Astra Zeneca’s closure of two R&D facilities marked a new beginning for many

Concern for Swedish pharmaceutical development was great when Astra Zeneca shut down its research facilities in Lund and Södertälje five years ago. Both cities are now buzzing with new life sciences enterprises.

Astra Zeneca’s decision in 2010 to limit its research operations to three cities: Mölnlycke/Gothenburg in Sweden, Cambridge in the UK and Gaithersburg in the USA, left around 1,900 people, many of them highly qualified, unemployed. But the consequences for both those who lost their jobs and for Swedish pharmaceutical research was not as catastrophic as feared.

According the Swedish Agency for Growth Policy Analysithe closures were linked to changed research models in big pharma globally rather than to poor competitiveness in Sweden.

Anna Sandström was an analyst at Vinnova when Astra Zeneca closed in Lund and Södertalje. Today she is the pharmaceutical giant’s Science Relations Director.

“In 2012 several large companies reduced the number of researchers they employed. They instead focused on collaboration with small research companies or with other big pharma companies,” she said at an IVA seminar on the effects of Astra Zeneca reducing its research operations to three locations.

She also pointed out that the production operations in Södertälje are very important for the company. A new biological drug production facility will go into operation next year.

“We need top quality production. We have the entire innovation chain – from idea to production – here in Sweden.

When the decision to discontinue Astra Zeneca’s research in Lund was made in 2010, a comprehensive partnership programme with universities, Region Skåne and municipal authorities was launched. The result was Medicon Village based on a donation from Mats Paulsson, founder of construction and engineering company, Peab. 1,600 people now work at the science park.

In Södertälje, which was hit harder without warning, Trygghetsrådet (TRR), a non-profit that provides redundancy assistance, played an important role. 85 percent of those who received help got a new job and a number of them started their own business.

Claes Åberg, head of marketing at TRR said that the community was highly committed to meeting this challenge.

“The situation on the job market was good as well. Only 43 people left Sweden. So there was no scientist brain drain,” he said.

In the period 2012–2014 there were three times as many R&D start-ups in the field of life sciences as during the two previous years. One possible explanation, according to Growth Analysis, is that former Astra Zeneca employees started a business.

Jenni Nordborg, Head of the Bioentrepreneurship Department, Health Division at Vinnova.

“Astra Zeneca’s closure in Södertälje lead to broader collaboration between many actors. It’s important to be able to act fast and that is one of the things Vinnova’s helps with,” she said.

Jenni Nordborg recognised the potential for collaboration as a Swedish competitive advantage.

According to the seminar participants, there are still challenges ahead for Swedish life sciences. More investment is needed in research. Big pharma companies have been a hotbed for new graduates. But now that they have reduced the number of researchers, this function has disappeared.