A feature on the state of Reasearch and Development in Barcelona and Catalonia

A city of innovation, Barcelona is growing as a hub for biotechnology and research—and on a global scale. Incredibly, this little piece of Europe accounts for nearly 1% of global scientific production, with 12 world-class universities, more than 60 research centres, 15 internationally-revered hospitals, and thousands of knowledge-based companies.

In 2000, the Catalan government’s Ministry for Universities, Research and Information Society began implementing a blueprint for research to kick-start the Catalan economy and bring it into the 21st century. It worked.

Today, 22% of Spain’s biotech companies are located in Catalonia; while 45% of Spain’s pharmaceutical companies are based in Catalonia, including the largest in the sector, which happen to all be Catalan firms: Admiral, Esteve Ferrer, Grifols, Lacer and Uriach. The Spanish pharmaceutical sector is Europe’s seventh-biggest in terms of production volume. In the last five years, according to the 2011 Biocat Report, over 450 Catalan companies (biotechnology, pharmaceutical, medical technology innovators and service sectors) have experienced growth rates of between 15% and 30%, which, given the current economic downturn, shows the potential of the sector. Catalonia is a magnet for European funding in this area and a pioneer in biomedical research in Southern Europe, “Catalonia has created a system that is able to attract the best people and an environment where they have the best opportunities and incentives. This has produced an ecosystem where scientists can thrive,” says J. Guinovart, the Director of Barcelona’s Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Bar- celona).

In the last 15 years, scientific production in Catalonia has also taken up, with the number of highly cited papers increasing by up to 80%. As Eduardo Sanchiz, CEO, of Almirall, the largest pharmaceutical company in Barcelona, explains, “For the past four years the pharmaceutical market in Spain has suffered, so expanding the business internationally has being a key move, mainly entering the US and the rest of Europe. In fact, Almirall has been doing this for the past decade when, back in 2002, our international business represented only 20% of the total. Today it represents 70%.”


“Investments in R&D go hand in hand with the performance of the business as a whole. We shouldn’t forget that pharma companies, just like any other business, depend on their own operating accounts to decide whether they can invest more or less. Our income is what allows us to spend money in R&D so it is absolutely normal that during the recent years of crisis, the sector as a whole has reduced investments a little bit, however investment will continue to invest significant amounts in R&D and even increase them thanks to the international growth of our business.” “Barcelona has proved to be an attractive place for foreign professionals, in Almirall, for example, we have workers from over 20 difference countries, and we believe that Barcelona’s branding as a city has helped a lot in that.” “While it is true that there has been an increase or an acceleration in recent years, the trend of big pharma companies buying products or licenses from SMEs or start-ups has been there for a long time now. It is normal, there are more people by far outside the big pharma companies than inside, that’s what we call research boutiques.”

Biomedical research contributes 5.8% of Catalan GDP, and according to a report into Health Science Research presented by the Results Centre of the Catalan Comprehensive Public Health Care System in June 2014, biomedical research cen- tres in Catalonia make three euros for every one euro invest- ed in them by the Government. Using data collected from 19 research institutes and centres across Catalonia in 2012, the report also found that biomedical research has increased its production by 30% in the last three years. In Catalonia, invest- ment in health research is therefore highly lucrative.

Catalonia’s success in the field of biomedical research is closely linked to the structure of its research model. A significant number of research centres and companies in the sector are located in more than 20 science and technology parks within reach of Barcelona. Many more are based in hospitals, such as the world-class HIV research facility, Irsi Caixa, based at the Germans Trias i Pujol University Hospital in Badalona, a small coastal town next within the Barcelona environs. What sets the region apart from other bio-clusters Europe is its in- terconnectivity. “I think talent is everywhere, but there are some specific landscapes that better facilitate the crystallisation of ideas,” Dr. Bonaventura Clotet, physician, researcher and the Director of the Irsi Caixa says. “In Catalonia, we are very keen to collaborate and join forces. There is more synergy between different organisations, hospitals, clinics, and research centres.”