Authored by Karl Simpson
Oslo, Norway is not everyone’s immediate response when asked for their view of an emerging biotech cluster with international prominence. Norway, a country with rich resources and an economy which has been benefiting from the considerable wealth of its oil industry, has in 2014 been thrust into the spotlight of global biotechnology after local biotech company, Algeta, was swooped up by German global pharmaceutical company Bayer Healthcare for $2.9bn. Algeta, a company focused on cancer therapies, had already partnered Bayer who were interested in Algeta’s lead product Xofigo. However, the German behemoth ultimately decided it preferred owning the company outright.
This deal has shown that even in a small emerging biotech cluster, considerable value can be created from good science, effective leadership and supportive capital partners, such as Abingworth LLP and HealthCap Investors who funded Algeta through to IPO. Algeta created this $2.9bn value in 7 years and in the process became the 17th largest company in Norway. This success has stoked the fire of the life sciences sector in Norway and this excitement is being backed up too.
The attention the Algeta deal has drawn upon Oslo comes at a time when something else is playing in their favour; immunotherapy. Immuno-Oncology is very hot, and Oslo is very much a specialist centre for immuno-oncology drug development. This advantage is something the Oslo Cancer Cluster wants to capitalise on at a time when the global biotech industry is highly focused towards the advances in this therapeutic category.
Given these factors point towards a very exciting opportunity for Norway to extend its reach in the global biotech sector, and in keeping with Liftstream’s commitment to highlighting biotechnology clusters across the globe, I travelled out to Norway to see what was happening at the Oslo Cancer Cluster.
The following review is based on an interview I was able to conduct with Ketil Widerberg,General Manager of the Oslo Cancer Cluster. Ketil Widerberg was appointed to his role earlier this year after working for Oslo based Photocure ASA who have developed both therapeutic and diagnostic drugs sold worldwide that target cancer. He brings practical industry-side experience to his leadership of the cluster and he demonstrates enthusiasm, optimism and pragmatism. An engaging person with high energy, he gave me some deep insights into his plans for the cluster. The contents of this discussion are explained below.
The Oslo Cancer Cluster
The Oslo Cancer Cluster was founded in 2006 as a research and industry cluster focused exclusively on the development of new cancer therapies as well as diagnostics. While it houses many innovative biotech companies, it is a collection of broader members spanning academia, research institutes (e.g. Institute of Cancer Research), hospitals (e.g. Oslo University Hospital including Norwegian Radium Hospital), national patient registries (Norwegian Cancer Registry), patient organisations and tech transfer offices. It also has the presence of a number of international pharmaceutical companies, although these are almost exclusively affiliate companies and not HQ or R&D centres.
Ketil Widerberg tells me the Oslo Cancer Cluster is focused on 6 main areas of strategic importance:
1) Collaborative Networks and Partnering
3) Access to Capital
4) Clinical Trials Efficiency
5) Public Policy
6) Workforce and Competence Development
The unquestionable value and importance of strategic collaborators in the field of cancer medicines makes this a strong feature of the way in which the Oslo Cancer Cluster hopes to support its member companies. There is a clear understanding that this network needs to be at the global level, providing the opportunity for constituents to build partnerships with other leaders in the field of cancer.
Their hope is also that they can provide a neutral ground to foster innovation. With the knowledge we now have about cancer genomics and the data in The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA), there are now significant opportunities to stratify this for the purpose of treating cancer. The Oslo Cancer Cluster is currently constructing a new ‘Innovation Park’ which will open next year and will bring several key organisations together, as well as creating an environment for company incubation. The hope is that it will positively stimulate innovation in the cluster. (We’ll cover this later)
Access to capital is a challenge in Norway. With $2.9bn from the Algeta deal, the country is experiencing some degree of financing momentum in the provision of capital to biotech. However, the truth is the Oslo Cancer Cluster, and Norway in general, lacks experienced life science investors and thereby the sophisticated capital to grow the sector. The country is extremely wealthy from natural resources, and like most countries with similar status, is aware of the need to plan for a more diversified economic future. The country’s financing companies are much more inclined to invest in the oil, shipping or fishing industries than to invest in biotechnology. This creates an environment of limited access to capital of the right type; that which is knowledgeable, connected and able to steer fledgling biotech companies.
In an era where we’re moving towards stratified or personalised medicine, the importance of effective clinical data from trials conducted in patients where you can be diligent in the follow up of those patients is seen as a considerable asset. This is something Norway believes offers them distinct advantages. Widerberg tells me: ‘As a nation of people we’re quite still, with very few people moving around the globe, as like the USA or the UK. With a national health system and one cancer register we can be quite diligent in the follow up of patients and potential for stratification – which gives us a real edge’. He continues, ‘We are doing much to try and streamline the performance of clinical trials and while we still have some road blocks, we’re working to increase inclusion and speed of trials in the country’.
Clearly with its specialised research institutions and hospitals, Norway has good potential in the area of clinical trials, especially in cancer therapies. A leading position in trials has multiple benefits for the country and they must do more to bring this capability to fruition.
Public Policy is something which takes considerable time to influence. In Norway this is equally true. In the UK, the value of joined up public policy has begun to shift the needle for the life sciences research industry since the introduction of the ‘patent box’ and tax credits. In Norway, this governmental intervention is less impactful. The overall sense I took away from my discussions with Ketil and other key people in the cluster, was simply that the government seems to be far more aware of the life sciences sector, however, beyond grants there was little in the way of policy to provide the boosters necessary to increase research. What is evident though, is that the Oslo Cancer Cluster is bringing effective organisation and focused advocacy to try and shape a policy agenda at a governmental level.
Competence and the workforce is an area in which most clusters have an interest. Biotech clusters depend upon their ability to attract, connect or develop incredible expertise in many areas of biotechnology business to increase their competitive advantage. Oslo is no different in this respect. Their distinct challenge is that the cluster has not emerged in the shadows of a pharmaceutical industry committed to R&D or global commercial effort. Instead they have shared the neighbourhood with the affiliate outposts of mid and large pharmaceutical companies who have commercial interests in Norway, possibly the wider Nordic region. This inflicts a prominent absence of specialised research and development professionals who have cultivated years of experience in global drug development. This also means that the core capabilities like effective operational leadership, business development experience or even the fundamental knowhow of regulatory affairs, pricing reimbursement or marketing, are restricted in their employment supply.
This imposes limitations on the growth potential of the companies in the cluster. They have to work out effective approaches to attract global talent to help drive the success of those companies. The Oslo Cancer Cluster is very forward thinking in this respect, it knows it needs to bring extensive senior people from across the globe to fulfil the mid-term needs. However, when it launches its new innovation park next year, the park will house a school, Ullern High School. The idea being that they begin to link the companies, the research and hospitals to develop a skilled workforce of the future. This for me showed a very innovative idea which perhaps other clusters could begin to consider. Big challenges lie ahead in this focus towards attracting the right competence.
What I took away from my discussions with Ketil Widerberg, was that the Oslo Cancer Cluster knows acutely their limitations but they are pioneering science and medical research in cancer and immunotherapies and they have a crystal clear vision for growing the cluster. In part two of this article, we’ll look more closely at the future goals and how this might be achieved.
For more information on the Oslo Cancer Cluster please visit:
Liftstream will be attending the 2nd Annual Nordic Life Science Days Event in Stockholm on the 7-9th Spetember 2014. If you are interested in meeting with Liftstream or finding out more about our work please email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange a time to meet with one of our consultants.
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