only‘ parade embodied in that beetroot paste

  By converting fashionable gluten and dairy-free yoghurt from a habitat-destroying, palm-oil containing crime against food into something that makes you thin whilst containing ingredients that you have actually heard of

  By turning those delicious prawns from the product of a miserable, polluted swamp on the other side of the world into happy seafood that just fell asleep and was harvested by smiling artisan fishermen from the crystal waters of a tropical lagoon. That will probably do it. So boffins, rather than focussing on the undoubted evil of reducing use of pesticides and producing nutritionally superior rice, can you focus on all the critical things that blight the life of suburban Europeans? Then we can embrace GM technology, or at least add it to the list of stuff for which we ignore the production process. After all, we do so very much like the product.

21.10.2013 A recent interesting look at markets beyond Europe has given some interesting food for thought. You know, sometimes the EU is actually easier to do business in than many other places. Sounds a bit crazy, but compared with some emerging markets, Europe looks like a safe place to invest in the longer term.

Claire Skentelbery, Secretary General of the European Biotechnology Network

Much is still said about sexy new emerging markets. A few years ago, we were packing up to go to India, and the South American economies were apparently just waiting to take over Europe's life sciences sector. But as ever with such stories, the reality of these markets makes them much harder to access for R&D than headlines suggest. Europe's tendency to regulate everything is certainly a pain in the backside, but it makes it much easier to know what is going to happen in the longer term. You just have to worry about having enough money to last the week ...little things like that.

News from India that clinical trials have been suspended by organisations as big as the NIH tells you that an awful lot of money is suddenly flying out the window and delaying approvals. The reason behind the suspension is the introduction of new liability rules for trial sponsors, which creates uncertainly following a dramatic and poorly defined shift in rules. How many more changes will come - and how long before agencies conduct trials elsewhere?

Brazil is another interesting example; plenty of money and a market comparatively untouched by global competition. In theory it's a great new target for innovation and R&D. However, a closer look finds a much stickier situation. South America's giant demands a 100% transfer of rights for government procurement of technology, and offers an opaque approvals process in return. It's a tough market to crack for all stages of R&D. Universities in Europe are already muttering about freedom to use research results, while SMEs don't have the clout or money to create partnerships or new entities. That leaves only the big global companies to sell products rather than the innovation chain behind them.

Europe has had a painful learning curve in the process of regulation. The challenge of creating legislation for more harmonised operation between countries has ensured that regulation is long-term, and that it has been argued from the perspective of 28 countries. The process might be complicated, but you know it isn't going to change while you are making your precious investment. Europe also knows the importance of enabling technology development. An enforced loss of rights does nothing to encourage innovation, and frankly, it can't shovel research out the door of universities fast enough. I used to worry about Europe's over-zealous regulation - and there's no doubt we do an awful lot. It might have taken long years of defragmenting regional and national activities, but it seems we've finally managed to create a stable European platform.

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