Despite lacking a national champion to bolster its innovative eco-system since the 2007 acquisition of Organon by Schering Plough, the Netherlands nevertheless still sits in fourth position on the 2015 Global Innovation Index. For the healthcare sector, the country’s innovation is notably propelled by a myriad of local success-stories, and particularly by the booming Dutch biotech scene, whose players concentrate their efforts on addressing unmet medical needs, thanks to the development of cutting-edge technology. 

Kiadis Pharma, for instance, notably looks to allow “family members to become donors for allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantations (HSCT) to patients suffering from blood cancer,” a ground breaking innovation that will “increase the donor pool and almost completely hedges the life-threatening risk associated with donor immune cells attacking the patient. (..) There is no other approved treatment already on the market addressing the same unmet medical need, and there are only one or two similar medical developments underway all over the world,” explains CEO Manfred Rüdiger. In the same vein, Galapagos, a Leiden-based biotech company, is developing a safe drug for rheumatoid arthritis that could eliminate usual related side effects, such as anemia, high cholesterol or high level of infection. “In Phase II the efficacy data was the highest reported up to today,” explains Galapagos CEO, Onno van de Stolpe.

These Dutch companies are already on the radar of some of the industry’s major players. Janssen paved the way to the Netherlands in 2011, with the acquisition of Crucell, whose vaccine expertise helped launch the Netherlands-based Janssen Prevention Center. “Thanks to the acquisition of Crucell, we are now able to deepen our expertise in disease prevention for Janssen’s five core therapeutic areas. The vaccine platform is obviously particularly indicated for infectious diseases, and the Janssen Prevention Centre is now looking to apply this expertise in other key therapeutic areas, such as dementia, heart failure, and obviously oncology. We could use the immune system not only to treat diseases, but also to prevent their apparition,” explains Paul Korte, general manager of Janssen.

The interest of global MNCs in Dutch innovation has gathered steam in recent years with a flurry of M&A activity. 2015, for example, was notable for Amgen’s headline-catching acquisition of Dezima and its lead cholesterol treatment to the tune of some USD 300 milion. “Ten years ago, the Netherlands did not have a strong biotech climate. The types of innovation that emerge in companies like Dezima clearly demonstrate that times have changed”, states Jasper van Grunsven, general manager of Amgen. In the meantime, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Amsterdam-based Uniqure closed a strategic partnership to develop gene therapies for cardiovascular disease, while Galapagos and Gilead announced they would collaborate on the global development of Galapagos’ treatment for inflammatory disease indications. Also in 2015, AstraZeneca acquired a majority stake in the cancer drug developer Acerta Pharma for USD 4 billion, and Pfizer made an upfront payment of USD 87.5 million for a minority equity interest in AM-Pharma (a company developing proprietary recombinant human Alkaline Phosphatase therapeutics), and gained an exclusive option to acquire the remaining equity in the company with additional potential payments of up to USD 512.5 million.

That is not to suggest that partnering with Big Pharma represents the only way forward for Holland’s dazzling cast of biotechs, as they already incorporate a very market-oriented approach into their development curves: in 2014/2015, Galapagos, ProQR, Merus and UniQure all went public on Nasdaq, while Kiadis Pharma opted for Euronext. “We entered into discussions with the big brand MNCs, but ultimately decided that it was too early for such a deal, and resolved to retain our independence”, explains Rüdiger, Kiadis’ CEO. Dutch life sciences start-ups can also rely on highly prized early-stage financial partners, as “the Dutch biotech scene benefits from a flourishing venture capital community, with some of the largest and most successful VC funds in Europe based out of the Netherlands,” reflects Hans Schickan, from Health Holland.

Beside the crucial importance of the financial support available in the country, this burgeoning innovation phenomenon can also be explained by the dense and clustered structure of the Dutch healthcare industry, which operates as a formidable growth driver for new experimentations. “Our main job is to manage interplay within the cluster to maximize connectivity between actors and to work with new innovative companies to help them recognize and achieve their future route,” explains Thijs de Kleer, managing director of Leiden BioScience Park, one the top five most successful science parks in Europe.

This extreme proximity of different healthcare companies at various stages of development can also benefit the entire healthcare value chain. “We go along the full life cycle of companies present locally. As such, when a biotech neighbor first started here in the Leiden Bio Science Park, they outsourced all their testing to Sinensis. They then raised capital and brought some functions in-house again, but when demand rose, they once again outsourced to us, and today we test their commercial batches, including the post marketing stability studies,” reveals Ruud Santing, CEO of Sinensis, an independent provider of laboratory testing and manufacturing services. Being in contact with cutting-edge biotech companies also incites their partners to remain extremely competitive. “We are very fast and flexible. Unlike other CMOs, we have chosen to have a relatively small manufacturing unit, and we have on the other hand developed an impressive analytical laboratory facility. This specific set-up also means that we are able to attract and assist biotech companies earlier in their life cycles. As a matter of fact, our turnaround time for standard analysis is usually twice as fast as the in-house laboratories of manufacturing companies. We thus have clients that do not send samples to their own laboratory, but come to us since we can deliver results demonstrably more efficiently,” adds Ruud Santing. Finally, dealing with cutting-edge but relatively small biotech companies doesn’t prevent them from attracting bigger international partners. “Sinensis’ flexibility, reliability and testing excellence attract a wide variety of customers beside biotech start-ups, as we also partner with multinational generics manufacturers and big innovative pharma players. In terms of geographies, we have now a wide client base all around North-Western Europe, but also in the Middle-East and India, while our high-end nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) testing services available at Spinnovation, our chemical testing branch for very advanced techniques, is quite unique on a global level and attracts numerous clients from the United States,” he claims.

In the upcoming years, the Netherlands’s excellent academic ranking and entrepreneurship culture in the life sciences industry will continue to establish the Netherlands as a globally attractive innovation destination. MNCs’ role in supporting and benefiting from this unique opportunity may well follow the same path. “My message to the local biotech scene is ‘please continue doing what you are doing’ because there will surely be exit opportunities and continued successes if the Dutch life sciences industry maintains its current course,” appeals Jasper van Grunsven, general manager of Amgen.

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