Malta has long been promoted as a country with great potential in the life science field. Having attracted some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies to establish plants on the island, Malta has invested heavily in infrastructure and lab facilities to position itself as a hub for life sciences. While the global biotech world has still to feel the pull of Malta, there are signs that the sector is finally advancing and growing. Companies are moving into a new life sciences park, while home-grown researchers and scientists are bringing made-in-Malta healthcare products to market. In addition, the arrival of Partners International Healthcare, a group affiliated to Harvard Medical School, as part of Malta’s efforts to reform its healthcare system could actually lead to a major breakthrough in the development of Malta’s life sciences cluster. The idea is to bring a significant percentage of Harvard’s research budget to the island, and in combination with EU funding, establish Malta as a medical R&D location, which would attract pharma firms at the cutting-edge of scientific thought and laboratory research.
Known for Generic Medicines
Malta’s biotech roots go back to 1905 when Sir Temi Zammit found out that a bacterium in goat’s milk was the source for a highly contagious disease, today known as brucellosis or Malta fever. His discovery led to the almost total eradication of the disease in the developed world. In modern times, the generics pharmaceutical sector has been one of the island’s major success stories. Pharmaceuticals were classified as a priority sector for the economy as part of Malta’s plan to move manufacturing into higher-value-added activities. The industry quickly became one of the fastest-growing productive business sectors and has attracted many global leaders. They came initially to take advantage of the country’s legal framework that allows the development of generic drugs in advanced-patent expiry, known as the Bolar Exemption. Because of this legislation, generic manufacturers can conduct research and trials on drugs before the patents expire. While the generics manufacturing industry has provided the bedrock for Malta’s research and development capabilities, the industry recognised that for the sector to grow and prosper it needed to move further up the value chain where it could carve out a niche as a location for specialist drug developers, manufacturers of medical devices and start-up biotech companies.
"There us scope for pharmaceutical companies and clinical institutions to invest in Malta and as a base to perform clinical research and trials."
Chris Fearne, Minister for Health & Deputy Prime Minister
Biotech meets Big Data
The sector currently supports some 1,500 jobs and produces exports worth some €300 million, up from €56 million euro in 2005. With the establishment of a life sciences park, Malta has made a long term commitment to support the growth and development of start-ups and smaller biotech firms. It typically takes about 15 years and costs up to €600 million to bring a new drug discovery to market. While big pharma increasingly outsource development functions and invest in promising start-ups, rather than performing studies and drug development of their own, Malta sees an opportunity to cooperate with industry leaders and accelerate the growth of young life science companies. The island also counts on a data-driven future of biotech and seeks to attract technology companies as life sciences companies are looking for ways to speed up drug discovery and analytics.
Pharma companies with significant operations on the island currently include Actavis Generics which, in the summer of 2016, was acquired by Teva Pharmaceutical Industries – one of Israel’s largest pharma companies, Siegfried Holdings from Switzerland, the Spanish Medichem Group, Amino Chemicals of Italy and the Indian generics manufacturer Aurobindo. But generic producers have not remained the only protagonists of the sector. US firm Baxter and German company Metallform produce medical equipment on the island. Cardinal Health provides the industry with a broad set of healthcare products and services, while Univenter specialises in the design and production of pre-clinical research instruments. Malta’s research base is also under development: having already registered some 40 patents, the Institute of Cellular Pharmacology is regarded as a trailblazer in cellular and molecular biology, producing vegetal extracts for human and animal use for the pharmaceutical, cosmetics and veterinary industries. One of Malta’s latest success stories is AAT Research, which was founded by neuroscientist Adrian Attard Trevisan, who developed the world’s first neurofeedback device for home use by children with autism. The firm is also one of a number of sector players that have set up shop in Malta’s new life sciences park.
Research & Testing Centre
The €35-million centre Life Sciences Centre, co-financed through the European Regional Development Fund and strategically positioned close to key stakeholders in the industry, the state hospital and university, occupies 11,000 square metres and hosts research laboratories in medicine, genetics and biotechnology. It also includes an incubation centre to support start-up companies and encompasses the whole innovation life-cycle and supply-chain process for companies specialising in life sciences. The objective of the centre is to attract foreign direct investment and sustain the further development of Malta’s homegrown life sciences community, providing a base for research institutes, technological firms, and educational and medical training institutes.
The island’s cost base, which is lower than in biotech hubs in Switzerland, Ireland or the UK, makes it more affordable to pursue a new idea. In addition, Malta is ideally suited for non-EU firms and scientists as an entry point to the EU, offering them the possibility of operating in a state of- the-art environment with reduced up-front investments. The island also emphasises that the Life Sciences Centre provides a functional environment both for research companies and for firms that offer inspection and verification. This includes testing and certification services, such as checking the condition and weight of traded goods at trans-shipment, as well as confirming the quality and compliance of products with regulatory standards. A digital hub adjacent to the life sciences facilities has also been established and promises exciting synergies.
The sector also looks to the transformation of Malta’s healthcare infrastructure, where new players could make a big difference for life sciences too. Part of Malta’s public health sector has been privatised, and the country has signed a deal with Vitals Global Healthcare (VGH) and their partners Barts and The London School of Medicine and Partners HealthCare International. Partners HealthCare is one of the leading integrated academic healthcare systems in the US and was founded in 1994 by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital, the two oldest and largest teaching hospitals of Harvard Medical School. Research collaboration between Harvard and Malta’s academic institutions has already been discussed, and there are plans to draw on research grants of the EU, as well as Harvard, to develop innovative solutions to global problems.
A Focus on Clinical Trials
Malta’s government is also throwing its doors wide open to increase the amount of medical research undertaken in the country. The island believes it can be a centre for clinical trials, with a large public hospital serving most of the population. For some products, clinical trials can take up to a decade and are a money pit for pharma companies. Malta offers an opportunity for pharma companies requiring a partner that is flexible and nimble. The Malta Biobank – a national archive of DNA and blood samples, and the Maltese genome project which is searching for genes responsible for causing diseases in the Maltese population, are just two examples of how Malta is seeking to position itself as a centre for medical research. The government is also considering bringing a cyclotrone to Malta, which would allow research on cancer drugs and dermatology drugs on the island.
Malta Enterprise is the government agency charged with establishing and managing the development of Malta’s life sciences industry, as well as overseeing the further development of the Life Sciences Park. Offering players that come to the island financial support and loan guarantees, as well as logistical and workforce training assistance, Malta Enterprise is instrumental in the success in attracting foreign companies to the island. Malta also offers biotech firms support in managing their patent portfolios, including assistance in filing patent applications in multiple jurisdictions as well as tax exemptions on patent income.
While many in Malta had hoped that the life sciences centre would be an immediate success, it has proven to be more difficult to attract biotech companies and start-ups. Malta does boast lab space and governmental support, young companies and entrepreneurs; however, many may be turned off by issues with accessing finance and a lack of venture capitalists. Attracting angel investors would be another key component of building the life sciences industry in Malta. To further support the growing life sciences sector, and sciences in general, there are also proposals for the introduction of the position of Chief Science Officer reporting to the government, a role that is not without precedent on the world stage. Until recently, Ireland and the Czech Republic had chief scientists, and both the UK and Australia still do.
The growth of this sector would not have been possible if the island had not built up a workforce with an ideal mix of technical and managerial skills to support it. University-educated chemistry graduates, as well as a selection of highly trained personnel experienced in operating sophisticated, high-precision machinery, are available to the industry. In addition, the fact that the Maltese are bilingual (Maltese and English) means that local personnel are able to prepare scientific documents and laboratory reports to the standards required by the industry. Malta also aims to further leverage its human capacity to become a centre for higher-value-added production and research. Growth in the number of R&D personnel has so far remained below the average seen in other EU economies and only a fraction of the 2,000 students graduating from the University of Malta every year specialise in sciences. Students are now being encouraged to take up sector-related subjects at both the university and the island’s vocational college, MCAST, where strong efforts are being made to ensure collaboration between the institutes and the industry in order to develop specific training programmes. Retaining skilled personnel is one of the challenges the sector faces: higher wages, a more developed commercialisation infrastructure and research opportunities abroad have kept Malta’s brightest away from the island in recent years. However, a research community is beginning to emerge in Malta and the recent infrastructural investments are shaping a unique ecosystem that will allow it to compete on a higher level. It is the government’s aim to increase its spending on research and innovation to 2% by 2020, up from 0.72% today. There are also plans to allocate income from Malta’s Individual Investor Programme, a citizenship-by-investment programme, for research and development.
"There is huge potential for biotech in Malta, with some firms already established on the island. The couuntry is able to create the right environment to develop interesting ideas. However, more grants and incentives could help biotech companies to train their staff and to take their technologies to the next level."
Manuele Biazzo, Director of Science at Institute of Cellular Pharmacology (ICP)
Global Network of Discoveries
There is tremendous growth potential for the sector globally as a result of an ageing population and an increase in chronic illnesses. Malta also provides an excellent gateway position to the Middle East and North African (MENA) region, whose healthcare sector is estimated to reach US$60 billion by 2025 as the need for facilities, services, medicines and equipment continues to increase. The regional population is growing at 3-5% per annum, but is also ageing, leading to an increased need to manage chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, osteoporosis and cancer.
By creating modern facilities for researchers and a supportive environment that offers assistance in commercialising ideas, Malta is seeking to establish itself as a significant player on the life science stage and a regional centre of excellence. Malta is striving to follow in the footsteps of countries such as Ireland, South Korea, Israel and Singapore, which have made huge gains in pharmaceutical manufacturing and R&D thanks to the implementation of government-led initiatives. The key to success in biotech is starting small and then catching the attention of big players. While this is a model Malta has already proven it can deliver in a host of sectors, the same cannot be said about biotech – at least, not yet.