The bio-health sector took off in a big way in the year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Basque business is no exception. Job figures and revenues for close to 200 Basque businesses operating in the sector grew by around 5%, almost matching the corresponding increase over the previous two years. The Basque Health Cluster, a group of almost 100 bio-health firms, forecasts 50% growth in the sector over five years, bringing it up to 3% of Basque GDP. With this in mind, they aim to develop a “powerful local industry” capable of creating specialised jobs and offering Kilometre-0 coverage in the event of future healthcare crises.
The excellent moment being traversed by the Basque bio-health sector is evidenced by a massive increase in jobs in 2020, the year of the COVID-19 outbreak. Over the past year, almost 200 businesses operating in the sector in the Basque Country were able to create almost 400 new jobs, up 5% on 2019 and following the trend of recent years, where annual increases of 4-8% have been the norm.
In all, the Basque bio-health sector now employs almost 8,100 professionals, mostly highly educated and specialised, holding doctorates and master’s degrees in life sciences and engineering.
“The Basque Country is blessed with excellent scientists and engineering professionals,” says María Pascual de Zulueta, director of the Basque Health Cluster “However, there is a certain shortfall in trained professionals in areas such as regulatory aspects, quality, and data analysis, and these profiles are going to be much in demand in the coming years.”
Pascual de Zulueta believes that the Basque bio-health sector is “eminently feminised, particularly in the pharma, biotech and healthcare areas, and also research.” However, she also points out that, unfortunately, “women, as yet, hold few positions of power in Basque bio-health companies.”
Another key aspect of the sector in the past year was the fact that it continued to invest in and reap the benefits of R&D&I. The Basque Health Cluster estimates that over the past year the sector had revenues of almost €1,670, a year-on-year increase of 5%, amounting for 2% of all wealth created in the region.
“We continued to experience growth over the past year, even though the pandemic did slow the rhythm somewhat,” says Pascual de Zulueta. Exports were also affected. “However, by late 2020 and early 2021 export activity picked up, to account for 20% of sales.”
And, while many SMEs dedicate 100% of their revenues to R&D, the average in recent years has been closer to 10%. Nevertheless, due to the pandemic, this figure is believed to have dropped to €130 million, some 8% of total revenues. “In 2020, we focussed more intensely on R&D but, because of COVID, we have not been working so closely with the health system”, says Pascual de Zulueta.
Among the goals of the Basque Health Cluster are to increase its weight in the Basque GDP by 50%, to contribute 3% by 2025. The driving force towards achieving this aim will be provided by the most dynamic areas of the sector, including regenerative medicine, gene therapy, diagnostic medical equipment and e-health businesses.
Likewise, the Basque Cluster is also committed to reinforcing the internationalisation process of Basque businesses. “Our products compare to those developed and produced anywhere around the world,” says Pascual de Zulueta. “And in order to be competitive, they have not only to comply with the most demanding regulations and quality systems, but must also offer better value for money than the competition.”
In her opinion, new drugs and healthcare products are, “not just products that offer excellent added value, but are also essential to the welfare economy.” Pascual de Zulueta emphasises that crises such as the current pandemic “underline the need for Kilometre-0 production, to give us autonomy, self-sufficiency and independence”.
She also believes that this strategy must take the needs of adjacent communities and the overall Euroregion into account, with the aim of achieving complementarity. “In order to have manufacturing capacity in the Basque Country, we need to make a committed effort to support the sector and, of course, to acquire Kilometre-0 products.”
In this regard, Pascual de Zulueta points to the hold-ups caused by shortages of masks and diagnostic equipment (reagents and nasal swabs), shortages of paracetamol in certain regions and the insufficient capacity to produce vaccines and medicinal oxygen.