Krönika: Collaboration across borders

| Av Sarah Lidé och Petter Hartman, MVA | Tipsa redaktionen

The life science industry is undergoing a period of transition worldwide. Pricing pressures by healthcare systems who are under cost pressures themselves due to ageing populations and the rise of chronic diseases, technological changes towards biopharmaceuticals and personalised therapies, sector disruption driven by digitalisation with technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data, alongside rising rates of engagement by patients who desire greater knowledge about and influence over their treatments, are just some of the trends affecting the life science sector globally. Furthermore, across all industries, competition in terms of talent, investment, trade and technological development is intensifying.

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Against this backdrop, countries are not standing still – nations such as the UK have been explicit with their ambition to strengthen the development and growth of national life science industries. The same applies to Scandinavia – Denmark now has an internationalisation strategy for health and the life sciences, and the Swedish government recently presented an eight-point national life science strategy. While there are many common points of interest in the two countries’ ambitions and their choice of strategic areas, there are also certain important differences. In Denmark, the focus is clearly set on generating growth, and internationalisation and exports are keywords. The Swedish debate centres more on co-operation, and partnerships between private, public and academic actors are among the principal elements. The Swedish strategy also highlights the potential for a broader Nordic collaboration to contribute to regional competitiveness within life science, which makes sense given that the Nordic countries share many of the same challenges within the sector.

With this in mind, Medicon Valley (the life science cluster based in the Öresund region that spans the Capital Region of Denmark and Region Zealand in Denmark, and the region of Skåne in Sweden) has an important part to play in both Danish and Swedish strategies. The region employs 58% of those working in life science in Denmark and Sweden combined, making it Scandinavia’s leading life science region and showcasing the strength of collaborating across the border.

Similar strengths exist within the regional research environment, which is a particularly important building block for the development of a life science cluster like Medicon Valley. A strong research environment can serve to attract companies and talents, and generate new ideas and innovations. 54% of Medicon Valley’s scientific publications between 2006 and 2016 arose from international collaboration, and such international collaborations has led to significantly more citations than publications resulting from national collaborations or the work of individual research groups.

However, transborder collaboration has definite room for improvement. Research networks in Medicon Valley are still predominantly national, signalling that there are certain structures that favour national collaborations, for example national education and research structures, with grants often national in nature. We believe that there are synergies to be won in strengthening cross-border collaboration, particularly in Scandinavia with a shared culture as well as proximity to a strong ecosystem of industry, academia and healthcare actors.

Given that Denmark and Sweden jointly combined contributed to 3.7% of global life science exports in 2018, the two countries can be likened to small vessels navigating in a big sea, that is in turn facing turbulent times. There are therefore definite advantages to be had in adopting a joint Scandinavian face towards global markets, harnessing the strengths and resources of both nations to create a multiplier effect generated by regional synergies. We see three concrete steps that could be taken towards this end.

With the two nations adopting a stronger and more strategic focus with the development of national life science strategies, this could be taken one step further by identifying common areas of strength, and collaborating around shared challenge-driven platforms through research and innovation, in order to create a stronger international profile for both countries. These areas can include reproductive health, oncology, CNS and diabetes, which are already established scientific strongholds in Medicon Valley, and can be further complemented by developments in other regionally strong sectors (such as ICT, mobility and food). A challenge-driven, multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approach to research and innovation can provide the conditions to thrive in an increasingly complex environment.

Creating joint bi-national funding mechanisms can enable a more focused and aligned mechanism for collaboration within the triple helix (industry, academia and government), thus bringing the best resources and talent from both sides of the border to address an issue of strategic importance to the region.

A good example of this is the ReproUnion cross-border public-private initiative, which aims to address involuntary infertility and reproductive diseases. To overcome the challenge associated with national funding mechanisms, ReproUnion has adopted a joint financing model, where a common funding platform grants resources to projects which aim to combat infertility. This joint funding platform requires that the various regional partners within Medicon Valley are together responsible for assessing potential projects and related issues. This ensures that priorities and interests within the partnership are aligned towards common goals, thus combating fragmentation and the pursuit of special interests.

ReproUnion shows the potential of having a more coordinated approach from the Danish and Swedish life science offices in increasing the flexibility of funding mechanisms to encourage a cross-border approach to research and innovation, including supporting startups and micro-enterprises within life science.

Given how digitalisation is transforming both the healthcare and life science sectors, data will increasingly be the new currency of choice in determining the attractiveness of countries as a base for research and innovation. The Swedish national life science office has explicitly mentioned the better utilisation of health and clinical data as a key priority area, and we see value in exploring opportunities for aligning this ambition and Swedish health data assets (health registers, clinical databases and biobanks) with our Danish counterparts (such as the “Data Saves Lives” initiative, which also aims to ensure the better use of Danish health data), to provide enhanced data volumes for the conducting of research. This will require a coordinated approach to the treatment of and access to data to ensure that data security and personal integrity is maintained, while also serving to propel the development of personalised treatments and therapies that will benefit patients in both countries.

Medicon Valley, with its strong university environments and deep research traditions, innovative companies, large and small, and high-quality healthcare systems, all located in a small geographic radius, shows how strong we can be together, if borders become less of a barrier and we see instead the benefits of adopting a transnational perspective towards industry, research and growth in Denmark and Sweden.

We look forward to furthering the conversation on how the two nations can take steps towards this at the upcoming The Future of the Danish and Swedish Life Science conference, where Petter will be a part of a panel discussion addressing this important topic.

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