Biotechs are surging in Chile, fertilized by a deep academic foundation, ample funding, plentiful low-cost laboratory space, and a collaborative global research environment.
As sleet peppered my office window on an April morning in Northwest Pennsylvania, I hopped on a video call with Cristian Hernandez-Cuevas, who joined me from the balcony of his residence in Santiago, Chile. Birds chirped and dogs barked in the background as the sun beamed across the Andes Mountains. It’s turning the corner toward autumn in Santiago, though to me, autumn is a relative term. June and July are the city’s coldest months, when daytime highs below 60 degrees Fahrenheit are considered chilly.
Hernandez-Cuevas, former CEO and current COO at Andes Biotechnologies and Director of Business Development at the Fundación Ciencia & Vida (Science For Life Foundation), sits comfortably in short sleeves, but he hasn’t joined me to discuss Santiago’s warm weather and even warmer quality of life. We’re here instead to talk about what’s driving a surge in life science investments and innovation in Santiago and throughout Chile. The Science For Life Foundation is playing a lead role in that growth. Founded by Dr. Pablo Valenzuela in 1996 after a 15-year stint as cofounder and director of research for the biotech Chiron Corporation (which was purchased by Novartis), the non-profit foundation aims to improve Chile’s social and economic development through support of scientific discovery, entrepreneurship, and education in the biological sciences. Its 2-acre science and business complex hosts 300 researchers and has spun off or incubated some 30 biotech companies, including Hernandez-Cuevas’ own Andes Biotechnologies.
For his part, Hernandez-Cuevas has taken a high-profile role in the effort; in addition to overseeing the Foundation’s grant writing and fundraising requirements and serving as liaison to government and business stakeholders, he hosts a popular cable television show called Todo por la Ciencia (translated Everything For Science) that promotes Chilean scientific entrepreneurship by profiling successful biotech founders.
Before we jumped into the Foundation’s role in the Chilean life sciences scene, Hernandez-Cuevas described the social and economic underpinnings of the country’s biotech growth.
Generous Funding Opportunities
It takes money to make money, and that’s not lost on the Chilean government. Backing up a commitment to fuel its economic engine through investment in the life sciences, nearly 70 percent of the research grants deployed by the Chilean government are awarded to people and organizations in the life sciences. “Interestingly,” explains Hernandez-Cuevas, “we have astronomy to thank for paving the path to generous government funding of biotech. Chile has long been considered the epicenter of global astronomy due to its unparalleled views of the night sky. Our government’s early recognition of that as an investment opportunity led to Chile becoming home to more space observation centers than any other country. That historical bias toward sciences funding has spilled over into biology, biotech, and biochemistry as global life sciences industries have grown.”
The Foundation itself is a beneficiary of that government funding. Nearly half of the organization’s budget is earned from grants, while the other half is earned via different revenue streams from the startups it has a direct hand in creating. When those companies succeed, the Foundation succeeds.
Of course, all the funding in the world is useless without the talent to put financial resources to good use. Chile, a country of fewer than 19 million people, boasts more than 60 universities. Hernandez-Cuevas characterizes about 20 of them as “complex research institutions,” which he says is a direct consequence of the Chilean government’s liberal funding of the life sciences. The Foundation works closely with those institutions. “We operate 11 different laboratories focused on different lines of research, where we train professional scientists, support university PhD programs, and allow students to conduct their thesis programs,” explains Hernandez-Cuevas.
The weight the Foundation places on education comes as no surprise. During his 25 years in the U.S. before returning to Chile, Dr. Valenzuela served as adjunct professor of biochemistry at the University of California San Francisco, which has honored him as its Alumnus Of The Year and which bestowed upon him the coveted UCSF Medal in 2014 for his co-invention of the first recombinant vaccine against the Hepatitis B Virus. The UCSF connection stood the test of time. Foundation-supported companies have conducted clinical trials there, UCSF-spawned companies have opened up shop in Chile, UCSF students participate in the Foundation’s annual Science & Friendship Symposium, and the Foundation draws on UCSF faculty to collaborate on its science and education initiatives.
Among those science and education initiatives are a host of broad-reaching programs that meet students in their formative years. In addition to in-school programs designed to promote science as a course of study, the Foundation produces science career-promoting mass media including cartoons for small children and movies, documentaries, and television shows aimed at middle- and high-school kids.
The aforementioned in-school programs focus on instructors. “We partner with the ministry of education to train groups of teachers on highly effective and current methodologies to inspire the promise of science as a career opportunity,” explains Hernandez-Cuevas. “We designate funds to bring certified coaches in from UCSF to train our trainers, who then pass their learnings on to our school teachers,” he says. “We also operate a mobile lab that we take to remote and underprivileged schools, where students can conduct simple experiments that both educate and entertain.”
That early education intervention is fueling fresh Chilean talent perennially. It’s talent that’s planting roots in Chile and beyond, and it’s talent that’s attracting those from beyond to invest in Chile.
A Collaborative Research, Development, And Go-To Market Atmosphere
Attracting new biotech investments to Chile isn’t hard, per se, and it’s not just because of that beautiful landscape and climate. The ease of doing biotech business there is due in part to the hard work conducted by the Fundación Ciencia & Vida. “Our international research collaboration projects have resulted in our investment in several European biotechs and attracted many American biotechs to set up labs here, funded in part by national and international grants,” says Hernandez-Cuevas. “We’ve become quite proficient at navigating the industrial application of international patents, licenses, and regulatory bodies, and at leveraging our connections overseas, to simplify the complex nature of running an international biotech company.”
The Chilean government has also earned its reputation as a facilitator of international business. Its economy is stable, its tech and civil infrastructure modern and enabling. “Chile is akin to a mid-sized European country,” says Hernandez-Cuevas. “Our government is strong. Some 30 percent of its research and development budget accrues to scholarship programs, and 60 percent of those scholarship applicants study the life sciences. Those who travel abroad for their education come back to Chile at a rate of 700 to 1,000 per year, many of them with their PhDs,” he says. The country’s economic development agency provides monetary incentives to set up shop there by way of its Startup Chile initiative, icing on the cake of Chile’s relatively inexpensive real estate and cost of living.
These factors that make Chile an attractive place for burgeoning biotechs, however, pale in comparison to Hernandez-Cuevas’ ode to his mentor, and the value he ascribes to Dr. Valenzuela’s influence on the biotech ecosystem there. “On top of all this,” he says, “Biotech entrepreneurs have an incredible role model in Dr. Valenzuela, who has been there and done it,” he says. “His work is attracting young, motivated people with the wider international perspective of how a complex industry is regulated, and that investment will pay dividends for generations by growing a family tree of idealists that want to push biotech forward.”