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Josep Escaich

General Manager and CEO of Bioibérica

An agricultural engineer by training, he has worked at Bioibérica, one of the oldest biotechnology companies in Catalonia, for 25 years. He joined the company in 1988 working in research, sales and the international market. In 1993, he was named deputy general manager and in 2003 took on his current role at the helm of the company as general manager —and since 2012, CEO as well. From this position he transmits the essence of industrial tradition but with a view to always go one step further and innovate.

Bioibérica is the leading manufacturer in the world of heparin, an anticoagulant used for various medical treatments like myocardial infarction, thrombosis and hemodialysis, present in more than 70 countries. It is a biotechnology firm that has researched, manufactured and sold its products internationally from the very beginning, which makes it an example in the BioRegion of Catalonia. In the mid-nineties, the company began to diversify towards drugs and active ingredients for joints —15 million patients are treated each year with one of their products— plant stress management and immunological and digestive health.

In 2012, the company posted turnover of €237 millions (69% from exports). In Catalonia, where the company has its corporate headquarters in Barcelona and plants in Palafolls and Vilafranca del Penedès, and their four factories in Brazil, the United States, Italy and Poland, the company employs roughly 400 people.

The company’s activity began with heparin, right?

Yes, exactly. In 1975, Bioibérica was created because at that moment demand for heparin outpaced supply and as it is a product obtained from natural sources a series of circumstances made it possible to set up a production plant in Catalonia, where there weren’t any others and only two in all of Europe. Bioibérica started out as a small factory in the middle of farmland in Palafolls and was classified as industry in the countryside. From the very beginning, the company focused on specialization and international clients. We have reached a point where one in every five doses administered in the world are Catalan, and this is significant considering that our main competitors are in China and, historically, the United States, England and Germany. Our commitment to industrial technology and science, hard work and well-trained personnel has been key.

The company’s second important specialization is osteoarthritis, through the Bioibérica Farma division. Why was this therapeutic area chosen?

It was a natural result of the company’s evolution. We were manufacturing and selling three active pharmaceutical ingredients (chondroitin sulfate, hyaluronic acid and glucosamine) and we evaluated the steps we could take to set the company apart and make it more competitive. In the mid-nineties, we saw that it was necessary to invest in science and the closest thing was to research applications for these products in the field of osteoarthritis, a field of the future because the factors that lead to the development of this condition, like ageing, sports and obesity, are increasing. Also there weren’t many competitors of any significant size.

Later on, in 2008, we decided to broaden our viewpoint to focus on the quality of life of patients with osteoarthritis. We decided to move into the arena through technology where personalized medicine is the umbrella that encompasses the whole line. We’ve opened up lines of research in the area of diagnostics, both genes and biomarkers, where we recently launched a DNA test to find out how osteoarthritis of the knee will evolve; pharmacogenomics, where we have studies underway to see how treatments adapt to the patient; and cell therapy, where in the near future we hope to have a product for therapeutic application. For the past five years we’ve also been working on a research project in nutrition for the first novel food, which has recently been approved by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Bioibérica now has seven business divisions (heparin, functional foods, pharma, sports nutrition, veterinary science, plant physiology and nutritional care). These are fields that may seem very different but that’s not the case as you reuse some of the raw materials.

True, We have a biointegrated program that says that everything must leave the company with a name, label and price. We have heparin, which is the initial element of the process, but we’ve also developed other outputs that have helped us gain competitiveness over countries like China that don’t have this viewpoint, or as robust a manufacturing, management and quality process as we do with all the possible European and North-American certifications.

The company has a strong industrial vocation, with the main production plant in Palafolls. Is this a positive value right now?

The company’s strategy has always been specialization (heparin and osteoarthritis) and integration through scientific development, industrial production, sales and, now, new technology. Being an industrial company gives you character, personality and a greater margin for improvement and making your product unique. We have an industrial, commercial and scientific vocation. In the move from heparin to osteoarthritis we added industrial and scientific expertise, but we never abandoned our industrial roots. Clients like to know and see how we manufacture our products; our factory is one of our main selling points.

Are the factories in Brazil, the United States, Poland and Italy owned by the company or through joint ventures?

We have six plants (preparation of raw materials) of our own and through joint ventures around the world as our vocation is to share. We believe it is better to join forces than to protect. However in Catalonia we finish the purification process of biological products. Our central plant in Palafolls is a global benchmark in glycosaminoglycan products.

What investment do you foresee?

We will soon increase our production capacity, mainly of heparin, in Palafolls and we will start up a raw-materials production plant in Germany. We continue to invest in research and are studying other fields like developing a biogas unit from all the outputs we haven’t been able to valorize and with the dream of one day being self-sufficient in terms of power.

Does your strategy include acquiring small biotech firms as other groups in the sector are doing?

No, we prefer to cooperate, share know-how and strategy. Since 2011 we’ve been collaborating with a spin-off of the University of Liège (Belgium), called Artialis, to develop biomarkers for diagnosis and prognosis of osteoarthritis and other rheumatic diseases. It is a mixed company created through collaboration among an expert scientist, Bioibérica Farma and the Belgian government. We will soon have the first product, which uses blood or urine samples to judge the level of cartilage wear, and is the only one of its kind in the world.

We have very well trained personnel with a lot of knowledge, but we aren’t a multinational corporation. We don’t have a structure of hundreds of researchers, but a group of 10 scientists that conduct research in five different fields, and we complement this by seeking out research centers around the world that specialize in osteoarthritis, young-animal intestinal health, plant stress, etc. For 30 years now we’ve carried out what is now called Open Innovation. We have more ideas than money! This has been our line. We’ll never be leaders in terms of sales, but as long as we make things happen in our sector we’re happy.

One of the biggest worries facing small companies in the biotechnology sector in Catalonia is funding to move forward with their innovative activity in fields of interest like oncology, the nervous system and neurodegenerative diseases. From the point of view of one of the oldest biotechnology companies here at home, what is your take on this situation?

The biotechnology sector will be king. It is an important commitment to the future, but it is a bit contaminated. Opportunistic biotech firms should be eliminated and true biotech firms should be supported, those whose ideas make sense and make a positive contribution. It is also necessary to get products to market more quickly. There is too much focus on making the product more sophisticated.

With the experience of Artialis we’ve seen that the Belgian government has tools we don’t yet have here. One of our permanent partners is the Government, through a fund. That’s getting involved. In Catalonia we need a real commitment to believing in these companies.

Biotechnology is a fantastic field where you can apply all of the life sciences. We have done so in agriculture, human and animal health, the environment, energy, etc. Although biotech firms are misunderstood, now things are improving with Biocat and Asebio. Now we must see Catalonia and Spain leading global trials for new medical technology.

Farmaindustria expects that hospital expenditure on drugs, which is currently €7,000 millions annually, will fall for the first time this year. What do Catalan pharmaceutical companies need to do to stay competitive and not lose jobs?

If you cut off money to a person they are completely shaken up and if it isn’t done in an organized manner even more so. There is a lack of absolute criteria as to what should be done. We’ve lost the idea of patients and now only speak of expenditure. I think it’s a problem of management and organization, not doctors prescribing more or less. Catalan pharmaceutical companies need to try not to fire personnel, cut the budget to zero if necessary and seek out new ways to work and intensify and continue with internationalization and diversification. And if the legal and regulatory framework changes, which happens frequently, study it and adapt to it. This is one of the main problems we are facing, as it makes it impossible to have an idea of what is to come in the next three years.

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