Following Lithuania’s life sciences: a priority in the country’s economy
Baltic powerhouse for innovation
When the Lithuanian government announced its life sciences vision in 2018, it set out an ambitious goal – a 5% GDP contribution by 2030 – for the sector that later proved its essential worth during the pandemic and continues to grow amid geopolitical and economic uncertainties.
The sector’s resilience is evident in official statistics, where export revenue remained at 1.2 billion euros annually throughout 2021 and 2022. Pre-pandemic figures indicated export sales at 0.3 billion euros annually for 2017 and 2018.
Today, the life sciences sector accounts for 3% of Lithuania’s GDP and has put many local startups under the global spotlight. Recently, several startups in the hot areas of AI-powered medical imaging and microfluidics, such as Oxipit and Atrandi Biosciences, have closed funding rounds with significant venture capital firms Taiwania Capital and Vsquared Ventures.
Employment in the country’s sector now exceeds 15,000 jobs, many of them high-paying.
“Salaries in the sector have significantly increased over the past five years. Currently, the sector is appealing for financial aspects and, most importantly, perspectives,” says Tomas Andrejauskas, President of the Lithuanian Biotechnology Association (LithuaniaBIO).
Furthermore, the sector maintains an export intensity of 95%. Most Lithuanian life sciences products in the United States and Germany find their primary markets. Additionally, markets like the Netherlands, Latvia, and the Czech Republic ranked among Lithuania’s top five export partners in 2022. Biotechnology exports include enzymes, antisera, immunological products, active pharmaceutical ingredients, vitamins and their derivatives, biopharmaceuticals, and manufacturing services.
The sector’s importance to the country’s economy cannot be overstated. Lithuanian life sciences foster top-tier research centers and private R&D facilities, host biotech giants like Thermo Fisher Scientific and Teva, and deliver up to 100 startups, including notable names like Caszyme, Delta Biosciences, Genie Biotech, and Biomatter.
“Over the past decades, Lithuania’s life science sector has proven to be a strong force within academia and industry. Leading scientists in their respective topics give life to significant fundamental and applied research that is slowly being converted into robust and quickly growing businesses. Universities generate an incredible talent pool capable of driving new biology-related ideas from the very start to the finish line,” says Laurynas Karpus, CEO and Co-Founder at Biomatter.
Leveraging machine learning, Biomatter powers its platform to advance next-generation protein design and discovery.
Biological engineering can address some of the most pressing challenges of our time, such as the climate crisis and the response to pandemics. However, according to Karpus, we’re still limited in what new proteins (functions) can be engineered. It can take years for a single protein to be designed and it often costs a fortune.
“At Biomatter, we’re transforming how new proteins are designed. We’re moving from classical experimental trial-and-error-driven processes to a well-predictable digital protein design enabled by novel artificial intelligence and physical modeling solutions. Our “Intelligent Architecture” platform expands the scope of protein development by allowing the design of unique functions and properties, which translates to novel products and technologies in real-world applications. It also minimises the time required to develop new proteins from years to months or even weeks,” explains Karpus.
Biomatter is among Lithuanian startups partnering with global companies in manufacturing, food, agriculture, pharmaceutical, and other industries.
Lithuania’s life sciences sector has already impacted global healthcare by participating in COVID-19 vaccine production and trends shaping life sciences. But this is merely the beginning. The Vilnius University Life Sciences Center (VU LSC), one of Europe’s key players in the life sciences industry, continues to foster innovation, including its work on the genome editor CRISPR-Cas9, led by Kavli Prize laureate Professor Virginijus Šikšnys.
Recently, VU LSC partnered with EMBL to unite strengths in developing and applying novel genome editing tools.
“At VU LSC, we continue to study CRISPR-Cas and other antiviral defense systems to understand the basic biological principles behind these systems. To further expand research potential and transform it into applications, we’ve established EMBL-VU LSC Partnership Institute for developing genome editing technologies. The Institute attracted to Vilnius talented researchers from different parts of the world,” says Prof. Šikšnys, Co-Founder and the Chairman of Caszyme Management Board.
He notes that “gene editing is just the tip of the iceberg we talk about today”.
“The underwater part of the iceberg hides a lot of basic research that made gene editing possible. Today’s gene editing technologies rely much on the studies of an antiviral defense system called CRISPR-Cas. The goal to find an answer to fundamental biological questions, e.g., how this system provides resistance against invading viruses, paved the way for the gene editing technologies,” says Professor, adding, “We were among the first who discovered that Cas9 protein that is a part of some CRISPR-Cas systems functions as RNA-programmable DNA scissors that can destroy invading viral DNA. We have further shown that simply by changing RNA molecules, DNA scissors can be directed to any sequence in DNA and cut it, opening the way for targeted DNA modification that could be harnessed to correct mutations causing genetic diseases, develop new plant varieties with desired properties, etc.”
According to Prof. Šikšnys, CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing technology rapidly advances in clinics to treat different human diseases, including cancer. While this is a great technology, challenges like target specificity, delivery, and others still need to be addressed.
“Recently, the Lithuanian government launched the call for the establishment of Excellence Centers, and under this call, we plan to build a translational center for gene technologies that will address these questions and facilitate the transfer of gene editing and related technologies into the clinics,” adds Professor.
This year marks Lithuania celebrating the centenary of incorporating the Klaipėda Region, a historical moment that resonates with the nation’s maritime identity. Today this identity is being reinforced by the Marine Research Institute, a subdivision of Klaipėda University, which conducts fundamental and applied research on marine and coastal environments and maritime technologies. “You could say it’s a condensed version of VU LSC, focusing on blue biotechnologies. There is an emergent trend of growing investment in Klaipėda,” says Andrejauskas.
While investment in Klaipėda extends to other biotechnological domains, marine technologies play the leading role. “Blue biotechnology is one of the rapidly developing R&D fields of the Institute,” says Zita Rasuolė Gasiūnaitė, Director of the Marine Research Institute.
Numerous pioneering projects have significantly advanced the field, focusing on diverse areas of R&D. Highlighting just a few of these endeavors, the Akvaponika project aimed to encourage farmers to use innovative aquaponics systems to simultaneously produce fish and vegetables while mitigating pollution on small farms. Recent strides have also been made under the TETRAS project, which seeks to optimize the placement and integration of recirculating aquaculture systems (RAS) in strategic locations to enhance food production efficiency.
An early-stage startup Inobiostar, a spin-off company of Klaipėda University, is a perfect example of what sector-specific investment can achieve. The startup patented an innovative technology involving natural sorbent and microorganisms to help clean up oil spills.
“The natural sorbent was created from natural materials like straw and sawdust in combination with oil-consuming microorganisms extracted from the Baltic Sea for oil spill clean-up. This technology was successfully tested in Klaipėda port, in collaboration with Klaipėda Sea Port Authority,“ says Gasiūnaitė.
Compared to conventional oil spill response technologies, the new technology is twice as lighter, twice more effective, and up to 5 times more reusable.
This success across the life sciences sector is because Lithuania has a supportive ecosystem:
“Lithuanian work ethic is a national asset. We work both hard and smart, and we understand the importance of quality. Our academia is famous in established disciplines, such as organic chemistry and protein engineering, and in newer fields, such as microfluidics and gene editing. Our startups have access to world-class talent and financing,“ says Andrius Milinavičius, Founder of Baltic Sandbox Ventures, the region’s first specialized venture capital fund for early-stage deep-tech and life sciences solutions.
He says that as an emerging hub, Lithuania is also easy to navigate, form collaborations, and test out risky R&D initiatives.
“As an extremely driven tech nation, we get a collaborative multiplier effect – everyone is helping one another go big. This kind of cooperation is a crucial component of Lithuania’s growth strategy, providing a productive platform for partners worldwide to collaborate,“ adds Milinavičius.
According to Milinavičius, the Lithuanian life sciences sector is experiencing a renaissance. “Since 2019, Lithuania has been experiencing a net positive migration for the first time in recent history. After COVID, we see a whole generation of world-class diaspora scientists returning to, or starting cooperation with, Lithuania,” he explains.
Milinavičius is also happy that life sciences are considered the country’s priority sector: “We all identify life sciences as a strategic sector for our nation and are on a coordinated mission to support science-led businesses and prominent academic spin-offs, alongside a plethora of private initiatives working in this domain.”
Signs of expansion are all around the Lithuanian life sciences sector, and as interest and VC investment increases, the growth will only continue.