I have recently returned from a trip to Denmark and Southern Sweden. I went expecting to find two countries with completely different biotechnology development schemes. Instead I discovered a single, seamless region of bio-pharma growth. Two different languages and two different cultures--but a biomedical cluster with a single heartbeat. The biotechnology community has a name for this two-country phenomenon: the Medicon Valley.

I was there to explore the collaboration among the key players in the "functional foods" industry and was based in Skåne, a province known as the breadbasket of Sweden. The functional foods business is a new Scandinavian area of cooperation that blends biotechnology with the traditional food industry, and it has grown up from a great collaborative spirit involving government, industry, and academia. Through my research I discovered that this tripartite cooperation extends far beyond functional food, and has created some unique programs and educational opportunities across the life sciences.


Øresund Bridge connecting Denmark and Sweden

Photo Credit: Pierre Mens, Ørundsbron

As a traveler who likes being near large cities, but not in them, the Skåne region was the ideal place for my visit. The Danish biotechnology industry is just 30 to 45 minutes away by frequent, comfortable, clean trains, and their Swedish counterparts are close by, in the vicinity of Malmö or Lund. Everyone I spoke with agreed that the region's excellent public transportation system is one of the reasons for the rapid development of the life sciences cluster there.

But it was only after talking with professors and executives in the region that I began to get a sense for what makes the Medicon Valley region so cohesive. It is because this is one of the most cooperative business climates that I've seen in my travels to world biotech clusters.


Bent Christensen, M.D., managing director of the Medicon Valley Academy

The Medicon Valley Academy

Bent Christensen is the managing director of the Medicon Valley Academy, the local association developed in early 1997 to bring together the various elements of this biomedical region. Christensen is a surgeon and performed more than 1000 heart operations before moving into an administrative position. His background says a great deal about the Medicon Valley, because another key to the region's strength lies in the unique collaboration that the area's hospitals have with the companies in Copenhagen and southern Sweden. They are truly active members of the cluster, as the example of the Medicon Valley Ph.D. Programme shows (see box).

Medicon Valley Ph.D. Programme

Key ingredients:

  • The Ph.D. project must be a collaboration involving a hospital, a private company, and a university, all from the Medicon Valley area (Greater Copenhagen and the Scania Region in Sweden).

  • The Medicon Valley Ph.D. Programme will fund 50% of the wages, study fees, and administrative costs of the project, provided that the collaborating company pays the other 50%.

  • The Ph.D. project must lie within the fields of medicine, biotechnology, medical technology, public health, or health economics.

  • The Ph.D. project must have commercial development possibilities or a business-promoting angle. It should contribute to research-related innovation within the company.

  • The Ph.D. project must reinforce the hospital's research contacts and increase the value of that hospital department.

  • Scholarships will be for 3 to 4 years in duration, depending upon the university.

  • Ph.D. students under this programme receive a special Medicon Valley Ph.D. diploma.

  • Ph.D. students will be allowed to take Ph.D. coursework on both sides of the Oresund Sound.

The programme starts in July 2003, and applications are still being accepted but the acceptance period will close soon. More information is available on the Web at http://www.mva.org/, or via e-mail to mva@mva.org.

"We have over 130,000 students in this region, and more than 40% of them are in the biomedical sciences. And yes, our member companies do recruit from other parts of Europe and the USA as well," Bent said. I asked him how one association supported the needs of two separate countries, and how a recruitment programme could work for both at the same time. "It's a delicate balancing act sometimes [to be fair to both countries], but the MVA has been successful in changing competition to cooperation. Our new MVA Ph.D. Programme is an example of this."

Per Belfrage, chair of the Medicon Valley Academy and one of its founders, further elaborated on the reasons for the launch of this Ph.D. programme: "We have three key directives. For one, we need to assist the region in creating new scientific knowledge. Secondly, we need to assist in transferring that knowledge to existing companies; lastly, we want to support the launch of new businesses as a result of this increased knowledge base."

Supporting the development of new businesses is unique in Sweden. While Denmark has a history of entrepreneurial growth, Sweden is home to many large corporations. Just one example of the differences in culture between these two countries that work so well together!

Development of the Danish "Research Academies"

After getting a good grounding in Scandinavian biotech from. Belfrage and Christensen, I spent a week visiting different companies and institutions in the region. One such was the Carlsberg Foundation in Copenhagen, a very prestigious organization that has funded the sciences for more than a century. The foundation is the major shareholder of the brewing company that also bears the Carlsberg name, and it is also a biotechnology employer, running the Carlsberg Research Center and the Carlsberg Laboratory. In addition, the foundation provides 80 to 90 postdoctoral training grants every year.

I met with the foundation chair, Povl Krogsgaard Larsen. He's a well-known scientist who still works half time in the department of medicinal chemistry at the nearby university. Krogsgaard Larsen stressed how involved the region is in educational and postdoctoral opportunities.

Drug Research Academy Ph.D. Programme

Key ingredients:

  • The Ph.D. project is a collaboration between the Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences and a local company.

  • The main supervisor at the university and the industry co-sponsor supervisor will assist in formulating the Ph.D. project proposals and present them to the Drug Research Academy board, which makes the final selection of approved projects.

  • Areas of interest for Ph.D. projects include drug design and development, advanced structural chemistry and molecular modelling, cellular pharmacology and toxicology, drug delivery, and clinical evaluation.

  • Integrated drug research training is supplemented by a research internship in a pharmaceutical company for a period of at least 3 months.

  • In order to strengthen the interdisciplinary and international perspectives of the programme, the Drug Research Academy encourages students from different countries, and with different undergraduate training, to apply for scholarships.

  • The Drug Research Academy also fosters an international atmosphere by supporting visiting scientists, postdocs, and Ph.D. students for shorter term interdisciplinary research projects.

Three-year postdoctoral-research training positions are also available.

More information on either the Ph.D. Programme or Postdoctoral Positions is available on the Web at www.dfh.dk/dra/ or via e-mail to Jette Buur.

"Research training initiatives are quite important in Copenhagen and we have a history of funding them in very collaborative ways between government, academia, and industry. An example of this is the US$10 million [government] grant in 2002 that started the Drug Research Academy," Larsen stated. (See Box 2). This grant will run until 2007 sponsoring Ph.D. students and postdocs under the academy umbrella at the Danish University of Pharmaceutical Sciences. As I found out from Krogsgaard Larsen, there is no stigma attached to training that has a heavy orientation towards industrial science. While graduates can easily head into an industry career because of the network connections they make, their science is deemed "worthy" enough to keep them on the academic ladder as well.

"Ph.D. students are supervised not only by their mentor at the university, but by an assigned supervisor in the sponsoring company," and spend at least 3 months working on their projects in the company laboratories, explained Krogsgaard Larsen. Before leaving the offices of Carlsberg, the chair suggested that I visit the Novo Group, as they have recently launched another programme like this one, called the Biotech Research Academy.

Arne Schmidt, executive VP for worldwide manufacturing at Novozymes (the enzymes company spun out of Novo-Nordisk), gave me the background on this new academy, which will operate much like the Drug Research Academy. The first Ph.D. students will start in the next couple of months. (See Box 3).

Biotech Research Academy Ph.D. Programme

Key ingredients:

  • This programme is a collaboration between the Danish Research Training Council (under the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Innovation) and Novozymes A/S.

  • Novozymes will not be placing conditions on the projects that are undertaken.

  • The following universities are part of the Biotech Research Academy: University of Southern Denmark, Technical University of Denmark, University of Aarhus, University of Copenhagen, Aalborg University, and the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University.

For more information on the Biotech Research Academy, see http://www.novozymes.com/cgi-bin/bvisapi.dll/press/press.jsp?id=23268&lang=en or e-mail Anne Thommesen

Schmidt feels that research training initiatives are just one reason that the Medicon Valley has attracted researchers from other parts of Europe: "The Novo Group has always had strong ties to the knowledge base in this region, and quite frankly we believe it is one of the best locations in Europe to attract top scientists. We've got over 600 scientists and technical staff, and many of them have come from other locations in Europe and the States because of the great quality of life."

As I closed my meeting and prepared to head home, Schmidt added a caution that I had already heard many times on my trip. "Current tax rules and bureaucracy have to go. Competition for the best people is intense," he said. As I spoke with Mr. Schmidt further, and with my taxi driver on the way home (who lives in Sweden but often works in Denmark), I learned that it can be a very difficult process to live in one country and work in the other due to double taxation issues and the bureaucracy that one must deal with on the personal level. However, both my driver and my Novo friend were optimistic that things will get better in the future because of efforts on the part of both governments.

It was the only "chink in the armor" that I found during my Medicon Valley trip. However, taxes and bureaucracy ... was I really surprised to find that there was a bone of contention?

A writer and speaker on career issues worldwide, David Jensen is the founder of CareerTrax Inc. and managing director of Kincannon & Reed Global Executive Search.