On the 26th-27th of October, Vilnius is hosting the European Forum for Industrial Biotechnology & the Bioeconomy 2022 (EFIB’22). The forum will bring together business leaders, entrepreneurs, scientists, and investors as one of Europe’s most meaningful events for biotechnology. We caught up with the Executive Director of the Lithuanian Biotechnology Association, Agnė Vaitkevičienė, who told us about the importance of the forum and the potential of the Lithuanian life sciences sector.
Agnė Vaitkevičienė / Photo courtesy of A. Vaitkevičienė
The event is organized by EuropaBio – the largest and most influential biotechnology organization in Europe. Why was Vilnius chosen as this year’s host for the EFIB?
Last year, the EuropaBio National Associations Council notified our association of the competition for the privilege of hosting the event next year. Our team at Lithuanian Biotechnology Association accepted the challenge and bid to host EFIB with eight other EU countries. We have co-written the application together with partners at Go Vilnius, Enterprise Lithuania, Invest Lithuania, the Lithuanian Confederation of Industrialists, and several universities.
The rapid growth of Lithuania’s life sciences and biotechnology sectors as well as strong partnership between the local industry and public sector were some of the main deciding factors for selecting Vilnius. The current state of Lithuania’s life sciences sector is robust, to say the least: the sector currently has 571 companies that employ 7,500 people. Notably, the Lithuanian biotechnology industry’s revenue increased from €230M in 2010 to €2B in 2020.
Another important factor was Lithuania’s widely-known contribution to the development of genetic engineering: studies of CRISPR by Prof. Virginijus Šikšnys and his team are considered Europe’s most advanced technology of the past 25 years. As a result, Lithuania has started appearing on the maps of life sciences and biotechnology hotspots in Europe, and we look forward to strengthening this role further.
EFIB’22 will be aimed at high-level life sciences executives, biotechnology enterprises, and EU policymakers. Upon the event’s conclusion each year, the European Commission receives an official statement of the sector’s position on areas that need more focus, recommendations for EU activities to fund and promote, and general ideas for policy improvements.
How does the life sciences industry fare in Lithuania today, and what are the prospects?
Lithuania’s life sciences industry is among the fastest growing in Europe. For example, its growth during the pandemic was a staggering 80%, mainly due to active participation in the COVID-19 vaccine production by Lithuanian companies.
One of the most prominent players in the industry today is Thermo Fisher Scientific Baltics, which has stimulated the development of Lithuania’s biotechnology industry during the last decade.
The current goal of life science and biotechnology stakeholders, including government, industry and academia, is to identify best practices, fill in existing gaps, and accelerate the sector’s growth to contribute 5% to the national GDP by 2030. According to our estimates, last year, the biotechnology industry in Lithuania contributed 2.5% to the country’s GDP. Given the sector’s average annual growth of 22%, such a goal is certainly realistic.
Furthermore, all countries encounter both typical and specific challenges. In our case, a specific challenge would be the lack of a strong acceleration framework, enabling faster growth. That being said, we’re taking our cue from other sectors, and I believe we will see no shortage of life sciences startup exits in the upcoming decade. With the growth of startups and investments in biomanufacturing, Lithuania could become the leader in the life sciences sector in Central Eastern Europe.
What is the sector’s composition in Lithuania? Apart from genetic engineering, which fields are currently dominant?
We have strong agricultural, pharmaceutical and food sectors that are receiving increasingly more benefits from the biotechnological solutions.
What our strategy boils down to is prioritizing solutions over products. Examples include solutions based on genetic engineering, recombinant proteins and protein synthesis, metabolic engineering, and others.
What are the key drivers of the Lithuanian biotechnology ecosystem?
Several things should be mentioned here: first of all, the opportunities delivered by the pandemic led to a 1.5X increase in the revenue of the sector. This is because Lithuanian biotech companies saw an opportunity to aid the government’s effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 with technical solutions.
Another driver is the goal for the life sciences sector to reach a 5% contribution to the country’s GDP by 2030. To ensure such growth, the Lithuanian Biotechnology Association works closely with governmental organizations: they organize joint events, discuss regulatory changes, and collaborate on strategic decisions.
Lithuania is home to six universities offering life sciences and biotechnology-related majors. According to the latest data, there were 1,309 students enrolled in these study programmes in 2021, with over 400 graduating each year. In 2008, these universities were also the leading founders of five interdisciplinary scientific and applied research centres.
Besides the Lithuanian scientists’ contributions to the development of CRISPR – are there any other cutting-edge technologies they’re currently working on?
There certainly are. One example would be the work of Professor Saulius Klimašauskas from the Vilnius University Life Science Centre. He is researching the genetic information encoded in cells, the mechanisms underlying the encoding and decoding of epigenetic DNA modifications and developing new methods for studying genomic changes.
We also have a promising startup called Biomatter Designs that uses AI to create protein structures, which is very much in demand. And this is based on young and ambitious winners of the international synthetic biology competition iGEM.
Kaunas University of Technology and Lithuanian University of Health Sciences maintain a strong focus on food technologies and precision medicine. One of the startups we took with us to EFIB previously – AVOO – has received tons of attention from investors. AVOO originated from Lithuanian Research Centre for Agriculture and Forestry, which focuses on plant genetics, biotechnology, and nutrition.
Finally, the Klaipėda Region is increasingly focusing on marine (also known as blue) biotechnology. This involves devising ways of using marine-derived biomaterials for the development of pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, and novel foods, thus boosting the growth of the bioeconomy. It’s a very dynamic ecosystem that should inspire a spurt of new companies and startups within the next decade.