We’ve put together a list of the best biotech companies in Europe to celebrate their invaluable contributions to science and the development of the booming industry biotech is today.
Though the beginnings of the biotech industry are commonly traced back to the US, Europe has stepped up as a major contender and ally in the development of ever better technologies to improve our lives. Though the names and achievements made by Europe’s biotech industry are many, we have decided to narrow it down to seven key companies that deserve to be in the spotlight as some of the best biotech companies in the continent, both by their significant contribution to the development of the life sciences field and their financial success. They’ve set great examples for those entrepreneurs and small companies that want to make it to the top one day, and maybe be featured in our next list. Enjoy!
Cambridge Antibody Technology (CAT), co-founded in 1989 by Sir Greg Winter and David Chiswell, is known for having changed how antibodies are made today. “There wasn’t much interest in antibodies in the early 90s,” Winter told us, “but we had the idea of developing some completely novel technology where we could make billions of antibodies and fish out the ones we wanted.”
Indeed, the company pioneered the technique of phage display, which was used to create Humira (adalimumab), the first fully human antibody and the best selling drug for the last few years. After selling and licensing several human antibodies to big pharma, CAT was acquired in 2006 by AstraZeneca for £702M (around €1Bn back then) and merged with MedImmune to create AstraZeneca’s current R&D arm, which still uses the technology developed at CAT to generate new antibody candidates.
Its founders have now gone on to continue shaking the biotech world, Greg Winter with Bicycle Therapeutics, which develops a new type of drugs combining the best of peptides and antibodies; and David Chiswell with Kymab, which aims to find the best way of making antibodies using mice.
Micromet was created in 1993 as a spin-off of the University of Munich’s Institute of Immunology. The company started focusing on cancer diagnostics to detect micrometastases. But, with the help of biotech veteran Patrick Baeuerle as CEO, the company took a turn that was key to its success.
“One of my missions as CSO was to transform Micromet from a cancer diagnostic into a therapeutics company,” Bauerle told us. “To this end, we tried to in-license two monoclonal antibodies from Centocor, an opportunity that however evaporated when the company got acquired by Johnson & Johnson. What looked like a disaster in the first place, created the opportunity to develop a bispecific T cell-engaging antibody that was in-licensed from inventors at Munich’s LMU.”
This drug eventually became the blockbuster Blincyto (blinatumomab), the first bispecific antibody to ever be approved by the FDA, and the BiTE technology used to create Blincyto attracted a $1.2Bn (€930M back then) acquisition by Amgen, which remains the largest for a German biotech to date. Last year, the pharma giant acquired a BiTE antibody that Boehringer Ingelheim had licensed from Micromet, becoming the only player developing antibodies based on the technology.
Actelion, founded in 1997, is one of the most recent big success stories in Europe. In January, the company announced an acquisition from Johnson & Johnson that reached a massive $30Bn (€27.9Bn). The possibility of the deal had been discussed for the previous months, with Sanofi and J&J making increasing bids until Sanofi fell through.
However, Actelion, which before the acquisition was Europe’s largest biotech, did not fully renounce to the spirit of independence that it had shown over the years when it rejected offers from Elliot Advisors and Shire. Its early-stage R&D and €930M have been spun-out into a new company, Idorsia, run by Actelion’s ex-CEO Jean-Paul Clozel, who said, “I really look forward to creating another Actelion with Idorsia.”
Solexa, founded in 1998, is the company responsible the development of next-generation sequencing technologies used routinely today in genomics research. The technology, which extremely reduced the time and money necessary to sequence DNA by massively parallelizing the whole process, was invented by researchers at Cambridge University and turned into reality by CEO Nick McCooke.
“I came out with the slogan of the ‘thousand-dollar genome’,” McCooke told me. “It feels as if it’s always been around, but back then, no one had really thought beyond the old Sanger sequencers. We knew we couldn’t achieve that immediately, but our calculations showed it was possible.“
A few months after its IPO on the Nasdaq, Solexa was acquired by Illumina in 2006 for $600M (around €485M then). Nowadays, Illumina still uses the technology developed at Solexaa and controls the majority of the global NGS market. The research team that worked there is now mostly spread between Oxford Nanopore and DNA electronics, two companies that are further improving NGS to make it faster and cheaper.
Abcam was founded in 1998 by Jonathan Milner, who, out of his frustration for how difficult it could sometimes be to find good quality antibodies, decided to make ordering antibodies for research easier than ever. “I was amazed by how you could order books on Amazon back in 1998, I thought this could be applied to research antibodies as well,” Milner told us.
Abcam started off as a search engine that gathered antibodies from over 500 companies, and soon started to grow, entering the London Stock Exchange in 2005, where its market cap goes over €2Bn today. In 2011, the company started making acquisitions — five up to this date — to produce its own antibodies and other research tools, such as immunoassays.
After the acquisition of Actelion by J&J this year, Genmab, founded in 1999, is now Europe’s biggest independent biotech with a market cap of over €11Bn on the Copenhagen Stock Exchange. Co-founded by Jan van der Winkel, now CEO, the company focuses on making new therapies for cancer-based on two next-generation antibody platforms developed by scientists at Genmab: DuoBody for bispecific antibodies and HexaBody for antibodies targeting immune effector cells.
“From the beginning, Genmab was always very focused on products rather than technology,” van der Winkel told us, “because we think that, in the end, it’s products that will create a really strong company.” And indeed, two of Genmab’s antibodies are already in the market, Darzalex (daratumumab) and Arzerra (ofatumumab). The former is licensed to Johnson & Johnson, which made €475M in sales last year, and the latter to GlaxoSmithKline, which made €71M last year. The company is also developing antibody-drug conjugates (ADCs) that deliver toxins to tumoral cells.
Founded in 1999 and based in Mechelen, Belgium, Galapagos started off as a service company to produce adenoviruses, but then pivoted into using its platform to identify new targets for drug discovery. Its drug candidate filgotinib is one of the keys to Galapagos’ success in shifting towards its own R&D pipeline.
The compound is now licensed to Gilead and is being tested in clinical trials for 10 different indications, seven in Phase II and three — rheumatoid arthritis, ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease — in Phase III. The rest of its pipeline features compounds partnered with other big names like Servier and AbbVie.
Galapagos raised a huge €277M IPO on the Nasdaq in 2015, followed by a public offering earlier this year that shot past it to reach €315M. It has now become Europe’s second biggest biotech, and its CEO and founder, Onno van de Stolpe, who has stayed with the company for almost 20 years, seems to have plans for it to remain independent. “I’ve never had the urge to move away from Galapagos,” van de Stolpe told us. “We’ve evolved so much over time from a biology to chemistry outfit that it has remained very interesting to run.”
This is it! Are there any other companies that have inspired you and deserve to be listed with the best biotech companies? Leave a comment below.
Images via Tamakiik, Alexey Fedorenko, Christoph Burgstedt, J.Schelkle, enzozo, Piotr Wawrzyniuk, media point inc, MarinaDa /Shutterstock