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Biocitech Thrives

Biotech hub in Paris that keeps a science legacy alive now needs to expand

by Lisa M. Jarvis
March 15, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 11

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Credit: Lisa Jarvis/C&EN
Chem-X-Infinity, founded by Baudelle, is a new arrival at Biocitech.
Credit: Lisa Jarvis/C&EN
Chem-X-Infinity, founded by Baudelle, is a new arrival at Biocitech.

Amid a challenging financing environment for start-up biotech companies and, by extension, the “parks” in which they often cluster, Biocitech, a life sciences park on the northern edge of Paris, is going strong. Once a research complex for Hoechst Marion Roussel, the site has capitalized on legacy infrastructure to support the activities of small and medium-sized firms active in pharmaceuticals and agricultural chemicals. Since opening to entrepreneurs in 2003, the campus has welcomed a steady stream of companies and now needs to expand.

When Rhône-Poulenc and Hoechst Marion Roussel merged in 2002 to create Aventis, now part of Sanofi-Aventis, the new company decided that having two research centers in Paris was too much. The decision made redundant a site that had witnessed nearly a century of scientific innovation, beginning in 1909 with Gaston Roussel’s invention of the horse serum Hemostyl, used to treat anemia, and leading to decades of research in anti-infectives and other fields.

But what could be done with a huge facility with the infrastructure to support advanced drug R&D? The answer, Aventis executives decided, was to turn the site into a biotech hub where resources such as meeting rooms, analytical instruments, and even an animal house for early-stage testing of compounds could be shared among the companies that lease the space.

Situated an hour’s drive from 90% of the hospitals and universities in Paris, the campus promised companies that located there easy access to medical collaborators, says Jacques Lhomel, Biocitech’s chief executive officer. Lhomel, a former Aventis executive who was hired at the start to attract tenants, is retiring in April. Drug industry consultant Jean-François Boussard will take over as CEO.

At the park’s inception, Lhomel says, the objective was to eventually bring back the science jobs that were lost when Aventis discontinued R&D at the site in 2003.

Lhomel decided to leave the infrastructure largely as it had been when Aventis occupied the campus but to customize labs for individual companies. The first three firms—Eco-Solution, Proskelia, and Roowin—arrived in August 2003 with small teams of scientists. “Year after year, we have welcomed two or three companies,” Lhomel notes.

Today, 25 firms that employ about 600 researchers in all are based at the biotech hub. Those companies have steadily attracted partners from big pharma and elsewhere, in total signing some 50 collaborative pacts through 2008. Since Biocitech’s launch in 2003, tenants have raised roughly $550 million in funding.

Three of those 25 companies—Novexel, Chiralia, and ProSkelia—were created by former Aventis researchers. Other firms graduated from local business incubators and moved to Biocitech so they could expand.

Although Lhomel was starting from scratch in his bid to attract firms, he did benefit from the generosity of the site’s legacy owner. In addition to the animal house, which can be used to study drug candidates in mice and rats, Aventis provided a structural analysis lab complete with mass spectroscopy, infrared spectroscopy, and other equipment that companies can rent.

Furthermore, overall operations have been supported by Sanofi-Aventis, which invested millions of dollars to enable Bio­ci­tech to find firm footing, Lhomel says. Biocitech, which started as an association, became an independent but wholly owned subsidiary of Sanofi-Aventis in October 2008. Last year was the first time the park operated with a balanced budget, he adds.

Before arriving in 2003, Eco-Solution had developed a natural evolution platform to find bacteria, yeast, and algae that could be used for industrial applications. It was poised to graduate from a business incubator at nearby Pasteur Institute, and its managers realized that building the kind of labs they needed would require a major investment.

Biocitech, the firm discovered, already had the support infrastructure in place and was prepared to deal with Eco-Solution’s wastewater treatment needs. Moreover, the campus was willing to invest in infrastructure as was needed by companies. That service is not available from other biotech hubs in the Paris region, which are largely set up to support “virtual” companies with little or no laboratory needs.

“The real plus here is, this was a research park, so all the facilities are already here,” says Eco-Solution CEO Dominique Duvauchelle.

As more companies moved in to the campus, collaborations between service firms and those doing drug discovery began to evolve. Eco-Solution has developed good relationships with several companies on campus, Duvauchelle says. Tetrahedron, located on the same floor, has tapped it for biological validation experiments. Eco-Solution now has one formal collaboration in place and two others in the works.

One of the newest arrivals on campus, Chem-X-Infinity, is already enjoying synergy with other businesses. The small company, formed in 2007 when drug discovery services firm Cerep ended its chemistry activities, uses parallel synthesis to create custom compound libraries for drug and agricultural chemical companies. Since arriving in 2008, the company has provided services to several firms at Biocitech. Rom­uald Baudelle, Chem-X-Infinity’s chief scientific officer, says he finds the environment to be very collaborative.

And like the Eco-Solution scientists, the founders of Chem-X-Infinity had visited other biotech parks and incubators in the Paris region but discovered that only Bio­ci­tech would enable them to hit the ground running. “We came here, installed our machines, plugged everything in, and went to work,” Baudelle says.

Thanks both to the proximity of Pasteur Institute and to Aventis’ historical expertise in anti-infectives, Biocitech’s biggest successes have been firms focused on developing the next wave of antibiotics. “Anti-infectives are part of the culture of the former research center and part of the culture of the Paris region,” Lhomel says.

Perhaps the biggest success story has been Novexel, a biotech firm started in 2004 when Sanofi-Aventis decided to exit antibiotics research. After raising roughly $120 million in financing rounds in 2004 and 2007, the company advanced several drug candidates into clinical trials. Both NXL104, a β-lactamase inhibitor that is active against gram-negative bacteria, and NXL103, a combination of the streptogramin antibiotics linopristin and flopristin, are in Phase II trials.

Meanwhile, Novexel has grown to some 50 researchers, roughly 20 of whom are former Aventis scientists, notes Kenneth Coleman, Novexel’s chief scientific officer.

Late last year, AstraZeneca agreed to pay up to $425 million for Novexel, making it the second firm in Biocitech to be acquired by a multinational firm. In 2006, Belgian drug discovery company Galapagos bought ProSkelia, a firm spun off from Aventis’ bone disease unit.

As the number and size of companies grows, Biocitech finds itself in need of expansion. The occupancy rate is 93%, Lhomel says, and the park is finalizing the financial backing to double its size. The project will be completed in three phases over the course of 10 years, with construction expected to start in 2011.

The need to expand affirms the wisdom of a biotech hub in Paris, Lhomel says. “We’ve created a local network and showed that this really does work.”

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