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Montserrat Vendrell

CEO of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology

Montserrat Vendrell hung up her lab coat (CSIC, Roche Institute of Molecular Biology, New Jersey, EUA) to foster science from an office. She holds a PhD in Biology from the UB and a postgraduate business-management degree from IESE and, now, will hand over the reigns of Biocat and the Barcelona Science Park to become the first director of the new Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology, which brings together six of the top research centers in Catalonia.

Montserrat Vendrell, who has been CEO of Biocat since it was created, has seen this body grow at the same quick pace as the companies in the health and life sciences sector and the ecosystem they belong to. After the boom of Catalan biocompanies with the support of Biocat, Vendrell is now preparing for a new stage at the helm of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology. The challenges she is facing there are similar: growth, recognition and sustainability. 


How has the health and life sciences sector in Catalonia evolved over the decade since you took up your post as CEO of Biocat?

The truth is that it has been the decade of the life sciences and we’ve been lucky to experience it from a watchtower, from the front row. When you think back to the turn of the century, about what the sector was like then, both in terms of the number of biotech companies and the research centers that were just coming into existence (the oldest are now ten years old), the scene was very different. Plus, the human resources involved have grown 50% in ten years, for example. The sector has thrived over these years.

What needs did businesspeople in the sector have then and what do they need now?

New needs have arisen as companies evolve, but others have disappeared because in the beginning we didn’t have the rich fabric and they needed access to knowledge and experts, companies in the same area that had done the same thing before them. However, now the sector is much more mature, people starting out can find companies that have taken the same path. Plus, platforms like Biocat or CataloniaBio offer the chance to meet up so they don’t feel so alone.

Have some needs stayed the same?

Funding and internationalization are always key challenges. But, just as the sector has matured over these ten years, we also have more funding instruments. We still need more but what we have now with Caixa Capital Risc, Ysios Capital, Healthequity and Inveready, which are all investing in the sector, is nothing like it was back then when none of them were around and that’s a very important change.

Have investors dared move into a sector that in the beginning they found worrying?

Where there are investment opportunities, there are investors: that’s how the market works. And we’re not talking about investors from other sectors that suddenly come over to this one: they’re often people from the sector, with international careers, who see what is happening here at home as a business opportunity and set up funds here, like in the case of Ysios, or bodies like “la Caixa” that already invested in other areas and decided to create a specific instrument for this sector. But it is true that there are other factors, like increased technological knowledge (the technological risk inherent in those projects was a hurdle), as well as the business opportunity that comes from some success stories.

Is creating a critical mass of companies the way to make them more competitive?

It isn't the only strategy. Of course, having a critical mass is important but here we’ve tended towards starting companies small and allowing them to stay that way for too long. There are other possible strategies like merging and seeking out co-development alliances abroad (likeOryzon with Roche). We shouldn’t try to move forward all on our own. The dynamics of the sector, and even more taking into account our global setting, drive companies to forge alliances. And we’ve learned from that too: going out, building a more solid discourse and, despite the crisis, there have been success stories of international alliances done right.

Speaking of the crisis, have companies and research centers recovered?

I don’t think you can say any sector has recovered. The indicators we have are based on macroeconomics and the real impact on the daily finances and operations of companies is different. This time of excessive prudence or stagnation due to lack of liquidity has lasted longer than it should have. It began later because our companies’ business models are acyclical and now we’re starting to see more investments, like the €36.6 millions just attracted by Sanifit in the Balearic Islands.

Can we expect more good news?

We know that other companies will soon be closing new rounds of funding and also, importantly, that some funds, valued at €100 millions, are looking to enter the sector. When investors come or create funds here, it means we’re in a period of growth. The funding needs of a more mature company aren’t the same as those of companies just starting out. That’s why, sometimes, too fast a boom can leave companies hanging in series B rounds because they don’t have access to additional funding. Now we’re starting to see that access to funding won’t be a problem.

One of Biocat’s aims has been to boost the internationalization of Catalan biocompanies. What is the state of the sector in this regard?

Internationalization in this sector starts from day one because, from the day they are created, companies work on projects with partners around the world. Here at Biocat we remain committed to encouraging them to look abroad, open up delegations under our protection and also have the chance to attend congresses or bring them here, like BioEurope Spring which will be held in Barcelona again two years from now.

Biocat acts as a bridge. Between the public and the private, between Catalonia and the rest of the world… And also between large corporations and small companies to help them innovate together?

Yes, in a sector like ours, open innovation is key. Many times, it is difficult for large companies to move quickly or innovate from within and they seek out collaborations with small businesses that stand in for links in the value chain. We can play this role as a bridge, or better yet a motorway, creating a network that makes finding the right partner more efficient.

What did you expect when you started at Biocat?

I never dreamed we’d end up here. I hoped to be of use and have an impact on the emerging bio sector. We weren’t very sure ‘how’ but we wanted Biocat to play a role, directly or indirectly, in everything related to the life sciences in Catalonia. And eight and a half years later we’ve become a useful, renowned body that has evolved along with the sector.

How do you see the future of the BioRegion?

Right now, we’re seeing exponential growth of many types of technology, not just biotech but also digital and imaging technology. And, at a time when health is reinventing how care is provided and how it is sustainable, bodies like Biocat play an extremely important role in making sure that happens efficiently with as few resources as possible.

How would you like to see the BioRegion a few years down the line?

I would like for the success stories not to be counted on one hand, for investors worldwide to know Barcelona and Catalonia as a place they’re interested in doing business and for our companies to be able to go abroad and foreign companies to come here with a sense of normality that we haven’t yet achieved.

Now you’re starting a new stage at the helm of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology. What challenges are you facing?

There are many. Any time you try to scale up and gain critical mass by joining forces that are doing well in different disciplines, you have the challenge of adding value despite this complexity. The great challenge is scaling up the role research plays in the future of our country. Research in Catalonia has been a priority but it must now be sustainable and act as a cornerstone to attract researchers and postgrad students from around the world. So, the challenge is to make research in Catalonia a system that is solid, sustainable, and competitive internationally. 

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