VIB: a new focus on data science with Christine Durinx at the helm

April 20, 2022 Article BioVox

Christine Durinx has been appointed as the new co-Managing Director of the world-class life sciences research institute VIB. Taking over from Jo Bury, Durinx joins VIB’s other co-Managing Director Jérôme Van Biervliet in ushering in a new era of discoveries increasingly driven by data science.

By Amy LeBlanc

Can you tell me a bit about your background?

Durinx: Happy to! I am Belgian, originally from Antwerp where I did a PhD in pharmaceutical sciences. After that, I worked in the pharmaceutical industry for several years before our family moved to the Geneva region. Eight years ago, I joined the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB), first as Associate Director and later as Joint Executive Director. SIB is a nonprofit foundation providing state-of-the-art databases, software tools, and data analysis services to researchers in academia, industry, and hospitals.

It’s a great feeling to be able to bring my experience with data science back to Belgium, as I return to my roots for this new role. – Christine Durinx

Leading SIB was a fantastic experience. During my time there, the number of academic groups affiliated with the institute nearly doubled and SIB rose in international prominence. It has always been a visionary institute, focusing on bioinformatics for over 20 years and significantly contributing to Switzerland’s reputation as the most well-developed data science landscape in Europe. It’s a great feeling to be able to bring my experience with data science back to Belgium, as I return to my roots for this new role.

What was it about VIB that drew you back to Belgium?

Durinx: Honestly, we hadn’t initially planned to return to Belgium, but the institute’s reputation for excellence and impact made the offer impossible to turn down. VIB is really regarded as a top institute for basic research, but what I find so fascinating about VIB is that the story doesn’t end with the publication of academic papers – it goes further than that, translating the work into concrete solutions for patients and agriculture. That societal impact is really important to me, and I think extremely essential for an institute that works with public money. I believe it takes a visionary government to realize that brains are an important local asset, and to then prioritize long-term investments in the knowledge economy. The attraction of this role is that I’m not just joining VIB, but a whole ecosystem working together to create impactful solutions for society.

Read this interview with Jo Bury and Jérôme Van Biervliet to learn more about VIB: the driving force behind a booming biotech ecosystem

What is the impact you’re hoping to have at VIB?

Durinx: The aim is not to start a revolution, because VIB is already excellent. My first goal is to nurture the things that are functioning well and keep up the good work. That being said, continued excellence isn’t possible if you’re just maintaining the status quo – the landscape is always shifting, so we need to push forward if we want to keep ahead. In this new 5-year funding cycle from the Flemish government, VIB is going to put a stronger focus on data science. This is where I really want to draw on my experience running a bioinformatics institute, to help usher in a new era for VIB and the broader ecosystem. Because Belgium’s status as an innovation hub – and the strength of our knowledge economy – depends upon our continual evolution. And data science is key for that future.

What I find so fascinating about VIB is that the story doesn’t end with the publication of academic papers – it goes further than that, translating the work into concrete solutions for patients and agriculture. – Christine Durinx

Why this new focus on data science? 

Durinx: Data science has a huge potential for impact in both health and agriculture. When people picture life sciences research, they typically think of labs, microscopes, or animal experiments – in vitro and in vivo methods. But in silico research can be a powerful complement to our current techniques and technologies, enabling breakthroughs and innovation. In the clinic, data science also opens the possibility for personalized health.

My dream is to build the knowhow at VIB and help create a whole ecosystem of impactful collaborations centered on data. – Christine Durinx

However, we need to put more effort into developing Belgium’s data landscape to access this potential. We have all the right components in the region: top-notch academic groups focused on bioinformatics, as well as first-rate hospitals generating health data. We need to foster that talent and put the structures in place to enable data access. My dream is to build the knowhow at VIB and help create a whole ecosystem of impactful collaborations centered on data.

Are there any other things you’re hoping to make a difference to in this new position?

Durinx: I’m very passionate about science policy, as the source for knowledge creation, sharing, and translation. Sustainability is key, in that sense: no matter what research asset we launch – whether it’s a database, a new tool, or an activity – we really need to think ahead about the ongoing and future management of what we’ve created. Hence why I really want to contribute a strategic long-term perspective to VIB’s activities.

Continued excellence isn’t possible if you’re just maintaining the status quo – the landscape is always shifting, so we need to push forward if we want to keep ahead. – Christine Durinx

I also care deeply about fostering the workplace culture that is already present at the institute. VIB is already a diverse place in terms of things like gender and culture, which is great to see. But we can encourage even more inclusivity by further promoting the values that drive it in the first place: respect for each other, integrity, and teamwork.

Taking a step back and thinking really big: What is your dream for the future of the Belgian life sciences ecosystem?

Durinx: That’s a difficult question! But one thing that I would love to see is more room for growth for biotech companies. VIB is exceptionally good at translating science into spin-offs, and has helped to establish local financing options for these types of early-stage companies, like the VC fund V-Bio Ventures. But Belgian funds are still primarily investing in seed stage and Series A or B rounds, typically limited to a few million euros. We lack the very big funds – like they have in the US – that are able to support the companies’ continued maturation. Instead, the trajectory for most Belgian startups is usually limited to acquisitions by foreign buyers, where you risk losing the ecosystem’s investment in both talent and technology as they move abroad. I would like to see us raise the ceiling on Belgium’s life sciences ecosystem. We have all of the foundations in place already – I think we can allow ourselves to dream big.


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