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What’s hot in the life sciences: Trends, opportunities and challenges that have shaped 2023

This year has seen strong growth – of around US$2.83t, according to Deloitte – across the life sciences sector. Biopôle was no exception, with 24 new companies joining its community, and its top five fundraisers raising a total of CHF 220m this year. Nonetheless, the sector has also faced challenges in an ever-shifting post-COVID landscape. With this in mind, here are five trends that have dominated the past year – giving a sense of how the industry will evolve in 2024.


Life sciences companies embrace new technologies – but AI still has a way to go

As we know all too well, the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on how we interacted with the world, forcing us to adapt to remote working and social distancing. And even now that most of us have returned to our offices and labs, we have incorporated these experiences into our ‘new normal’.

There are benefits to be derived from this for companies in areas like pharma, medtech and biotech. As a recent report from Deloitte pointed out, three quarters of people around the world now have experience with at-home tests. At same time, we have seen growing demand for and uptake of wearable activity trackers, as well as smartphone-enabled diagnostic tools, leading to the development of virtual clinics as the healthcare sector shifts towards a technology-enabled, patient-centred model of care.

Consulto, a recent participant in Biopôle’s Vanguard Accelerator programme, is developing a virtual clinic, which it refined in collaboration with the programme’s panel of expert mentors. Thomas Hügle, Head of Rheumatology at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), is one such mentor, and he expressed great excitement at the prospect of this new healthcare frontier. In his opinion, ‘virtual clinics could be a game changer when it comes to a multi-disciplinary approach in the patient journey’, easing pressure on clinicians and helping them to coordinate provision of care across different disciplines and locations.

Virtual clinics could be a game changer when it comes to a multi-disciplinary approach in the patient journey

Thomas Hügle, Head of Rheumatology at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and Vanguard Accelerator expert

Simultaneously, AI-powered tools for the life sciences (and elsewhere) have been developing at breakneck speed. With big data becoming more readily available, AI algorithms can be trained on large data sets, learning to detect patterns and make predictions.

However, these new technologies are not a panacea. Technology Entrepreneur and Vanguard Accelerator Expert Sasha Hirzel underlined some of the limitations of AI-driven diagnostics in the healthcare space. As she reminds us, new AI-powered tools can be susceptible to bias and inaccuracy. Therefore, those working in this field must tackle challenges around diversity, data quality, privacy, regulatory restrictions and ethical considerations. All of this means that it may take a while for the life sciences to fully embrace AI – but Sasha hopes that this time will come. Anticipating more robust, reliable systems and regulations around AI, which will ensure that it is used effectively, she urges life sciences companies to apply the following motto: ‘Proceed with caution, but do proceed’.


Investment in longevity

It’s no secret that our global population is ageing, particularly in the Western world. In the life sciences sector, therefore, considerable investment is being channelled into drugs and therapies aimed at prolonging not only one’s lifespan but also one’s ‘healthspan’ – the number of years someone lives in good health.

Biopôle member EPITERNA is leading the charge in this field, testing widely available, FDA-approved drugs to determine whether they might be able to delay ageing or stave off age-related diseases. As the company’s Co-Founder and Head of Research, Kevin Perez, put it: ‘A lot of research on ageing has been done over the past few decades, but not much has been translated into clinical settings in ways that concretely help people. In fact, so far, no drug has been approved specifically to prevent age-related diseases or extend lifespan.’ And, as he went on to argue, ‘preventing cancer or cardiovascular disease could have a huge impact on your quality of life as you get older, and what’s more, it would also reduce the burden on our healthcare systems’.

A whole host of companies are working in this field, having recognised the potential of the global longevity market. According to estimates published by PWC, the total value of longevity and anti-senescence therapies was US$25.1bn in 2020, and it could reach US$44.2bn by 2030. That’s not accounting for the potential of longevity therapeutics to replace conventional healthcare therapies. This field could, in short, revolutionise healthcare.

To slow ageing, we’ll need to tackle it on many fronts.

Olga Donica, Head of Innovation, Research and Longevity at Clinique La Prairie

Indeed, Olga Donica, Head of Innovation, Research and Longevity at Clinique La Prairie, one of the world’s most renowned longevity clinics, stressed that interest in longevity is here to stay. With the babies who are born today likely to live to 100, more and more of us are thinking about what it means to live a long and happy life, and prioritising our physical, mental and social health.


Continued development of ground-breaking cell and gene therapies

Cell and gene therapies, which have the potential to cure virtually any disease, including cancer and HIV, continue to attract research and development funding. A growing number of life sciences companies, including Tigen – based at Biopôle’s Superlab – are working in this space.

Emmanuel Savioz, CEO of Tigen, described how his company is contributing to the fight against cancer by developing an innovative cell therapy that targets cancer cells. As he asserted, ‘cell and gene therapies are the early developments in a new era of precision medicine’. Each treatment is completely individualised, as it is created from the patient’s own cells to attack their specific tumour. The results are promising, particularly for leukaemia, where remission has proven effective with just one dose.

However, this kind of therapy as a common, first-line cancer treatment is, as Emmanuel recognised, ‘a distant prospect’. As things stand, approved cell therapies are only used for patients with liquid tumours – like blood cancers – that haven’t responded to standard care or more conventional treatments.

There are opportunities to make progress in many areas: clinical efficacy, supply chain, hardware and software for automation.

Luc Henry, Co-Founder and CEO of Limula

One of the reasons for this is the cost and complexity of manufacturing these individualised treatments. At the moment, neither researchers nor pharma producers have the capacity to bring them to a wider patient base. Thankfully, companies like Limula, based at Biopôle’s StartLab, are working to combat this bottleneck. Limula’s Co-Founder, Luc Henry, expressed hope that his company would contribute to making these innovative treatments safer, cheaper and more accessible, by developing tools to automate – and therefore speed up – parts of the manufacturing process.

Thus far, only around 25,000 cancer patients worldwide have been treated with cell therapies, but according to the World Health Organization, cancer accounts for nearly one in six deaths worldwide. It’s clear that many more could benefit, and innovation in this field is greatly anticipated.


Balancing innovation against financial and logistical constraints

This brings us to some of the main challenges currently faced by life sciences companies. As demonstrated by all the above, there is a lot of exciting innovation happening within the industry, but said innovation is often hamstrung by logistical complications and costly R&D.

What’s more, within the wider industry, the lingering effects of the pandemic as well as the geopolitical unrest of the past few years are making themselves felt. Supply chains are creaking at the seams and inflation has soared to a four-decade high. This in turn has caused venture capital, a primary source of funding for start-ups in the life sciences, to enter an era of fiscal discipline.

As soon as you have something to sell, sell it.

Georges Muller, CEO and Co-Founder of SEED Biosciences

All hope is not lost, however. Georges Muller, CEO and Co-Founder of SEED Biosciences at Biopôle, shared his fundraising tips for new start-ups, advising CEOs to consider alternate funding and payment models, such as non-dilutive funds, alongside business angels. In these cases, as he identifies, open and honest communication is key to building trust and rapport: after all, investors are, in his words, ‘human beings, not walking wallets’. He also emphasised the importance of getting to market as soon as possible to start selling your product and making revenue – which will, as Georges argues, in time beget investment.


A promising flow of academics and research expertise into the industry

Cushman & Wakefield recently reported that the life sciences sector across the globe has struggled to fill open positions due to a tight labour market. Nonetheless, Biopôle has seen a flow of life sciences academics into industry jobs, attracted by the opportunity to make a more tangible impact.

Earlier this year, former PhD students who now work at Biopôle companies articulated the draw of a role in the life sciences industry, having honed their skills in higher education. Pomme Boissier, who holds a PhD in Cellular and Biomedical Sciences from the University of Bern, is now Quality, Regulatory and Clinical Affairs Manager at Novostia, and according to her own estimation, has transferred ‘so many things’ from her academic career to the professional sphere, including ‘how to learn, solve problems, work autonomously, manage bibliographies and literature reviews, and apply scientific rigour’.

Similarly, Dmitry Kopelyanskiy, a qualified Doctor of Medicine as well as a Doctor of Philosophy in Immunology and Infectious Diseases, now works as Business Development and Corporate Development Project Manager at HAYA Therapeutics. He reflected that this new role has broadened his horizons, allowing him to explore ‘how a great idea develops into a meaningful product or solution’ and ‘how medicine travels from the bench to the bedside’. He encourages other life sciences academics to push themselves out of their comfort zone, advising: ‘Don’t spend all your time in a lab, there’s a whole world outside academia.’

Nonetheless, for academics who are happy working in research, there are also plentiful opportunities to collaborate with industry stakeholders. Biopôle has created a community in which ideas and expertise can be shared, to great effect.

In light of these trends, Biopôle is excited to see where its members go in 2024. With a multitude of opportunities on the horizon – and yes, let’s face it, a few challenges – there has never been a more stimulating time to work in the life sciences.

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