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Pharmacy and biotech: two of the fastest growing sectors in the national economy

The pharmaceutical industry in Slovenia is dominated by groups Krka and Lek. The precondition for their success: behind the two groups there is an ecosystem of research institutions, excellence centers and small innovative biotech companies.

Pharmacy and biotech: two of the fastest growing sectors in the national economy

Most of the industries arehit hard by the COVID-19 crisis. The few exceptions are pharmacy and biotech industries. This area has already been one of the fastest growing in Slovenia since independence. In absolute terms, most of the growth is contributed by the two large generic drug companies, Krka and Lek. But beyond these two important European companies there is an ecosystem of thriving small biotech companies strongly oriented towards R&D and developing innovative technologies.

The total sales of Slovenia’s pharmaceutical industry surpassed 1 billion euros some 15 years ago. In 2010 the total revenues of the industry reached 1.5 billion euros. In 2019, krka almost reached that figure on its own. “It was the best year in 65 years of Krka’s history”, commented Krka’s president Jože Colarič. Net profits shot up by 40 percent and reached 244 million euros. In the first quarter of 2020, Krka’s sales went up by another 22 percent and reached 462 million euros. The sales figures of Lek, which is owned by Novartis, are some 20 percent lower – but show similar growth. Novartis has invested 2.5 billion euros in its Slovenian facilities since taking over Lek in 2003. More than one half of the investments went to R&D facilities, including the fully automated analytical laboratory that opened last December. Ljubljana’s laboratories are, together with facilities in Germany, Austria, and USA, among the leading development centers of Sandoz, Novartis’s generic branch.

The successful R&D of both companies would not be possible without the supportive ecosystem: the presence of strong research and educational institutions. The three most important scientific institutions in Slovenia, Josef Stefan Institute, National Institute of Chemistry and National Institute of Biology, are all involved in basic research in areas connected to pharmacy. Transfer of this knowledge to the market is supported by several excellence centers, including Centre of Excellence for Biosensors, Instrumentation and Process Control (COBIK), or En Fist, oriented towards life sciences.

This ecosystem connecting established industry, university, scientific institutes, and centers of excellence provides fertile ground for spin-off companies, startups and ultimately successful fast-growing companies operating on a global level. An example of the latter is Bia Separations – a company from Ajdovščina which has evolved into a global leader of monolith columns, a key technology in the separation and purification of large biomolecules. The technology was used by AveXis in the development of Zolgesma, currently the world’s most expensive drug and at the same time a breakthrough in gene therapy with huge potential for treatment of cancer and autoimmune diseases. The technologies developed by Bia Separations are also used in vaccine preparation – and are thus crucial in the development of a COVID-19 vaccine.

A few more examples. Acies Bio also develops solutions in microbial biotech. RGA focuses on research genetics for use in agrochemistry. Ichorlabs develops noninvasive diagnostic tests based on liquid biopsy. Several partners of the COBIK center are active in a BioPharm program directed towards manufacture of biologics and vaccines in the form of proteins.

Educell is focusing on cell therapy. Over 500 patients have so far been successfully treated by the cell therapies developed by Educell and its founder, Doctor Milan Knežević. Knežević believes that cell therapy could prove essential for the treatment of acute respiratory distress syndrome - the syndrome which causes death in COVID-19 patients. MGC Pharmaceuticals is a bio-pharma company specialized in the production and development of phytocannabinoid-derived medicines – its solutions could lead to new treatment of glioblastoma, the most aggressive kind of brain tumor.

These companies may be small but hey show a strong drive for innovation and considerable know how. The potential for future growth is certain.

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