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2021 was a year of increased awareness, generally, of the importance of investment in health research and innovation, and of the need to prepare for the future pandemics that are sure to come. In this line, the Catalan government earmarked 15% more for Health in the 2022 budget, for 26.5% of the total, and has created new venture capital funds to promote scientific research and entrepreneurship in Catalonia. The Barcelona City Council also announced a new fund to encourage innovation in science and technology in the city. This year also saw an acceleration in new initiatives like the Ciutadella del Coneixement (Knowledge Citadel) complex in the former fish market, the new Hospital Clinic Barcelona and the new building for the Vall d’Hebron Research Institute, which will strengthen the BioRegion’s capacities and knowledge and healthcare systems. The entrepreneurial sector also celebrated the Barcelona City Council’s initiative to make it easier to start new companies in the city, and the Spanish government’s move to improve startup ecosystems, agreeing on the details of a draft startup law.

For December, let’s look back over the most noteworthy milestones reached throughout the year, which we compile monthly in this section. We’ll see that, despite the pandemic, the life sciences and healthcare ecosystem in Catalonia continues, more than ever, to move at an exciting pace. 

Dental health saw two of the biggest investment operations in startups, with a new record: €41 million.

Two startups in dental health saw the two biggest operations of the year: Impress raised €41 million, the largest round in the history of the BioRegion, and Corus Dental raised €25 million. Other noteworthy rounds include InBrain Neuroelectronics (€14.3 million), Koa Health (€14 million), IMIDomics (€14 million), Mediktor (€11 million), TopDoctors (€11 million) and VEnvirotech (€11 million). Other companies considerably increased their capital through other funding options, like Anaconda Biomed with a €10-million loan from the European Investment Bank (EIB) to bolster its R&D, and Oryzon Genomics with a €1-million donation to support a new clinical trial. Other startups in the BioRegion have received funding through grants or public calls, such as Sequentia Biotech (€6 million), Roka Furadada (€3.2 million), Aortyx (€2.5 million), HumanITcare (€2.5 million) and Novameat (€1.86 million). Also of note, startups AON Therapeutics and Time is Brain were selected to receive €300,000 of CaixaResearch Consolidate funding each and Biel Glasses and Dermavision won the Health Longevity Catalyst from EIT Health, along with 19 other emerging European companies. Each will receive up to €50,000 in initial funding to continue to develop their product or service. 

Capital Cell, the crowdfunding platform that surpassed its 2020 investment this year in October (€14 million), still has several rounds open for startups in the BioRegion, including EndoLipiD, USMIMA (startup created out of the d·HEALTH Barcelona program) and its medical device MOWOOT (which has recently gained FDA approval), and Onalabs

Regarding mergers and acquisitions, some companies in the BioRegion have joined forces with international companies. Among others, Infinitec, a biotech firm focused on research, development, production and commercialization of latest-generation active ingredients and delivery systems for the cosmetics industry, was acquired by German company Evonik; and Bioinfogate, a startup that has developed an artificial intelligence platform that specializes in identifying the toxicology of new drugs, was acquired by US company Clarivate Analytics. Hipra also made a strategic move to reinforce its human health line of business by acquiring BioRegion startup Goodgut, which specializes in R&D for tests to diagnose digestive diseases, a good example of technology transfer between local companies. 

To finish off, let’s turn to some of the most important international events of the year, starting with 4YFN, which this year saw more than 40 companies and organizations from the BioRegion participate in the dedicated digital health area, and which positioned the Catalan capital as a benchmark in digital entrepreneurship. Another noteworthy event was the 15th annual BIO-Europe Spring® fair, which couldn’t be held in person in Barcelona, as scheduled, but was held online with a notable Catalan presence. Other conferences where Barcelona stood out (onsite or online) include the 44th World Hospital Congress, World Vaccine Congress Europe and European HealthTech Week. The presentation of the 2020 BioRegion of Catalonia Report was also held online, with record results. We’ll see how they have evolved in the latest edition of the report, which will be presented on 26 January 2022. Registration is open, so get your tickets now! 

Main advances in research

Catalonia is on the cutting edge of advanced therapies and personalized medicine, and a good example is the approval of the CAR-T ARI-0001, developed by Hospital Clinic Barcelona, by the Spanish Agency of Medicines and Medical Devices (AEMPS) to treat leukemia. The therapy was developed completely in Europe and has been approved by a regulatory agency. Hospital Sant Pau also successfully completed phase I trials on its CAR-T therapy and will begin another trial in the first quarter of 2022. Another advance was made by ICO and IDIBELL, in collaboration with the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), discovering a mechanism that allows doctors to predict which patients will respond to chemotherapy and radiation. Other noteworthy news in cancer includes the launch of the first public proton accelerator for cancer in Spain, which will be located at the Parc Sanitari Pere Virgili in Barcelona; and the international trial on a new drug to slow metastatic breast cancer carried out by VHIO, which has been named a Severo Ochoa Center of Excellence. Hospital de Bellvitge has developed a relatively non-invasive method that can predict how brain metastasis will respond to immunotherapy.

There has also been good news in Alzheimer research: an international study led by the Pasqual Maragall Foundation has identified a new biomarker that detects the early stages of the disease. This milestone makes Barcelona one of the main hubs of Alzheimer research in the world. Hospital de Sant Joan de Déu carried out a groundbreaking sclerosis operation using augmented reality, technology that is having a huge impact on the healthcare sector. This year, that same center opened the first pediatric toxicology office in Spain, a unit that will handle accidental ingestion of substances and drug and alcohol consumption. Another hospital that has advanced with a research project is Parc de Salut Mar, which published the results of a study showing the exact moment when patients lose consciousness after being administered anesthesia. This discovery will help adjust the dose and lower the risk of administering too much.

Other hospital milestones to highlight include the record number of kidney transplants performed at Hospital Clinic. That same center, with Hospital Sant Joan de Déu, also took part in the first pediatric cross-over kidney transplant between people with incompatible blood types in Spain. Hospital Bellvitge successfully completed the first heart transplant in Catalonia from a controlled asystole donor, meaning the patient’s heart had stopped. The same hospital was also the first in the world to carry out a percutaneous double heart valve replacement. In terms of new technology for surgeries, Hospital Sant Joan de Déu used augmented reality for the first time in Spain for a scoliosis operation.

Now for some noteworthy research from universities, centers and institutes: results were presented from the 19 Catalan projects that received €4 million in 2020 to fight the pandemic through an emergency call launched by the Catalan Ministry of Health and AQUAS, with collaboration from Biocat. We also witnessed research led by IRBLleida that defined a new microRNA profile as a biomarker to predict the evolution of Covid-19. Continuing on the topic of SARS-CoV-2, the University of Girona (UdG) has developed a new method to detect the coronavirus quickly and less expensively than a PCR. 

Another group of researchers from IDIBAPS led a multi-center study all over Spain that has shown the benefits of delivery after week 34 in women with preeclampsia. More on studies, Girona Biomedical Research Institute (IdiBGi), Bellvitge Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBELL) and the University of Barcelona have discovered a new way to treat obesity and a team of researchers, coordinated by the Autonomous University of Barcelona, has opened the door to development of new treatments for this type of brain cancer.  And we have to congratulate the Bosch i Gimpera Foundation, which celebrated its 38th anniversary this year and has made it possible for its spinoffs to see turnover of €7.1 million in a year marked by the pandemic. 

Business growth with new acquisitions and strategic movements

Hipra has played an unexpected leading role in the fight against Covid-19. This Catalan pharmaceutical company that specializes in animal immunology took the leap into human health in spring 2020 and aspires to be the first vaccine developed in Spain to launch to market, in early 2022. 

Grifols, Uriach, Reig Jofre, Almirall, Esteve and Ferrer also had good news in 2021, above all with new acquisitions. The pharmaceutical company led by Víctor Grífols acquired both its German competitor Biotest, investing €1.6 billion and giving the company 26 more plasma centers, and US biotech firm GigaGen, for €67.3 million. As part of its divestment plan, this year the pharmaceutical company sold startup VCN Biosciences to US company Synthetic Biologics for €66.4 million. For its part, Uriach acquired German company Sidroga, giving the pharmaceutical company access to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Another important movement came with the sale of its generics business to the MCH Private Equity investment fund and a group of Catalan family offices, in a bid to position itself in over-the-counter products. Also noteworthy, Reig Jofre has strengthened its international investment, acquiring 100% of its subsidiary in the United Kingdom to consolidate its position in that country, as well as being in the news throughout the year for manufacturing the Janssen vaccine in a new plant. Laboratoris Ordesa has opened a new market in Turkey by acquiring 50% of baby formula brand Evolvia. And Almirall has begun marketing a new drug for topical treatment of actinic keratosis (AK) on the face and scalp in Germany and the United Kingdom. It is also worth noting that some biopharmaceutical companies have restructured their research and development (R&D) departments, including Esteve and Ferrer. 

And we’re celebrating the arrival of new companies to the BioRegion, including pharmaceutical distributor Alliance Healthcare, which will inaugurate a complex in Viladecans (Barcelona) housing its central offices and an R&D center. Swiss company Siegfried has also set its sights on Barcelona, acquiring two factories from Novartis to increase the capacity of its global network of pharmaceutical products, and Lacer inaugurated its new corporate headquarters in the Catalan capital this year.

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