VIB: the driving force behind a booming biotech ecosystem

July 7, 2020 Article BioVox

Since VIB was established, the world class research institute has been led by a duo of managing directors. As Johan Cardoen recently stepped down for health reasons, Jérôme Van Biervliet has been chosen for the position alongside Jo Bury. We sat down with both Jérôme Van Biervliet and Jo Bury to hear their thoughts on VIB’s vital role in the ever-evolving Belgian biotech ecosystem.

VIB has always had two managing directors. Why is that?

Bury: It’s simple: VIB has a dual mission. The first is to be top in science. Our researchers belong to the top in the world in the fields in which we’re active. The second is to valorize the disruptive discoveries our researchers make by translating them into applications.

Because of this double role, we decided from the start that VIB was to have two complementary managing directors. I’m more in charge of the science policy and quality, whereas Jérôme is in charge of the tech transfer.

Can you tell me about the first mission? How does VIB support academic excellence? 

Bury: The structural funding is of course a major component. About 27% of our research budget comes from the  structural funding, provided by the government of Flanders. As long as our PIs keep performing in the world’s best, which is subject to regular external review, they get an annual fund from VIB that is renewed every 5 years. This funding pays for about three people in their group and provides a measure of certainty: they know that if they keep doing well, they will get continued structural funding, guaranteed.

VIB has a dual mission. The first is to be top in science. Our researchers belong to the top in the world in the fields in which we’re active. The second is to valorize the disruptive discoveries our researchers make by translating them into applications. – Jo Bury, VIB

My job is also to create a stimulating environment for researchers. At VIB, we’ve created an environment where talent can excel. This means that we provide our world-class researchers with state-of-the-art infrastructure and core facilities, early access to disruptive technologies and expert support staff for both academic research and business development. Working with VIB also facilitates collaborations, between the different universities in the region and with industry partners as well. A way of building bridges.

This stimulating environment isn’t just benefitting VIB researchers either: all our core facilities, seminars and training courses are open to the whole life sciences community in Flanders, both academic and industry. The spillover from VIB is pretty significant for all members of the life science ecosystem.

How does VIB support tech transfer activities?

Van Biervliet: This is really about thinking: what does the science give us and how can we turn this into opportunities? Opportunities for further development, translation, investment and collaborative partnerships, to realize the potential described in the scientific papers. Scientific papers are extremely important for our institute, because they really lay the foundation of any tech transfer activity. But if you want to go from there to an actual product, company or technology platform that will benefit people and the planet, there’s typically quite a long way to go.

In our tech transfer team, we have people with expertise in IP, business development, venture creation and early drug discovery. They help the PIs, in a tight collaborative mode, to achieve proof of concept; to show people in industry or investors that the concept and data are valid, and we can build on this idea. The purpose of the innovation and business mission is really to create impact in the ecosystem, primarily locally but also on a global scale.

How has VIB changed and developed over time?

Bury: When VIB was founded by the Flemish government, the ambition wasn’t to create yet another academic institution, but to create a knowledge economy in Flanders. This has been our mission the whole time, supported by our two main pillars of scientific excellence and tech transfer. These days, our researchers consider tech transfer as an integral part of their work. But it wasn’t always that way. It has taken us some time to foster this sense of social responsibility to create knowledge at the frontline of science and to translate that knowledge into value for society.

Every euro that the government invests in VIB generates 11 euros worth of value, a substantial return on investment. – Jérôme Van Biervliet, VIB

The demographic at VIB has also changed dramatically over the years. In the beginning, the institute was almost exclusively Flemish, with 92% local staff and researchers. It was tough to overcome this: the first people who applied to VIB were all Belgians living abroad. Researchers who had left Belgium for better opportunities elsewhere. As we started attracting more researchers, this turned into a reversed “brain drain”, and eventually a “brain gain” as we started attracting excellent non-Belgian researchers. Now, there is much more diversity in VIB: we have 86 nationalities represented and the primary language is English. We’ve become a truly international institute.

What were the main challenges that you had to face along the way? 

Bury: There were two main challenges. One was to bring the unique cultures of four different universities together, to create a culture of working for something bigger than their own individual objectives. Another challenge was convincing the academics that their societal goal should include tech transfer.

The researchers also used to view VIB as just another funding body; a source of money that they would then rather not have to deal with again. That has changed enormously. We are currently about 1800 people at VIB, and roughly 850 of them are directly on our payroll. We are not a fund where they can get money and then run; we are their direct employer. This institutional belonging, this loyalty, has made VIB into the thriving research community that it is today.

More broadly, what role does VIB play in Belgium? What is the benefit to the Belgian taxpayer, who funds the institute? 

Van Biervliet: The spinoffs obviously create a very visible impact, but this is not the only way that VIB benefits Belgians. On an annual basis, we have 130 – 140 collaborations with industry partners, where knowledge created through public means is translated to societal value. We’ve had an economic impact study measure this out: every euro that the government invests in VIB generates 11 euros worth of value, a substantial return on investment.

Because we are so central in the ecosystem which we cherish, we are also involved in a lot of policy decision making, as well as industry driven efforts to make things happen within the Flemish biotech ecosystem. – Jérôme Van Biervliet, VIB

We also have a lot of initiatives external to VIB that go unseen by the general public. Because we are so central in the ecosystem which we cherish, we are also involved in a lot of policy decision making, as well as industry driven efforts to make things happen within the Flemish biotech ecosystem. Biotechnology infrastructure for example, like bio-accelerators and bio-incubators, is something that we committed ourselves to investing in from the very start. When VIB started, the technology park in Ghent was purely university buildings. Now, there are almost 3.000 people with industry jobs working there. This hub of both industry and academia is continuously growing and has had to be extended multiple times. In Leuven, we experience the same development. We play a role in the Belgian ecosystem as the first movers who take on the initial risk, which is then replicated with other investors when it proves successful.

Read this previous BioVox article to learn about Obelisc: a new bio-accelerator in the Ghent science park.

Regarding non-economic contributions, we consider science communication vital to VIB’s responsibilities and therefore do a lot of public outreach campaigns. This community engagement has many different forms, including events like our annual Biotech Day, school projects and Facts Series.

Are there more “non-tangible” effects of VIB?

Van Biervliet: Absolutely. We are continuously building towards a shift in the culture of entrepreneurship. VIB provides formal and informal training to a number of young scientists who are interested in industry-type work. Academic work is obviously important, but we also try to promote this added dimension of industry skills, because there is a lot of demand there. And although there is a lot of talent in Flanders, there is often a gap between that talent and what the industry is looking for.

Larger companies like Janssen, and maturing companies like Galapagos and argenx, really drive the long-term consolidation of the cluster. Which is a challenge which we are particularly passionate to support. – Jérôme Van Biervliet, VIB

VIB is really seen as a driving force by the companies in the ecosystem. Working with us means being able to collaborate with the academics we represent. But also, from an investment point of view, we’ve become almost a quality stamp. We’ve built a long track record with over 26 VC funded companies and have become a trusted partner.

VIB’s presence in Gent has also resulted in the biggest agro-biotech cluster in Europe, through the mergers and acquisitions of our startups in the region by big agrochemical companies. This provides a continuous flow of talent, activity and investment. The same holds true for the bigger pharma companies. And I want to stress the importance of also having big companies as part of the ecosystem. These larger companies like Janssen, and maturing companies like Galapagos and argenx, really drive the long-term consolidation of the cluster. Which is a challenge which we are particularly passionate to support.

Header image: Jo Bury (left) and Jérôme Van Biervliet (right) ©VIB-Ine Dehandschutter


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