Approximately €750 million ($1.2 billion) is being set aside by the government, academia, and private companies to help three Dutch companies organize partnership platforms over the next five years aimed at innovating in the areas of pharmaceuticals, biomedical materials, and diagnostics. Another €310 million ($488 million) in public-private finance is being channeled into exploratory research schemes.The three organizations are Top Institute (TI) Pharma for pharmaceuticals, BioMedical Materials for materials, and the Center for Translational Molecular Medicine (CTMM) for diagnostics.
The latest initiative is the creation of a Life Sciences & Gezondheid, or Health, (LSG) program, backed by the government and industry. LSG aims to play a key role in enabling the Netherlands to double over the next 10 years the size of its life-sciences sector, which currently employs 55,000 and brings in €16 billion ($25 billlion), accounting for 3% of the country's gross domestic product. The program will help small- and medium-sized companies, which comprise most of the 935 companies in the Dutch life-sciences sector, to bridge the investment gap between basic research and later-stage development once investors are willing to provide support.
"In the Netherlands, the private sector is providing less of the development funds for life-sciences innovations than in other European countries," says Hans van den Berg, executive research and development (R&D) coordination director at Organon, Schering-Plough's Dutch-based subsidiary, and head of the task force behind the LSG program.
"We are facing an imbalance between the public and private sectors in the Netherlands," he told reporters at a May briefing in Leiden. "That is why we need to build up the strength of the private sector in R&D. Public-private partnerships are one way of doing this."
LSG will ideally encourage small companies to share research and production equipment. For example, Leiden Bio Science Park, which accommodates 60 life science companies as well as Leiden University Medical Center, will soon house a shared pilot plant for biopharmaceutical production. Pharming Group NV, a start-up based in the science park, has partnered with Broekman Institute (Eindhoven), an animal research organization, to use rabbit milk as a source for the production of Rhucin, a Phase-III protein used to treat hereditary angioedema. "We have very low capital costs," said Rein Strijker, Pharming's chief commercial officer. "The rabbit milk has special sugar molecules. We don't have to do any scale-up. If we need more protein, we just breed more rabbits."
ProteoNic, another start-up in Leiden, raised funds to develop a technology for optimizing the translation of messenger ribonucleic acid into proteins for biopharmaceuticals. The 11-employee company is using a network of approximately 10 corporate and R&D partners, mostly small companies, to test the technology on an industrial scale. Because of higher yields, ProteoNic hopes to reduce operating costs by 80% and capital costs by 60%.
The prevailing Dutch preference for partnerships is going global as well. Some of ProteoNic's partners are located abroad, including an unnamed US company producing the enzyme "xylanase" from Chrysosporium fungi.
TI Pharma, the pharmaceutical partnership platform, has among its 42 projects an international scheme to develop technologies for making vaccines and other temperature-sensitive drugs heat stable so they can be used in developing countries. CTMM, the diagnostics platform, is allowing non-Dutch companies with no presence in the Netherlands to participate in its projects.
In the south of the country, the development agency for the Limburg province is trying to establish a partnership organization with its counterparts in neighboring Germany and Belgium. "Between us, we could become an international center for life sciences in Europe," said Fred Bollen, the Limburg agency's senior project manager for life sciences.
Sean Milmo is a freelance science writer based in Essex, United Kingdom.