Here’s why Paris deserves to be called the flagship of European biotech

27 Feb 2019

Image: © vichie81/

Europe in general is considered a world leader in biotech, but what’s going on in Paris is on a whole different level.

Off the top of your head, you can probably name several of the world’s most famous scientists to have worked in Paris, whether it’s Louis Pasteur, Blaise Pascal or Maria Skłodowska-Curie. While many of these icons hail from a time long ago, away from the limelight a ‘blooming’ biotech has now emerged that is helping to contribute to some of the most pressing medical breakthroughs.

Just to give one example of recent years, a team from the city’s public hospital system, Assistance Publique-Hôpitaux de Paris, announced in 2017 that it had used gene therapy in a world first to treat a boy living with rare sickle cell disease.

But who are the major players in Paris, from both the academic side of things and the companies bringing many of these latest concepts to the wider biopharmaceutical world?

By far the largest from an academic perspective is the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), an interdisciplinary public research organisation under the administrative supervision of the French government. While it has 18 research centres dotted across France, in Paris alone it has five facilities, including its headquarters.

Yet it is perhaps one of its affiliate organisations – the Institut national de la santé et de la recherche médicale (Inserm) – that contributes to the biggest academic biotech and life sciences breakthroughs.

The numbers involved in Inserm – founded in 1964 – are enough to show you how much of a powerhouse it is. It has more than 5,000 employees, including more than 2,000 researchers, contributing to more than 13,000 scientific publications. This makes it the third best institute in the world in terms of the number of published articles.

On a slightly smaller, but still impressive, scale, the interestingly named Sup’Biotech is a private engineering school based in the Paris metropolitan area, specialising in biotech. Aside from teaching the core aspects of the science and engineering behind biotech, it also acts as an incubator for potential start-ups through the teaching of management skills and industrial knowhow.

The big players

Things are also looking quite rosy from an industry perspective, with a report published by France Biotech finding that since the beginning of 2017, eight companies had IPOs with an average value of €30m. With the stock market Euronext – the biggest on the continent for the life sciences space – the report found that Paris accounted for nearly half of all companies listed on it, followed by Brussels (29pc) and Amsterdam (26pc).

One of the largest Paris-based biotech IPOs of 2018 was a company called Lysogene, which raised €22.6m by the time it reached a market capitalisation of €82m. Founded in 2009, the company engages in the development of gene therapies and orphan drugs, a name given to medication for conditions that have lower numbers of diagnoses.

Another successful firm that recently went public was Theranexus, a biopharmaceutical company that develops drug candidates to be used in the treatment of central nervous system disorders. In January of this year it raised a total of €6.2m, with the aim of designing and industrialising a unique drug candidate identification and characterisation platform, targeting interactions between the two major brain cell populations, neurons and glial cells, for treating neurological disorders.

New player in town

The innovators aren’t just working on the medicine side of biotech, with a company called Carmat – based in the suburb of Vélizy-Villacoublay – being a designer and developer of one of the world’s most advanced total artificial hearts. Its stated aim is to provide a therapeutic alternative for people suffering from end-stage biventricular heart failure. In December last year, it announced a €30m deal with the European Investment Bank to bring its technology global.

Of course, there are a multitude of smaller companies developing in the cultural capital, many of which could benefit from the recent announcement by a UK company called Runlabs, which is to open a brand new biotech lab and accelerator in Paris. Founded only last year, Runlabs plans to open its Paris facility towards the end of 2019 and could host up to 30 companies.

“The biotech industry is one of the largest and fastest-growing in the world, with incredible talent,” Steven Marcus, CEO of Runlabs, said to “Runlabs allows our members to scale and focus on what’s most important: science.”

No doubt Paris remains the city to watch for everything and anything that might revolutionise the human body, so watch this space.

Updated, 4.25pm, 27 February 2019: This article was updated to clarify that Amsterdam accounted for 26pc of the companies listed on Euronext in the report, not 24pc as previously stated.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic