VIB scientists are the cream of the crop for the Flemish biotech cluster
Since it was kicked off in 2004, flanders.bio has been a biotech tour de force to be reckoned with. Willem Dhooge, co-managing director of flanders.bio, has helped shape the independent cluster organization into the successful alliance it is today. “The superior research done by VIB – one of the world’s top life sciences institutes – is a key enabler of our success,” he asserts.
Flanders’ vibrant biotech ecosystem didn’t just spring up out of the nowhere. The richness of the sector comes down to the presence of all the ingredients for success – and the skills and dedication needed to nurture their growth. Willem: “Continuing the momentum will be a large-scale group effort.”
How did Flanders emerge on the global biotech map?
Willem: “The initial catalyst came in the early 80s when Plant Genetic Systems was established by UGent professors. Shortly after that, other big names in biotech from Flanders – think Tibotec and Innogenetics – successfully translated highquality fundamental research into life-changing technologies. TiGenix followed in 2000 and became the first company in the world to offer an EUapproved cellbased product.”
“Flanders has a track record of innovation that starts with basic science and moves through start-up, R&D, funding, production and acquisition phases to achieve international business success. “Other important factors include the willingness of venture capitalists to support young companies in Flanders, as well as the government’s historical support of the sector. The creation of VIB in 1996 was the government’s hallmark life sciences achievement.”
What characteristics of VIB make it such a powerful achievement?
Willem: “The sector thrives on fundamental research. VIB is one of the top biotech institutes in the world – a quality stamp that attracts major attention from fellow institutes, scientists from around the world and potential business partners.
VIB covers university departments across Flanders and has a proactive collaboration strategy with other key research institutes in Europe. As a result, Flanders and all players active in its biotech ecosystem benefit from VIB’s reputation for excellent research.”
How successful are VIB alumni at finding new jobs outside of academia?
Willem: “We don’t specifically keep track of VIB or other researchers as they find their way in the biotech industry. However, I do know that if your CV mentions experience in a VIB lab, companies will be more interested in you. Working at VIB is tough and requires discipline and skill. If you can function in a VIB lab, companies know that you’re a focused person. You’re trained to meet deadlines, protect your research and track results in a structured manner. These are significant assets in the job market.”
Willem Dhooge, co-managing director of flanders.bio:
“Companies are also aware that VIB offers plenty of training opportunities to their employees – not just in fundamental research, but on topics related to business development and intellectual
Does flanders.bio help bring new career opportunities to scientists and young graduates in
Willem: “There are several flanders.bio initiatives that help connect companies with biotech talent,from recent graduates and postdocs to experienced scientists taking the next steps in their careers. Through our collaboration with jobat.be we offer a rich online vacancy platform – in fact, it’s the most frequently visited page on our website. flanders.bio partner companies and institutions can post job opportunities there, and scientists and other personnel can upload their CVs to our database.
“Every year, we organize Knowledge for Growth, one of the largest life sciences conferences in Europe, where we also offer Belgian biotech companies and service providers the opportunity to connect with students and job-seekers in the region. There are also our BioBizz Cafes and, of course, the OPINNO program.”
Can you tell us more about OPINNO?
Willem: “OPINNO is one of the manifestations of our new ‘human talent’ strategic track, run by Pascale Engelen, my colleague and fellow co-general manager at flanders.bio. Through this initiative, flanders.bio aims to support the development and attraction of new talent to Flanders.”
“The ultimate goal of OPINNO is to show master’s and bachelor’s students that there is more to life sciences than pursuing a PhD. There are diverse possibilities outside of academia for biotech and biomed engineers, pharmacists, etc. Service providers and private companies are also in search of high-level competencies, and we provide students with a comprehensive overview of their options. BioBizz Cafes are smaller events where companies have in-depth conversations with students.”
Are there any big collaborations between VIB and flanders.bio on the horizon?
Willem: “Alongside 10 private and academic partners in Flanders and the Netherlands including VIB, we are now developing the Interreg Helis Academy. The objective is to grow competencies in new technologies that are increasingly needed in the biotech sector – young graduates don’t usually have
them when they leave university.”
“To make students more industry-ready, we’re designing modules on topics including good manufacturing processes, evidence-based clinical testing, business development and market access,
bioinformatics and new tech like AI, big data, medical devices and more. It’s a great, forwardthinking
initiative with a bright future, and we’re proud to have VIB on our side.”