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Basque Country Beckons

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The fact that two array-based in vitro diagnostics have come out of Derio, Spain in the first four months of this year alone begs the question 'why Derio?'

Antonio Martinez, the technical director of Progenika, said his company wouldn't have been able to develop an in vitro diagnostic without the financial help of the local Basque government, and its desire to nurture biotech.

In 2002, the local government initiated a program called BioBask 2010, which it described as a project to create a new biosciences "pole" in northern Spain. Its goal was to lure 40 new biotechs to the Bay of Biscay by the end of the decade, according to Martinez.

According to Miryam Asuncion, the CEO of Owl Genomics, to implement BioBask, the government undertook several steps to foster a biotech-friendly environment. They bankrolled the industrial park where many of the new Basque biotechs are located, and they established the CIC bioGUNE, a cooperative research center for the biosciences in Derio, near Bilbao.

"It is one of the pillars of the Basque Country's biohub," said Asuncion of the center. She added that it was created "to leverage new business opportunities within the knowledge-based economy" - which is part of BioBask's larger plan to turn a erstwhile industrial corner of Europe into a center of biotech.

Asuncion said that the Basque biotech cluster, which currently houses at least 20 biotech companies, including Owl and Progenika, as well as the University of the Basque Country (EHU), which has various technological centers, is also trying to network with other European and American biotech clusters.

According to Asuncion, CIC bioGUNE is establishing a network of collaborators with centers such as EMBL, University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Cambridge. CIC bioGUNE is also a member of the Human Proteome Organization.

Asuncion said that other Spanish biotechs that have been spun out of the cluster, mainly from EHU, include Dynakin, Pharmadatum, Dominion Pharmakine, Histocell, and others.

Despite its Basque roots, Owl maintains a pipeline to the central financial arteries of Spain, which are based in Madrid. A major shareholder and co-founder of Owl is Cross Road Biotech, a consultancy firm located in the Spanish capital that has already helped found several Spanish biotechs since inception.

Enrique Castellon Leal, a spokesperson for Cross Road Biotech, said his firm's main goal is to fund biotech companies, provided that they develop "projects [that] end up in a patented, potentially marketable [tool] for diagnostic or therapeutical purposes," Leal wrote in an e-mail to BioArray News this week.

Leal is on the board at Owl, and CRB is a shareholder in other Spanish companies such as NeoCodex, Lactest, BioCross, GenoMadrid, and Dendrico, he said.

Still, he concedes that getting the word out that investment opportunities are to be had in Spanish biotech has been difficult. "The two main challenges new biotech companies confront in Spain are management and funding," Leal said.

Leal said that Spain is suffering from "a profound cultural deficit" due to its distance from major biotech hubs in places such as northern Germany, the UK, or southern California. He said companies such as CRB are helping smaller entities like Owl get out of Spain and partner with larger companies, such as Schering.

"The scientific world and the financial-managerial world are far away and this is an important barrier," Leal said. "We help to fill that breach."

Maria Aguirre, the director of the BioBask Project, told BioArray News this week that despite the obstacles that face the nascent biocluster, the new IVDs developed by Owl and Progenika are the "demonstration of a reality, not a promise."

"The commercialization of an innovative product is a success not only for the companies, but for the strategy in general and for investors in particular," Aguirre said.

"Successful products and companies [will] help to create the biopole in the Basque Country at a faster pace."

— JP

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