Meet the most successful biotech companies in Belgium, a small country that makes a huge contribution to the European biotech industry.
With over 140 operating biotech companies and a solid network of renowned universities and research institutes, the Belgium biotech industry is a flourishing ecosystem. Despite its small size, Belgium represents nearly a quarter of the European biotech market value, racing ahead of countries like Denmark, Germany, and Spain.
The country’s strong track record is acknowledged globally, with several Belgian biotechs having been acquired by larger companies in recent years. Two prominent examples are Sanofi’s acquisition of Ablynx for €3.9B and TiGenix’s takeover by Japanese pharma giant Takeda for €520M.
With Belgium spearheading European biotech, we have consulted biotech industry experts in the country to compile a list of successful biotech companies in Belgium, with a focus on their innovations and achievements. The companies are listed in alphabetical order.
AgomAb develops antibody treatments for fibrosis using technology licensed from the Dutch biotech ArgenX. The drugs are inspired by llama antibodies, which are smaller than human antibodies and can more easily penetrate tissues.
Fibrosis is a condition that can damage a number of organs, including the lung, liver, kidneys, and heart. AgomAb’s antibodies can bind to a specific receptor found on epithelial and endothelial cells and trigger a cascade of processes that stimulate the regeneration of fibrotic tissue.
In 2019, AgomAb completed a €21M Series A round led by Belgian investor V-Bio Ventures and Advent France Biotechnology to test its treatments in clinical trials.
Biocartis is a molecular diagnostics company that develops a fully automated testing system based on real-time PCR. This allows for fast diagnostics within laboratory settings.
The technology is modular and can be used for diagnosing infectious diseases such as sepsis or Covid-19, as well as detecting cancer and inflammation.
In January 2020, Biocartis entered into a collaboration with AstraZeneca to use its diagnostics technology for a number of projects, including indication and biomarker testing. Its automated PCR test for Covid-19 was approved in the EU last November and is awaiting the green light from the FDA.
Biotalys supports sustainable food production with a technology based on proteins called agrobodies. These include bio-fungicides, bio-insecticides, and bio-bactericides, which have been developed to tackle a range of crop pests and diseases.
The company is expecting its first product, a bio-fungicide against powdery mildew, to enter the US market in 2022. In 2019, Biotalys raised €35M in a Series C financing round, closely followed by another €10M in early 2020. The funds will boost the development, large-scale production, and commercialization of its leading bio-fungicide product, as well as the expansion of its discovery platform.
Bone Therapeutics develops cell therapies for bone diseases. While these conditions often require invasive surgery, the company’s cell therapies can be delivered close to damaged bone in a much less invasive manner.
In 2018, Bone Therapeutics suffered a setback after an experimental cell therapy failed to show any significant benefits in an interim analysis of phase IIl results and the trial was discontinued. The company went on to focus on developing off-the-shelf cell therapies made from bone marrow cells of healthy donors. The technology is currently in phase IIa and phase IIb trials for lumbar spinal fusion and difficult fractures, respectively.
Location: Mont-Saint Guibert
Celyad is one of Europe’s biotech giants. The company is one of the leading immuno-oncology players in the field. Its lead CAR T-cell candidate, currently in phase I trials, is an off-the-shelf therapy that consists of engineering immune T cells to carry a cancer-detecting receptor naturally found on another kind of immune cell called natural killer cells.
This receptor can bind to eight different targets found on cancer cells in 80% of solid and liquid tumors. Moreover, it can recognize a number of targets found in the tumor microenvironment, which plays a big role in evading the immune system.
Based in Ghent, Confo Therapeutics develops drugs that target G protein-coupled receptors (GPCRs), which are a large family of proteins that play a role in numerous diseases but are difficult to drug.
GPCRs are often hard to screen in the lab because they are unstable in vitro. The company has developed a technology that keeps GPCRs stable, enabling the mass screening and identification of GPCRs in different diseases. This way, researchers can identify formerly undruggable targets and develop medicines accordingly.
In 2019, Confo Therapeutics raised €30M in a Series A financing round to take its drug candidates into clinical trials. It aims to start the first-in-human trials in 2022.
Complix develops alphabodies, which are small engineered proteins that can bind to different targets to address a variety of indications, including cancer, autoimmune disorders, and viral diseases. These alphabodies are able to find targets that are usually inaccessible for conventional drugs, such as antibodies or small molecules.
Currently, the company is focusing on developing treatments for cancer and Covid-19. In October 2020, Complix received €1.2M to boost the development of a new class of anti-Covid-19 alphabody therapeutics.
eTheRNA is developing off-the-shelf immunotherapies using messenger RNA (mRNA) technology. Its lead candidate is an mRNA vaccine for metastatic melanoma that is currently in phase I/II trials. In a process called immunostimulation, the therapy ‘teaches’ dendritic cells to boost a potent T cell-mediated immune response against melanoma.
In June 2020, eTheRNA made headlines when it raised €34M in Series B funding. The money will be used to progress its therapeutic mRNA Covid-19 vaccine candidate and cancer immunotherapies to the clinic.
ExeVir Bio is developing nanobodies, a unique type of antibodies found in camelids such as llamas, to be used in patients with Covid-19 and against other coronavirus diseases. Nanobodies have a number of advantages over regular human antibodies, including a smaller size, more precision, and greater stability. In July 2020, the startup raked in €23M in Series A financing to fund the development of these treatments.
A leader in European biotech, Galapagos is headquartered in Belgium but has facilities all over Europe, including in the Netherlands, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Spain, and the UK. The company develops small molecule drugs for inflammatory diseases and fibrosis.
One of Galapagos’ star deals is with Gilead, which signed up to €4.5B to Galapagos in 2019. In October 2020, the partners’ first rheumatoid arthritis drug filgotinib was approved in Europe and Japan. However, the FDA rejected the drug in August, prompting Gilead to leave the development of filgotinib in Galapagos’ hands in December.
Filgotinib belongs to a class of drugs that block Janus kinase (JAK) proteins linked to inflammatory processes. Filgotinib selectively targets JAK1, giving it a better safety profile than other JAK inhibitors, which are less selective and can weaken the immune system.
Imcyse was founded as a spin-off from the KU Leuven university. Working in the area of autoimmune diseases, Imcyse develops immunotherapies based on synthetic peptides called imotopes. These peptides can block immune responses that trigger immune-mediated diseases, including diabetes type I, multiple sclerosis, and rheumatoid arthritis.
In 2019, the company secured €35M in a Series B financing round to boost the development of imotopes in clinical trials.
Location: Mont-Saint Guibert
Promethera Biosciences develops stem cell treatments for patients with late-stage liver disease who are in need of a transplant. The company aims to either provide an alternative to a transplant or stabilize the patient’s condition long enough to enable them to receive a transplant.
Promethera’s leading cell therapy, which is currently in phase II trials, is made up of liver cells taken from healthy, donated organs and then expanded in the lab. The cell therapy is administered intravenously and then carried to the liver via the bloodstream where it helps the liver to repair and regenerate itself.
Rewind Therapeutics develops therapies for multiple sclerosis and other diseases related to myelin — a component of the nervous system that supports nerve cells. In diseases like multiple sclerosis, the myelin around the nerve cells is attacked by the immune system, which causes severe damage to the nerves and impairs muscle movement.
Rewind Therapeutics raised €2.9M in 2019 for the discovery and development of novel drugs that target myelin-related neurological diseases.
Univercells develops biomanufacturing platforms and solutions that make biologics more available and affordable than they currently are.
For example, while gene therapies have gained momentum in recent years, the production of viral vectors, the key building blocks of gene therapies, remains costly and difficult to scale up. Univercells has developed a semi-automated biomanufacturing platform that supports the production of viral vectors at reduced costs. In February 2020, Univercells raised €50M to boost its viral vector manufacturing facilities and bioreactors.
Some rising stars to watch
Together with established biotechs, the Belgium biotech ecosystem is supported by a large number of promising startups. In the area of agricultural applications are Agrosavfe, which works on protein-based fungicides, and Aphea.bio, which develops biopesticides and biostimulants using microorganisms instead.
In the field of cancer, Oncurious is developing immunotherapies that target the tumor microenvironment, while Aelin Therapeutics focuses on peptides that can selectively trigger the aggregation of specific proteins, blocking disease mechanisms in tumors but also infectious diseases. Finally, MRM Health is working on therapies that are based on the human microbiome.
While we cannot list all the amazing biotechs Belgium has to offer, there is no doubt that the country’s biotech ecosystem is flourishing with a wide variety of companies ranging from global heavyweights to promising rising stars.
For their helpful support on this article, we would like to thank our industry experts Elisabeth Stes, External Relations Manager at Vlaams Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) and Jessica Manthey, Investment Promotion Manager at Flanders Investment & Trade, Embassy of Belgium.
Cover illustration by Anastasiia Slynko.