Can Finland become the leader in pharmaceutical development? Pharmaceutical industry has an opportunity for renewal

“The pharmaceutical industry, which is also a significant export sector, now has an opportunity for growth in Finland. Society as a whole benefits from innovation in the pharmaceutical sector, and domestic production is important for security of supply,” says Liisa Hurme, SVP, Global Operations at Orion.

The pharmaceutical industry is a very significant industry globally and one of the largest export sectors in the EU. Finland is a small player, but its recent growth has been impressive: investments in the pharmaceutical industry in Finland totalled EUR 330 million in 2020, which is 39% more than in the previous year. 

“The most significant growth has taken place in research investments,” said Sanna Lauslahti, Managing Director of Pharma Industry Finland, at an event organised by UPM Biomedicals to discuss the future of the Finnish pharmaceutical industry. 

“Based on our survey, pharmaceutical companies estimate that additional investments of EUR 113 million will be needed annually over the next couple of years.” 

If the estimates are realised, the pharmaceutical sector will represent around 25% of the contribution expected by the Finnish government to increasing the proportion of research, development and innovation costs of the GDP. 

“This is highly reflective of the significance of the sector for Finland,” Lauslahti says.

Data and digitalisation play key roles 

Hurme pointed out that domestic pharmaceutical production is extremely important for Finland. 

“Security of supply comes first, of course. If pharmaceutical production and all pharmaceutical forms are not available under normal conditions, they won’t be available during a crisis. Innovation comes second: society will not benefit if we are not contributing to the latest development.” 

How can Finland ensure continuity of production and make sure that the opportunities offered by the pharmaceutical industry are used effectively? 

“Data and digitalisation are two of the most important factors bringing renewal to the pharmaceutical sector throughout the value chain, from research to production,” says Minna Hendolin, Leading Specialist in Sitra’s Health Data 2030 project. 

Hendolin believes that the technology, healthcare and IT industries will become increasingly intertwined. 

“Finland is a small country, and we need to specialise. Currently, there is a great deal of talk about virtual pharmaceutical research and digital therapies, for example, which involve Finland’s strengths.”

New types of medicine offer opportunities for Finland 

Growth can also be created by investing in new types of medicine, such as biomedicines, which are already on the market, and therapies in the research and testing stages, such as T-cell therapies for cancer. 

“Finland has much going on in this area, including research consortia funded by Business Finland and the Academy of Finland,” says Johana Kuncova-Kallio, Director, UPM Biomedicals. 

“I hope we will have the momentum needed to commercialise these in Finland. If we are exporting already at the molecular stage, others will reap the benefits.” 

Funding for pharmaceutical development is challenging because the process is costly and long, 15 years on average. 

“For example, the level of venture capital investments in the life science sector in Finland is only half of the level in the other the Nordic countries and around one-third of the EU level,” says Kuncova-Kallio.

From research to commercialisation 

Lauslahti believes that a development environment for future pharmaceutical research can be created in Finland – and that Finland can become the leader in pharmaceutical development. The current government’s investment in quantum technology is a good example of the measures that have already been taken. 

“We must also ensure that the research legislation supports development.” 

Lauslahti is aware of the challenges in commercialising pharmaceutical research. “First we need to find a way to make Finland an internationally attractive country for investments. We must also find a way to further develop drug candidates generated during research.” 

The pharmaceutical development centre suggested by the government is one potential solution. “It would accelerate commercialisation. Researchers are doing excellent work, but the problem is what to do next: where to find funding and markets.”

Cooperation increases risk tolerance 

Hurme points out that funding for pharmaceutical development always involves major risks. 

“The provider of the funding must have high risk tolerance or an extensive portfolio. Risk tolerance is also needed after marketing authorisation has been granted – marketing authorisation doesn’t necessarily mean that the product will be sold.” 

Hurme says that it is therefore often necessary to join forces and share the risk in the pharmaceutical sector – even for Orion, a medium-sized European operator. For example, Orion has cooperated with Bayer Nordic in commercialising a molecule it has developed, and a new cancer drug has recently been granted market authorisation globally in several markets.

Johana Kuncova-Kallio (UPM Biomedicals) (left), Kati Nyman (Bayer), Sanna Lauslahti (Pharma Industry Finland), Liisa Hurme (Orion Corporation), Minna Hendolin (Sitra) and Martti Kulvik (Etla). Panel leader was Markku Herrala (UPM).

Text: Sanna Jäppinen

12 October 2021