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A Celebration of Spanish Science

BIOSPAIN 2008 encouraged global biotechnology.

By Kevin Davies

Nov. 12, 2008 | GRANADA, SPAIN—In 2008, Spain celebrated stunning victories at Wimbledon, the Tour de France, and the European soccer championship. It appears the country’s booming biotechnology sector has something to celebrate as well.

I’d tell you about it, but it did not occur to me prior to covering BIOSPAIN 2008—the country’s premier biennial biotechnology congress—that virtually all the proceedings would be held in Spanish. (Curiously, the invitation from the organizers had omitted that snippet of information.)

Held in the heart of Andalusia in southern Spain, BIOSPAIN 2008 attracted 1,500 scientists and industry executives, with representatives of 162 companies and funding agencies partnering enthusiastically over tapas in the congress hall, while others engaged in nicotine networking outside the Palacio de Congresos. Attendance was triple that of BIOSPAIN 2006, a strong sign of the emerging state of Spanish biotechnology.

The largest crowd attended the formal inauguration of the conference, presided over by no fewer than nine government and local officials and foundation dignitaries, the main draw undoubtedly Spain’s Minister for Science and Innovation, Cristina Garmendia.

Christina Garmendia, Spain's Minister for Science and Innovation, was the center of attention at BIOSPAIN 2008.

According to the biennial report from Genoma Espana, one of the several agencies organizing the meeting, Spanish biotechnology employed 45,000 people in 2005 and projects that figure to surpass 100,000 by the end of this year. Turnover was 5.4 billion Euros, or 0.6 percent of Spain’s GDP. Communications director Belen Gilarranz explains that Genoma Espana is a public agency established in 2002 that funds Spanish networks in genomics, proteomics, bioinformatics, and a DNA biobank. “We are the nexus between research and the market,” says Gilarranz.

Two Americans provided the plenary entertainment at BIOSPAIN this year. Kenneth Morse, director of the MIT entrepreneur program, urged his Spanish audience to give voice to their entrepreneurial spirit rather than “retire or die—whichever comes first” in some large bureaucratic organization.

Asked how he balances work and family life, Morse said that it was quality time that mattered. Most families will welcome the individual reaching for their dreams, he said, before adding that that it helped if the spouse had a steady job. The Spanish government could do a lot for Spain, he said, by not changing the goalposts and of course providing additional funding.

Go Global
The other keynoter was life sciences investment banker Steven Burrill, who flashed through 150 slides in 50 minutes on the global state of health care and biotech. Noting that he helped write the business plan for Genentech, and advised the founders of Apple and Intel, Burrill echoed Morse’s sentiments to “go for it.” He emphasized the global world of biotechnology, and urged the audience to attack global problems, listing the transformation of medicine and health care he expects to see by the year 2020.

The 150 booths at BIOSPAIN 2008 featured some big names (Amgen, Roche, Thermo Fisher, Merck) and many smaller Spanish ventures. Biomol Informatics is a software consulting firm founded by Madrid scientist Paulino Gomez Puertas. His group offers consulting services in drug design and modeling, but he hopes to release packaged software next year for lead optimization.

Intelligent Pharma is a 13-person computational solution provider in Barcelona that offers services as well as software products: Helios is a ligand-based virtual screening program that relies on the compound’s electrostatic potential. Selene is its receptor-based counterpart. Both work on the Daedalus grid computing platform, making use of unused CPU time.

Software company Integromics was co-founded by ex-IBM physicist Jose-Maria Carazo, a native of Granada. It is perhaps best known for its partnership with Applied Biosystems, but has just released a new product called Integromics Biomarker Discovery (IBD) for gene expression data analysis, developed with Spotfire, which performs statistical analysis of genomic data.

One of the current success stories in Spanish biotechnology is Madrid-based Zeltia, which has various subsidiary groups, including Genomica, a molecular diagnostics firm. Another is Pharma Mar, which discovers therapeutic compounds from marine organisms. Its lead cancer product is the recently approved Yondelis, a synthetic version of a compound extracted from a sea squirt, which is showing promise against ovarian cancer.

Merck is one of several global pharmas with a presence in Spain, but it made news recently by closing its Madrid headquarters. Merck is not abandoning Spain, but building a new center in Granada called Medina, in the region’s thriving technology park.  


This article appeared in Bio-IT World Magazine.

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