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Biogen opens a branch in Estonia: Europe has lots to learn from Estonia in terms of efficiency

American biotech company Biogen opened a branch in Estonia in December 2020. Mikko Fernström, Executive Director of Biogen Estonia has a lot of praise for the speed of administrative processes in Estonia.

“We felt welcome in Estonia from the very first discussions. The Estonian administration has gone fully-digital and that made things very easy – especially during Corona. I think the rest of Western Europe still has lots to learn from Estonia in terms of running the administration efficiently,” Fernström says.

With its headquarters located in Cambridge, Massachusetts (US), Biogen is one of the leading biotech companies in the world, focused on developing treatment methods for neurological illnesses. On the 1st of December, Biogen opened a branch in Estonia (as well as in Latvia and Lithuania) which is part of the company’s global growth strategy.

Currently Biogen is not revealing the size of its investment in Estonia, but the grand plans indicate that opening a local branch is just the beginning. Fernström has a lot of praise for the speed of administrative processes in Estonia. The entire process began in early 2020 and he commented, “We felt welcome in Estonia from the very first discussions. The Estonian administration has gone fully-digital and that made things very easy – especially during Corona. I think the rest of Western Europe still has lots to learn from Estonia in terms of running the administration efficiently.”

“We are thrilled that such a big and important U.S. healthcare player and neuroscience leader like Biogen has decided to enter Estonia. This is great news. Not only for Estonia, but overall for the whole region. The solutions that this company can bring to our healthcare market are a true breakthrough that could change lives of many people who have Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases,” says Daria Sivovol, CEO of American Chamber of Commerce Estonia. “Once we learned that Biogen was considering entering Estonia, we have been truly happy to embrace the company in our business community. We will do everything that we can to assist them in their set up and on-boarding process by offering all necessary information, contacts, access to our Healthcare Committee work and involving them in our policy initiatives,” Sivovol adds.

“Biogen is a leading conductor of clinical trials for neurodegenerative illnesses in the world,” says Riho Tapfer, Director of The Association of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers in Estonia. “Through research and development activity (of which clinical trials are a part) new, innovative medicines and treatment methods are born. Biogen entering Estonia will definitely bring about very positive developments in the field of clinical trials including new trials, new top-level knowledge and extensive experience. Through clinical trials, Biogen Estonia will invest significantly in the Estonian healthcare system in terms of know-how and other resources. In the end it is the patients who will benefit. Considering the small size of Estonia, we are extremely pleased that a leading global biotech company has arrived in Estonia.”

According to Mikko Fernström, Executive Director of Biogen Estonia, a pan-Baltic office would not have served the purpose. “We want to be closer to patients and partners and it is possible by opening a local office and hiring people locally. Each of the Baltic countries has very different healthcare ecosystems.  Being physically present on a country level opens many more possibilities for partnerships,” he notes.

Looking for partnerships with Estonian tech startups

Fernström believes that having a presence on a country level will also help to organise medical education and partnership projects with the clinics in Estonia as healthcare is becoming more digital and integrated.

“One thing I am personally very interested to explore in Estonia is to have discussions with local technology startups. I believe there really is something in pharma and startups partnering up and coming up with solutions for example to improve diagnostics or patient care.  Startups certainly have a role in bringing new diagnostic tools, improving communications between patients and healthcare providers and improving adherence to treatment; and the Estonian startup sector in digital solutions is very vibrant. And, of course, Estonia has a high level of digital health. For example, the University of Tartu is one of the European frontrunners in biobank space. I am sure this will interest also our international operations,” says Fernström.

He mentions an example of Finland where Biogen, among some other international pharma companies, partnered-up with the Finnish biobanks on a global scale research project with multi-million dollar investments. This project is known as the Finngen project, and Fernström is certain that this project would never have come to life without active discussion between public and private sectors and different players in the healthcare field.

The company has been a pioneer in developing treatment methods for such illnesses as Sclerosis Multiplex (SM) and Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA) and their research pipeline is rich with new medicines being investigated for illnesses like Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS. Some of their new medicines are already in the marketing authorisation process.

Biogen’s turnover in 2019 was 14.4 billion US dollars, and the company invested 2.3 billion US dollars in RDA, carrying out over 170 clinical trials with over 30,000 patients. This year Biogen was recognised as the most sustainable biotechnology company by the Dow Jones Indices.

The company also plans to explore opportunities to start clinical trials in Estonia. “The standard of clinics and the knowledge of clinicians in Estonia is very high and therefore Estonia would be a very good place for clinical trials. My commitment is to take this forward with our global clinical trials team so that we could start Biogen trials here,” says Fernström. “I believe that as we start operations in Estonia independently, we will have opportunities to discuss with many local stakeholders on potential partnerships. We see this everywhere we operate.  Silos between sectors are coming down and value is created through cross sector partnerships and public-private partnerships.

A specific field Biogen wants to focus on in Estonia is the brain health agenda. Brain diseases place a huge human and economic burden on western countries with a rapidly ageing population. One third of the total healthcare costs in Europe are due to brain diseases.

“We want to be part of the solution by bringing treatments for difficult to treat brain conditions and also by partnering up with different organisations to build a coalition to get brain diseases the attention they need,” Fernström explained. “There is a lot to do, which could even prevent some of the brain diseases progressing.”

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