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Partnering, Business Development & Licensing

From Aspiration to Action: Navigating Sustainability in Biopharma

Posted by on 03 April 2024
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Leaders of the biopharmaceutical industry are coming to a profound realisation.

Sustainability, as defined by the UN as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”, is evolving from a definition to a practical necessity. This industry is recognising the need to produce medicines more sustainably than in the past.

Yet, sustainable development in the biopharma sector is a multifaceted challenge. It comprises businesses of varying sizes, each with its own environmental footprint, including biotech’s operating on a much smaller scale to global big pharma.

In the fiercely competitive landscape of healthcare, the urgent need to generate in-human efficacy data often takes precedence over sustainability concerns. However, integrating sustainability into strategic initiatives remains a challenging yet crucial endeavour that merits more attention. How best to navigate the complexities of sustainability?

At BIO-Europe Spring we charted biopharma’s journey towards a sustainable future on a panel chaired by Jordi Ferrer (Investment Director, Ship2B Ventures), with panellists Mar Guell (Director Sustainable Business, Kreab España), Florence Dal Degan (Senior Director, External Innovation, Ipsen), Joe Hopcraft (Client Partner, IQVIA), Jose Maria Fernandez (Partner, Aliath Bioventures), and Stéphane Thiroloix (CEO, AlgoTx).

What does sustainability really mean for biopharma?

Joe Hopcraft, Client Partner at IQVIA set the scene for the panel discussion: climate change, land use alterations, and broader environmental impacts have indirect yet significant effects on public health.

As an industry, there is a moral obligation to not exacerbate these issues, which can be disease specific. For example, those manufacturing medicines for respiratory health should also minimize air pollution, and not grow their market through damaging the environment.

Whilst playing a critical role in developing life-saving medicines and vaccines, improving public health and quality of life, the industry faces substantial hurdles in mitigating its environmental impact.

Environmental pollution, energy consumption, and waste generation are key concerns. Manufacturing processes, often reliant on fossil fuels, contribute significantly to greenhouse emissions. Healthcare provision itself accounts for approximately 4-5% of global emissions, a figure comparable to the aviation sector.

Moreover, a significant portion of these emissions, up to 20%, emanates directly from medicines and medical products, underscoring the urgency of addressing these issues at a product development level. In addition, the generation of waste, including unused chemicals and packaging materials, poses environmental risks if not managed effectively. Each product's life cycle, from production to usage to disposal, plays a pivotal role in determining its environmental footprint.

What are large corporations doing?

Florence Dal Degan, Senior Director, External Innovation at IPSEN outlined how they are taking proactive measures to mitigate its environmental impact. Adopting ambitious sustainability targets across R&D, manufacturing, and sales, IPSEN's strategy emphasizes the involvement of every employee, making sustainability a personal mission.

Focusing on four key pillars—environment, people, governance, and more recently, patients—IPSEN aims to achieve measurable progress in reducing its environmental footprint. Initiatives such as using 100% renewable energy in manufacturing, and biodiversity conservation efforts highlight the company’s commitment to sustainability.

However, within large organizations, while strong leadership buy-in can provide essential resources and foster a culture of sustainability, challenges such as supply chain complexity and the resource intensiveness of large-scale operations can hinder execution and measurement of sustainability strategies.

What are small corporations doing?

Stéphane Thiroloix, CEO of clinical stage biotech AlgoTx commented how a small company can find it easier than a large one to define a course of action for ESG and execute consistently, particularly with high levels of cross functional collaboration in the early stages of a biotech start-up.

AlgoTx were awarded the 2023 ESG HealthTech Trophy at France Biotech’s prestigious HealthTech Trophies Ceremony last year for their support of NGOs Plastic Bank (reducing ocean bound plastic pollution) and Gribouilli (network and training for nannies in France).

However costs are tight, and with limited resources and in a highly competitive and cash strapped industry, small companies may be hesitant to deviate from conventional practices and invest in unproven sustainable technologies or processes.

How do we bridge the gap?

There are strong incentives for biopharma businesses to embrace sustainable practices, but where and how can the greatest advances be made?

  1. Leveraging external support

When the time is right, consultancies and advisors can play a crucial, independent role in guiding companies on their sustainability journey. Mar Guell, Director Sustainable Business at Kreab España outlined that through a structured approach encompassing stakeholder engagement, action planning, internal alignment, and reporting, these firms facilitate the integration of sustainability into corporate strategies. By providing insights into industry trends and regulatory developments, they empower companies to make informed decisions aligned with sustainability goals.

  1. Appealing to impact investors

Impact investors play a pivotal role in driving sustainable practices by evaluating companies based on their environmental performance to incentivize sustainable practices. They have together charted consistent processes for measurement, incorporating Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions to understand companies’ full value chain emissions (the three scopes are a way of categorising the different types of emissions created by a company, its suppliers and its customers).

Collaborative efforts between investors and companies (especially small) can chart a course towards net-zero emissions and sustainable growth. Jose Maria Fernandez, outlined that Aliath Bioventures’ impact assessments of pre-commercial stage companies are challenging, however mapping out their roadmap to guide their transition from when they are seeded to market launch can identify the incremental steps needed to sustainably bring a product to market.

  1. Recognising the imperfection of total perfection

While achieving net-zero emissions may seem daunting,  incremental steps and imperfect achievements can pave the way for meaningful change especially for smaller Biotechs. Companies should focus on taking tangible actions and making measurable progress towards sustainability. By embracing a mindset of continuous improvement and innovation, the industry can collectively advance towards a more sustainable future.

The next step

Bridging the gap between sustainability aspirations and practical implementation requires concerted small and consistent efforts from all stakeholders. As biotechs mature and begin to develop products, striving for a balance between meeting current needs and safeguarding resources for future generations means collaboration and commitment will be the driving forces that can propel us towards a more sustainable biotech industry – taking the lead from some of the pharmaceutical sector's exemplary practices.

“Adversity spurs innovation and creativity.  We strive to overcome challenges, which can lead to remarkable discoveries in this space. For instance, in our efforts to reduce the carbon footprint of clinical studies, we transitioned to a decentralized system. This approach allows us to bring the study to the patient, minimizing travel. Additionally, digitizing paperwork has reduced waste. Consequently, we've significantly enhanced the diversity of patients included in our studies, reaching those unable to travel. By focusing on sustainability, we've addressed a significant other challenge in our industry."

                  • Joe Hopcraft (Client Partner, IQVIA)
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