How two graduate students launched the leading biotech publisher in Europe
Co-founder Joachim Eeckhout explains how Labiotech.eu filled an information gap for Europe's fast-growing biotech scene.
Welcome! I'm Simon Owens and this is my media newsletter. You can subscribe by clicking on this handy little button:
The first time Philip Hemme and Joachim Eeckhout realized that anyone actually read their blog was when they were recognized by complete strangers at a biotech conference in Paris. “These were top executives and people really high in the industry,” Eeckhout told me. “Each time we went to a new event, there were more people who knew us, more people who wanted to talk to us. And that’s when we thought that there was something here for sure.”
This was in 2012, when Hemme and Eeckhout were both French university students getting their graduate degrees in biotechnology. The two had grown frustrated by the lack of digital publications in their field; what few existed were published mainly in print and difficult to access. So they launched Labiotech.fr, a French-language blog that covered the biotech companies that were based in France.
In the early days, Labiotech consisted mostly of aggregation. “We were curating everything we could find in the French market about biotech and putting it on our platform,” said Eeckhout. “We were conducting interviews from time to time, but it wasn’t the main thing.” Occasionally, they’d visit biotech companies during their free time and film video interviews that they later posted to the blog.
Traffic growth was slow at first, but given the relative paucity of coverage in the space, the industry started to notice. Labiotech eventually reached 5,000 monthly readers, and its founders started to interact more with France’s small biotech community. “We did a cool ‘Tour de France,’ in which we biked through the country to meet 26 CEOs, film interviews with them and publish a documentary,” Hemme later recounted in a blog post.
This was about six months before they graduated, and they started to think about whether they could turn the blog into a full-time job. The problem was that the French biotech scene alone probably couldn’t sustain a media company. “We wanted something bigger,” Eeckhout said. “We knew that the French market was good enough if you’re a one-person business, but it wasn’t really scalable. We saw that most of the European magazines for biotech were still on paper, and there was no big digital platform for this.” They looked at the US — which already had several thriving biotech media outlets — as a model for what was possible in this space.
So in quick succession, Hemme and Eeckhout made three decisions. The first was that they’d expand from covering France’s biotech industry to all of Europe. The second was that they would transition from writing in French to English. And the third was that they’d move their headquarters outside of France. “We took out a map of Europe and looked at all the major cities,” wrote Hemme. “We wanted a dynamic and affordable city with a good startup ecosystem that included biotechs.” They ended up settling on Berlin, choosing it because of the density of biotech startups and Germany’s growing importance as an economic superpower.
So in September 2014, they changed the URL from Labiotech.fr to Labiotech.eu. “We saw in our stats that all of the French users moved right away to the European website,” said Eeckhout. “We didn’t lose any traffic.”
The pivot paid off in a big way. Over the next several years, Labiotech took on multiple investors, grew its staff, developed a successful business model, and recently got acquired by a major biotech software company. In an interview conducted last year, Eeckhout walked me through the publisher’s evolution from a hobbyist blog to a thriving media company.
Let’s jump into my findings…
Expanding beyond aggregation
Neither of Labiotech’s founders had any journalism experience, and for the first two years they relied mostly on news curation to grow their audience. In January 2016, the company closed a seed round of investment, and it used this money to expand its content operations. “At the beginning, we were mainly digesting press releases, trying to do a bit of analysis, but not too much,” said Eeckhout. “And step by step, we learned how to do good journalism. We also brought more experienced people on the team.” The site eventually pivoted away from short news all together and devoted nearly 100% of its focus on publishing longform analysis.
It didn’t take long for the European biotech scene to notice. During Labiotech’s initial era as a French blog, it peaked at about 5,000 monthly visitors. By January 2017, it was boasting 55,000 per month. By September of that same year, it was up to 100,000. While some of that traffic came from the typical marketing channels across social media and email, it also saw enormous growth from SEO. “We are not breaking stories,” said Eeckhout. “Usually when we have a lot of engagement, it’s when we publish rankings.” For instance, here’s an article titled “The 20 European Biotech Companies to Watch in 2022.” It also publishes longform analysis on industry trends and SEO-friendly explainers targeted to a more generalist audience. “We don’t have the resources to go into investigative journalism. I think in terms of impact, it’s more like we are animating the community, but not investigating it.”
In late 2017, Labiotech announced a second financing round, with several of its original investors participating. “It now welcomes nearly 100k monthly visitors and counts five of the largest life sciences companies as customers,” touted the press release. “This makes it the largest biotech platform in Europe, propelled by a team of 14 biotech enthusiasts.”
Because Labiotech is such a niche site, it’ll likely never have the scale needed to effectively leverage programmatic advertising. Instead, it focused from the very beginning on building out a native advertising business. “This was not very common in this industry,” said Eeckhout. “It’s still today a big part of our revenue.” The company’s media kit offers up several types of sponsorships, including sponsored articles, email blasts, website banners, and newsletter ads. Advertisers mainly consist of service providers within the biotech and life science industry. “It’s companies that want to reach out to the professionals in this industry. It’s very B2B focused.” Whenever a company buys a sponsored article, Labiotech assigns one of its own writers to craft the piece in collaboration with the brand. It currently charges €4,900 for a single sponsored article, and €7,900 if you also want to include an infographic in your article.
In May 2019, Labiotech launched a paid membership, charging €180 a year for individuals and €900 annually to companies. Members get access to one extra article a week, an ad-free environment, and a longer PDF report once every quarter. Currently, memberships only generate 5% of the company’s revenue. “Growth is slow and we are considering changing our strategy soon,” said Eeckhout.
Labiotech also experimented with other revenue models. In 2016, it launched an in-person event series called Labiotech Refresh and hosted it in cities like Paris and Berlin. During the pandemic shutdown, it shifted these conferences online and then later paused them completely. “For now, we’re not planning to bring it back because we are refocusing on the content right now,” said Eeckhout. “Creating events was outside of our core skills and distracting us a bit.” The site also launched — and then later shuttered — a jobs board.
In May 2019, Hemme announced he was stepping down as CEO and that Eeckhout would take on the role. “I personally need a new challenge in another type of business and my entrepreneurial spirit is pushing me to start something new,” he wrote in a blog post announcing the decision. According to his LinkedIn, he later launched a marketplace platform within the biotech space.
An acquisition and expansion
I initially spoke to Eeckhout in June 2021. In January, Labiotech announced that it had been acquired by Inova, a marketplace platform that helps biotech companies partner with each other. So I reached back out to Eeckhout to get a better understanding of the synergy behind this acquisition and what it meant for the future of Labiotech.
Eeckhout actually started speaking to Inova’s team as far back as 2019. “It was originally a networking call with the CEO but we rapidly realised that we have similar visions for our companies,” he wrote in an email. “Both companies are trying to improve collaboration and innovation in the biopharma space, one through software (Inova), the other through access to information (Labiotech).” When Eeckhout later met with the Inova team in France, they discussed ways that Labiotech could extend the software company’s footprint in the industry. “It became rapidly clear that Labiotech was a great gateway to this community as we’ve been publishing since 2014 and have a strong brand in this field.”
From what I could tell, the Labiotech acquisition benefited Inova by adding new revenue lines while also acting as a form of content marketing for the larger brand. The benefit for Labiotech was that it now had access to more resources. Over the past few months, it’s announced a new editor-in-chief and an expansion in coverage beyond the European biotech market. “Going global was always one of our ambitions and it’s also a reason why we decided to work with Inova,” Eeckhout said. “It’s a well funded company with solid revenues and this will support our expansion.”
Given that the market size for the US biotech industry alone is currently pegged at $140 billion, it’s not surprising that Labiotech wants to widen its coverage to other regions. The landscape for niche B2B media is quite strong, and the goodwill Labiotech has built up in the European biotech scene will help ease its expansion. A decade ago, Hemme and Eeckhout spotted an underserved industry — one that faced significant information gaps — and now the company they built is perfectly positioned to serve it.
Do you like this newsletter?
Then you should subscribe here:
Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.