The Catalan life sciences research system hasn’t changed much since the publication of the 2013 Biocat Report, although the process of grouping several bodies together has begun, in order to gain critical mass and take advantage of synergies and complementarities at the different research institutes.
The Catalan research model, based on autonomous centers, results-based contracts, independent assessment of national and international experts and a firm commitment to attracting talent (through ICREA programs), has been proven effective and put a whole slough of institutes with just under 10 years of history among the top bodies in the world in their respective disciplines. Nevertheless, by number of publications and volume of projects and researchers, they are still far from the large international benchmarks, which is a hurdle in competing for resources and the best teams.
While entrepreneurship is one of Catalonia’s strengths, as shown by the large number of spin-offs to come out of bodies in our research system, generating patents and, above all, their transfer to the business arena through licensing agreements is the big issue pending. Spain continues to hold one of lowest positions in Europe in number of patents applied for and granted, and although Catalonia generates a considerable percentage (more than 20% of all those granted in Spain), it’s only a medium-sized piece of a very small pie.
Facilities, in figures
The BioRegion of Catalonia, as of the end of 2015, has 41 research centers working in the health and life sciences or related subjects, such as nanotechnology, photonics, chemistry, etc. (table 2). Most of these centers (32) are part of CERCA, which brings together Catalan research centers. Three of these, the Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG), Catalan Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences (ICCC) and Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), also belong to the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), which has nine other centers working in the biosciences or related fields in Catalonia.31
It must be noted, furthermore, that Catalonia has two large research facilities, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center (BSC) and the Alba-CELLS Synchrotron, which in addition to serving the national and international scientific community also have research groups carrying out their own lines of research. There is also the National Center for Genomic Analysis (CNAG), which was integrated into the Center for Genomic Regulation in July 2015, and is now known as CNAG-CRG.
Since publication of the previous report, the Centre de Recerca en Sanitat Animal (CReSA) has been integrated into the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA) and the CRESIB (Barcelona Center for International Health Research) has joined ISGlobal, which was recognized as a CERCA center in October 2015.32
However, more fusion and convergence processes are underway, destined to reduce the number of active centers, in order to facilitate economies of scale in terms of management and facilities while increasing critical mass and research resources. Thus, ISGlobal is expected to absorb CREAL (Center for Research in Environmental Epidemiology), which has been coordinating with the previous center for some time now. The Catalan Institute of Cardiovascular Sciences (ICCC) is expected to merge with the Research Institute of the Sant Pau Hospital, and work is being done on a merger of the Institute of Predictive and Personalized Medicine of Cancer (IMPPC), Josep Carreras Leukemia Research Institute (IJC) and Health Sciences Research Institute of the Germans Trias i Pujol Foundation (IGTP).
Additionally, in mid-2015 the Barcelona Center of Science and Technology (BIST) was created, bringing together six large Catalan research centers: the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG), Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ), Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2), Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO), Institute for High Energy Physics (IFAE) and Biomedical Research Institute of Barcelona (IRB Barcelona). BIST aims to create the conditions necessary to promote top-notch research and boost the international visibility of member centers, as well as fostering collaboration in areas like postgraduate training, knowledge transfer, developing and managing science and technology platforms and attracting talent.
The six BIST centers, all with Severo Ochoa recognition, have a joint total of 1,700 researchers in 150 research groups, more than 500 students and an average of 75 PhD dissertations each year. BIST members generate around 1,000 scientific publications per year –more specifically, researchers at these centers published 144 articles in journals like Nature and Science between 2008 and 2012— and have received a total of 49 grants from the European Research Council (ERC).
BIST is mirroring global benchmarks like the Weizmann Institute of Science, in Israel, and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). Although not far off in some indicators, like number of PhD students or research groups for example, the difference lies in private funding and publications. The goal of BIST is, in short, to strengthen research of excellence that Catalan researchers have proven they can do by boosting the impact of their results.
Table 2 – Research centers working in biosciences and related fields in the BioRegion
According to the latest figures published by the INE for 2014, there are 43,898 people working in R&D in Catalonia, of which 25,474 are researchers,33 21% of all of those in Spain. Their weight, however, is more pronounced in terms of results of research: Catalonia produces 27% of all scientific publications34 and obtained 53% of all ERC grants between 2007 and 2015 to go to scientists in Spain (graph 25).
Of the 180 ERC grants obtained by scientists working in Catalonia, 78 are in the physical sciences and engineering and 62 in the life sciences, while the other 40 went to research in social sciences and humanities. By number of ERC grants received, within the scope of this report, ICFO and CRG are tied for first, with 18 grants each. ICIQ and IRB Barcelona follow on the ranking, with 10 ERC grants each.
ERC Grants awarded (2007-2015)
Regarding scientific production in the health and life sciences, the number of publications rose 168% from 2000 to 2015, going from 1.85% of all scientific production in Europe in these areas to 3.15%, and contributing 29% of publications in Spain. As graph 26 shows, Catalonia contributes 0.99% of all scientific production in life sciences.
Scientific production in life sciences in Catalonia
Source: Scopus / Observatori de la Recerca (OR-IEC), Institut d’Estudis Catalans
Catalan research in the life sciences also stands out in terms of national indicators. Catalonia is home to 11 institutes with accreditation as Severo Ochoa centers of excellence, of the 23 currently recognized around the country, and nine of these eleven work in the life sciences or related disciplines.35 6 out of the 10 units recognized as Maria de Maeztu units of excellence are also Catalan, three of which do research in the life sciences.36
If we focus on the 41 research centers working in the biosciences and related subjects, there is a total staff of 8,716 employees, including 5,499 researchers.37 Approximately 47% of these researchers are women, a percentage that is notably lower than that of the overall gender balance in these centers, where women make up 54% of the staff. Female presence is particularly scarce in centers associated with physical sciences or mathematics, where women make up roughly 25% of the staff but only 20% of researchers. On the other end of the spectrum, the number of female researchers is particularly noteworthy at hospital research institutes, where women make up more than 70% in many cases.
According to figures from the CERCA institution, Catalan research centers as a whole have a joint annual budge of €400 millions.38 Contributions from the Government of Catalonia make up approximately 40% of these resources and, despite the crisis and financial difficulties of recent years, this has held relatively steady since 2009: R&D&i expenditure that year was €171 millions, while the 2015 budget earmarked €165 millions for investment in this area.39
The 11 Catalan universities that offer degrees in the biosciences graduate roughly 5,500 students each year in the health and life sciences. According to data from the Catalan Secretariat for Universities, in the 2013-2014 school year there were 6,491 students registered in undergraduate programs in the life sciences (biology, biomedical engineering, bioinformatics and various environmental sciences degree programs) and 996 in masters programs. Furthermore, there were an additional 2,287 undergraduate students and 607 masters students in various programs categorized under the heading Food/Nutrition, and nearly one thousand doing an undergraduate degree (964) or masters programs (34) in veterinary science. Finally, in the health sciences (medical sciences, nursing, dentistry, optics and optometry) there were more than 15,700 undergraduate students and 1,175 masters students.
Predoc and postdoc students make up 18.22% of all research personnel at Catalan public universities, which in 2013 totaled 18,285 people.40 There aren’t any studies focusing specifically on the weight of the health and life sciences in university research, but if we extrapolate the percentage of students studying life sciences degrees (12%) to the number of researchers, we calculate more than 2,100 researchers in the life sciences and related disciplines at Catalan universities. In any case, more than half of all dissertations read at Catalan public universities in 2013 were from the life sciences and science in general.41
According to calculations from the ACUP (Catalan Association of Public Universities), Catalan public universities were responsible for 51% of all Catalan scientific production from 2007 to 2011, with nearly 58,000 publications and an average impact of 1.38.42
Catalan universities attracted €187 millions for R&D&i in 2013. This figure, unfortunately, dropped between 16% and 20% per year since 2010.43 65% of these resources (2013) were from competitive calls, with a progressive decrease in national funds (47%), and growing weight of European calls (53%).
In technology transfer, Catalan universities —like the region in general— are far from their European or North American counterparts. At the beginning of this article we quoted a report published in Nature Biotechnology, which states that the top 11 universities in the United States licensed more than 1,500 patents in 2014, 1,072 in the life sciences arena.44 In Catalonia, according to data from the ACUP, in 2013 universities submitted 84 patent applications to the Spanish Patent and Trademark Office (OEPM), 15 of which were for inventions in the life sciences. So, although there has been a decrease in the number of new patent applications (113 were submitted in 2012), the number of applications in the biosciences rose slightly, from 14 in 2012 (see more information on patents in graphs 29 and 30).
The indicators on the creation of spin-offs, however, are more significant. According to data from the ACUP, in 2012 Catalan universities had 118 active spin-offs. In the life sciences arena, 92 spin-offs were created between 1992 and 2015, 85 of which were still active in late 2015. As shown in graph 27, 59% of these companies (50) came out of universities.
Active Spin-off companies in the BioRegion by origin
Source: Biocat Directory
The 15 Catalan university hospitals and their research institutes —nine as of late 2015— account for 32% of all scientific publications (2007-2011), are home to 24% of the accredited research groups in the life sciences (Graph 28) and generate between 4% and 7% of all patent applications submitted to the OEPM (see Graph 30).
As a whole, the Catalan hospital system is made up of 195 establishments: 65 publicly owned (13 of which, university hospitals), 36 private (2 of which, university hospitals), 62 social health centers (government subsidized), 17 psychiatric and/or social health centers (with or without government subsidies) and 15 psychiatric centers (subsidized). These centers employ more than 89,000 workers,45 approximately one third of which work at the 15 university hospitals. In total, these hospitals and the 9 associated research institutes have some 5,000 researchers.
New in the period this report focuses on is the Barcelona Clinical Trials Platform (www.barcelonaclinicaltrials.org), promoted by the Catalan Ministry of Health and Biocat, bringing together the most important centers in Catalonia, in terms of volume of clinical trials, in order to improve coordination, integration, quality and speed of research. The goal is to make Catalonia one of the top five European regions for clinical trials.
As of January 2015, the centers that belong to the platform totaled 2,740 participations in trials, with 13,498 patients recruited. The vast majority of the patients were involved in phase III trials (44%), followed by those in phase IV (25%).
Also new this period, a new hospital research center was announced in March 2015: Parc Taulí Institute of Health Research and Innovation (I3PT). This is a joint initiative of the Parc Taulí Health Corporation, Sabadell Service Centre for the Elderly, UDIAT Diagnostics Centre, the Parc Taulí Foundation and the Autonomous University of Barcelona that aspires to gain recognition as a CERCA center and accreditation under the Institute of Health Carlos III.
Catalonia has 1,652 consolidated research groups, according to the results of the 2014-2016 call from the Government of Catalonia. Of these, a total of 780 groups (47%) do research in the areas covered in this report, whether in life sciences or physical sciences and engineering applied to these fields.
As shown in Graph 28, the majority of research groups in the life sciences and related disciplines work at universities (43%), research centers (29%) and hospitals or hospital research institutes (24%). There are also a small number of groups at other organizations, like large-scale research facilities (Barcelona Supercomputer Center, Alba-CELLS Synchrotron), technology centers or bodies in the health system.
Research groups working in life sciences or related disciplines (SRG 2014-2016)
Research in health and life sciences in Catalonia generated 286 patent applications submitted to the OEPM (Spanish Patent and Trademark Office) over the past 5 years (Graph 29). The number of patents granted in this same period (301) was slightly higher, although we must take into account that the review and analysis process prior to granting a patent can take several years, which explains the peak in patents granted in 2011 seen in the graph. The majority of these applications come from companies (46% in 2014), while universities stand out as the main applicant on patents at public bodies (22% in 2014), as shown in graph 30. A significant number of applications —between 20% and 25% over the past 5 years— list an individual as the main applicant.
Life sciences patents on which the main applicant is Catalan make up 17% of all those submitted to the OEPM in the biosciences. This figure is slightly lower than Catalan participation in the total patents granted by the Spanish office, which was 21% in the 2009-2014 period (3,246 in Catalonia compared to a total of 15,560), while Catalan applicants received 27% of all utility models granted. Catalonia’s participation in the number of patents granted by the EPO (European Patents Office) to applicants in Spain is much more significant, making up 51% of the total in 2014 (650 of 1,280).
Life sciences patents from applicants in Catalonia processed by the OEPM (2011-2015)
The number of patent applications in the life sciences submitted to the national office from Catalonia has held quite steady, although Spain as a whole is still far behind other nearby European countries. In this regard, it must be noted that, according to the latest report from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)46, in 2014 Spain submitted 1,456 patent applications to the EPO, while nearly twenty times as many were submitted from Germany (25,621), seven times more from France (10,557), and even twice as many from Italy (3,613).
It is worth remembering, however, that biotechnology, with a total of 5,905 patent applications submitted to the European Office in 2014 —12% more than the previous year— is one of the fields of technology showing the most growth currently. Patent applications submitted to the EPO for medical technology in 2014 totaled 11,124 —up 3.2% from 2013— while patent applications for pharmaceutical products (5,270) dropped 5.4%.
Percentage of life sciences patent applications processed by the OEPM
(first applicant from Catalonia)
The number of international patent extensions under the PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty) submitted from Spain and applications to the United States Patent Office in 2014 —1,705 and 1,707, respectively— are slightly higher than the number of EPO applications. However IP protection in markets like China and Japan is practically anecdotal: in 2014 Spain applied for just 340 patents in China, out of a total of more than 928,000 applications received in that country. The most recent data from Japan, for 2012, shows that Spain submitted 264 patent applications out of a total of 342,796.47
The birth of Eurecat
The merger of five large technology centers to form Eurecat shows the urgent need for innovations to reach the market, which this body hopes to drive by rationalizing support structures and making them more competitive. Eurecat, which was launched in late 2014 and completed its structure in July 2015, initially included the Ascamm centers, Barcelona Media, BDigital, Cetemmsa and CTM, allowing it to provide technology services in a wide range of sectors including aeronautics, food, automobile, construction, health, energy, rail transport, textiles, ICT and cultural industries, among others. In late 2015, the Reus-based Technological Center of Nutrition and Health (CTNS) joined Eurecat and, according to the directors of Eurecat, the number of member centers is expected to double over the coming two years. However, Leitat, which was initially part of the Eurecat project, decided not to join in September 2015.48
Eurecat, which has a total staff of 450 professionals and expects to see turnover of €40 millions for 2015 and €60 millions in 2016, provides services for nearly one thousand companies, mostly SMEs. It is currently conducting 160 R&D projects —in 2015 it received €7.5 millions in EU funds for projects— has 73 patents and has generated 7 spin-offs. The Government of Catalonia, through the Ministry of Enterprise and Employment, is supporting Eurecat with €10 millions in 2015 and €20 millions in 2016. Despite these resources, the management structure of the new center is mainly private, with a board of trustees made up of representatives from 14 companies, including pharmaceutical firm Reig Jofre and veterinary company Hipra.49 Biotechnology is one of the areas of technology that Eurecat hopes to bolster over the coming years.
With this operation, the number of technology centers in Catalonia dropped to seven. This, however, wasn’t the only change aimed at driving business innovation in the period covered in this report. The TECNIO program has also been transformed; it is no longer a network of technology-services centers, it has now become a seal to “identify innovation stakeholders”. In short, it is an effort to expand and diversify the offering of outstanding technology geared mainly towards SMEs. With this change, the program has opened itself up to companies and private institutions, and to services associated with knowledge transfer, from intellectual property managers to investment funds.