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Boost for biotechnology

22 May 2022
Biotech research in the Netherlands is top class, but applications are lagging behind a bit. The Biotech Booster programme has been awarded a grant of 250 million euros from the National Growth Fund. The aim of this investment is for research to turn into concrete products faster, better and more often – in other words, valorisation. And that will have an enormous impact on our society, in the view of HollandBIO managing director Annemiek Verkamman and Mirjam van Praag, President of the board of Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.

Biotechnology affects all facets of society thanks to the role of the sector in combatting and preventing diseases, and in developing food products and making them more sustainable. And the prospects are even more far-reaching, with a level of knowledge that is regarded as second to none in many fields. “Biotech can make a substantial contribution to tackling major global challenges. For instance in achieving 11 of the 17 sustainable development goals”, says Annemiek Verkamman, managing director of interest group HollandBIO. According to research agency McKinsey, an annual economic impact of between 27 and 37 billion euros can be achieved through biotechnological knowledge. But that potential is not being put to best use. “For a variety of reasons, many promising ideas and innovations don’t turn into concrete solutions and products. We’re going to do something about that.”

Value
The grant from the National Growth Fund – a government injection totalling 20 billion euros for initiatives to strengthen the economy – is expected to bring an improvement in valorisation in biotechnology closer by. The Biotech Booster programme should be able to help turn knowledge based on top-level research into services, products and businesses. In other words, generate more value through science, as Mirjam van Praag describes it. She is President of the VU Amsterdam Executive Board and leads the national impact agenda of Dutch universities. VU Amsterdam is one of the parties in the public-private coalition behind the application to the National Growth Fund and works closely with HollandBIO in that respect.

“Traditionally, researchers and entrepreneurs don’t really know how to come into contact with one another. This is hindering valorisation. In addition, government funding in the university world is more likely to go to research and teaching. Science is indispensable in tackling the current social challenges. But it has to add value. Fortunately, these two worlds are increasingly opening up for each other. There’s momentum for the Biotech Booster”, says Van Praag.

Showing and testing
So bridges are being built in the Booster programme. An important first stepping stone is setting up trusted communities. These are theme-driven networks that consist of a variety of partners from relevant sectors. Together they form a trusted environment in which knowledge is exchanged and a communal idea can be developed and tested at an early stage. In this way, it is easy to make a survey of people for whom an invention could be interesting and what requirements an application needs to meet.

“In practice, many start-ups with a good idea end up in a gravity drip, having to skimp on studies and other research”, says Verkamman. “In the trusted communities there is plenty of room for projects, pilots and feasibility studies. They take a different form from one theme to another. In the case of a medical biotechnological idea, the community could comprise scientists, patients, insurers and business developers of big companies that oversee the market.”

Projects with potential might go forward to the next phase: the biotech innovation programme. This is still a project phase, but entrepreneurs investigate further whether it is worthwhile investing in the idea. The scientists remain involved throughout the process.

Impact
The Biotech Booster has the potential to stimulate economic growth. The programme aims to generate 21 scale-outs by 2031, five of them with a successful exit deal. All the effects of the Biotech Booster taken together are slated to provide a cumulative GDP effect of 440 million euros by 2031. This will rise to 10 billion euros in 2050 if the model is still in use.

But the impact stretches a lot further, Van Praag points out. “The Booster sets a process in motion where one initiative or idea leads to another. Valorisation provides not only direct benefits but also savings. Moreover, successes from the Biotech Booster make an economic and a social impact that can be felt far beyond the Dutch borders. Even in poorer countries, for instance.”

The Biotech Booster will have succeeded if various projects take off and result in businesses and products with added value, Verkamman believes. But in her view what matters is that an innovation hits the target, not how it hits it. “There will be plenty that don’t succeed. That’s par for the course. As long as the working procedures and how we deal with innovations are normal. And, consequently, that ideas of a biotechnological origin are tested a lot earlier and can hit the target. In that way, we all benefit from the available knowledge.”

Photography Maartje Geels | Interview Marjolein Straatman

Arjen Brussaard (vice dean Valorisation Amsterdam UMC) and Davide Iannuzzi (Chief Impact Officer VU Amsterdam) will take the lead for the Trusted Community of the pan-Amsterdam region. Please contact them directly if you have any questions regarding the Biotech Booster, via info@ixa.nl.