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Innovation and Collaboration Are Keys to Success in the Baltic Region

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I was very happy to be invited to attend the BSHR HealthPort Press Study Tour, which took place in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 28-30.  After all, Denmark has consistently been ranked as one of the happiest countries in the world, according to the “world map of happiness” and as reported by 20/20, Oprah and the World Happiness Report.

The invitation said “the press study tour will focus on commercialization of ideas from clinics and hospitals and give an insight into the Danish health and biotech sector  through an innovative agenda with recommendations on how to create a competitive health economy in the Baltic Sea Region.”

BSHR HealthPort is a pillar of the EU Baltic Sea Region Strategy flagship ScanBalt Health Region.The tour was organised by Tartu Biotechnology Park in collaboration with the European Union of Science Journalists Associations (EUSJA), Biopeople, Danish Biotech Association, COBIS, The Nordic Council of Ministers and ScanBalt® fmba.  It was co-financed by the Baltic Sea Region program 2007 – 2013 as a part of the BSHR HealthPort project.

Except for me, the other 11 journalists who attended were members of EUSJA. Indeed, the press tour was the result of a collaboration several years ago between EUSJA and Scanbalt. There were journalists from the Netherlands, Russia, Poland, Belgium, Denmark and Austria.  Some had been on past tours, but most like me were new.  To this day I am not sure exactly how I got to be included. Peter Frank, who was our liaison and serves as the General Secretary of ScanBalt, said he could not remember either.

Anyhow I was delighted to be invited. Unlike other press tours which I have been invited to and turned down, there was no expectation or requirement of placing articles about the trip. (Full disclosure. I did receive a stipend, which paid for about half of my flight and three nights in a hotel. The other journalists also received travel grants.)

Frank said the tours are helpful to ScanBalt. “It is important for ScanBalt to encourage dialogue between society, science and innovation. A press tour is also in itself a reality check of the relevance of what we do. If it cannot be explained in clear terms to the participating journalists maybe it’s time to consider if it is worth doing. We learn a lot from the direct contact with the media; it forms part of our quality control.”

Our first day was at Copenhagen Bio Science Park, also known as, COBIS, which is a new building located between the Faculty of Health Sciences and Pharmaceutical Sciences at Copenhagen University and the university’s hospital.  COBIS houses startups, midsize companies as well as biotech centers.

We were given an overview by Sophie Labrosse, deputy director of  Biopeople, which was established by the Ministry of Science, Innovation and Higher Education. Labrosse said ‘Biopeople is Denmark’s innovation network for health and life sciences. We believe that new collaborations and innovation are needed to address the great societal challenges in health and life sciences. Innovation can, in our eyes, only be achieved by cooperation across borders – of countries, of industry sectors, of public/ private sectors and between industry and academia. Our events are open for all and allow for interaction, and that is where the most innovative ideas come from.”

Among the presenters that day were Xinhua Han, marketing director of BGI Europe and Lene Lange, a professor and campus director at Aalborg University. Han told us about the history of BGI and how it comprised just 1% to the Human Genome Project and is now one of the largest genomics center in the world. Most recently BGI helped finance the research that led to a new and painless blood test for Down Syndrome.  Professor Lange spoke of the Aalborg University’s excellent job record based on its leadership in the use of problem based learning (PBL) where students work collaboratively on projects that put them at high demand in the business world.

Our second day was at the Symbion Science Park which was created to help in the commercialization of  innovative and high tech projects in the fields of IT, telecommunication, biotech, pharmaceuticals and medicine. Peter Torstensen, the CEO of Symbion, spoke of the “Danish challenge” which he said consists of “plenty of ideas, plenty of startups. but few blockbusters.” He spoke of the need to create in Denmark serial entrepreneurs, who like those in Silicon Valley, have run several successful startups. “Our goal is to help companies move from national accelerators to international accelerators; from having a broad focus to a narrower one and to promote collaboration between the Baltic partners, ” Torstensen said.

We also heard a presentation from Martin Bonde, chairman of the Danish Biotech Association and CEO of EpiTherapeutics, which is developing new and innovative cancer drugs. The drugs are the result of epigenetic research being conducted at the Biotech Research & Innovation Centre (BRIC) at the University of Copenhagen.

Our final day was spent at the headquarters of the Nordic Council of Ministers, which promotes cooperation between its members countries in Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Greenland as well as others, in many areas including culture and leisure, economy and business and health.

Maria Skoog, of the Nordic Trial Alliance, which is “based on established national networks for clinical research, and will lay the foundation for increased collaboration between national and Nordic stakeholders.” The three-year pilot project is funded by the Council and NordForsk, an organization that provides funding for Nordic research cooperation as well as advice and input on Nordic research policy. There was also a presentation by Wolfgang Blank, CEO of Biocon Valley and Chairman of ScanBalt, who discussed the efforts of the Baltic Alliance against Multi-Resistant Bacteria.

What most impressed me over these three days of presentations was the commitment each speaker had to a spirit of cooperation. All of the speakers stressed the importance of working together and said that improvement and innovation occurs when people work together in a collaborative spirit. And although there were differences between the countries that border the Baltic Sea, there was agreement that they all had a stake in a successful future. Which brings me back to thinking about why Denmark is one of the happiest countries in the world; the people feel part of a larger community and have a spirit of sharing. And they also like to ride bikes.

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Quotes from journalists:

Mirjam Bedaf, freelance medical journalist, Holland.

“Holland is a small country. For me it’s always enriching to look across borders to see how research is organized and done elsewhere and what research topics are hot at the moment. The press tour was also great for meeting both researchers and journalists. I made contacts that were useful now and in the future. Furthermore, I gained two concrete ideas for articles. So it was certainly a successful trip for me.”

David Redeker , freelance science writer and communications advisor, The Hague Area, Netherlands

“I learned that small countries join forces to test new medicines and to explore four or five slightly different markets at once. And it is nice to speak to fellow journalists from other countries and see that we have a lot in common.”

David L. Levine About the Author: David L. Levine, M.A. is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York and a member of the National Association of Science Writers. As a freelance journalist, he has written for Scientific American, Good Housekeeping, Woman’s Day, BioTechniques, Robotic Trends and Physician's Weekly, where he was a contributing editor for ten years. He has a MA and BA from The Johns Hopkins University. He was director of media relations for the American Cancer Society and held similar posts at the American Lung Association of NY and Cancer Care, Inc. He worked with his colleagues to pass the laws that restricted smoking in New York City and State and banned smoking on all U.S. airlines. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the New York Academy of Medicine. Follow on Twitter @dlloydlevine.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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