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European Biopharmaceutical Review

The Future’s Orange

Though small in surface area, the Netherlands is definitely not a minor player in life sciences and health. The Dutch sector owes its position to collaboration, cooperation and coalition-building between businesses, knowledge institutions and government – a golden triangle removing barriers and encouraging innovation, now and in the future.

The Dutch life sciences and health sector enjoys a good service record. The sector is internationally competitive and pioneers in a number of focus areas and niches (1). Philips, for one, is the world leader in medical imaging and patient monitoring; DSM is a biomaterials leader; and MSD/ Intervet is a veterinary life science innovator. Innovation does not stop at the borders, as Dutch companies invest heavily abroad. In 2008, for example, Philips took over American company Respironics for €3.2 billion; while in 2010 DSM acquired another American company, Martek Biosciences, for €828 million. There is also foreign investment, such as GSK, who have almost €3 billion in outstanding milestone payments in the Netherlands.

Innovation is absolutely vital for life sciences and health companies and the Netherlands is a hive of innovative activity. One example is Crucell’s combined vaccine Quinvaxem® which protects against five deadly childhood infections, including diphtheria and tetanus. Some 200 million doses of this vaccine have been sold to developing countries with UNICEF cooperation and there is more in the pipeline. The Dutch development portfolio currently includes almost 60 (bio)pharmaceutical products in the clinical trial phase and 45 concepts for medical devices (2). The Netherlands also leads in the transition to a new era where SMEs join the larger enterprises in playing an increasingly important innovatory role. Foreign companies are already investing billions in Dutch SMEs such as Prosensa, Galapagos and Merus (3). This level of interest in such a small market is not surprising. The sector boasts an outstanding body of knowledge, benefitting from aboveaverage investment levels in healthrelated R&D each year. The majority of these investments originate from the core of innovative companies, technical universities (TUs) and university medical centers (UMCs). The Netherlands has a robust academic system, with a number of eminent scientists in the life sciences sector (4-6). For a sector where so many innovations have their roots in basic knowledge institution research, this asset is a key success factor.

The Dutch public-private partnership model, such as the Netherlands Genomics Initiative (NGI) and the three top institutes (TI Pharma, CTMM and BMM), have set an international standard. The intention is to bridge the gaps between basic and applied science, the life sciences entrepreneurs and the healthcare sector. So many research findings will be incorporated directly into everyday clinical practice, making for a higher standard of care. With its strong foundation and highly educated people, the Netherlands can play a key role in technologyintensive areas of the value chain, such as technological development and technology-intensive production.

There has been an overhaul in the way the Dutch life sciences sector operates at the regional level. There are strong local life science and health clusters that also operate on a global scale with their own focus and strengths (7). Businesses cooperate successfully within and between clusters, and with other sectors with strengths in the same region. Eindhoven was recently named the most intelligent information and communication technology (ICT) and health cluster in the world and in 2009 the Leiden Bio Science Park was cited as the best business park in the Netherlands.

Times are Changing

Our ageing population and changing lifestyle increase the prevalence of chronic diseases and the demand for care, while rising costs and a shrinking workforce limit the ability to deliver (8,9). The major societal challenges ahead of us require dedication and focus on life sciences and health. Although the Netherlands can build on a strong life sciences foundation, the sector will be forced to focus on innovations saving both time and money.

Social, Technological and Sector Trends

Our healthcare demands are in a state of flux. The health of an increasingly long-lived and ageing population places mounting pressure on both society and economy. The ageing population exhibits scores of chronic diseases and our worsening lifestyle raises the likelihood of developing illnesses. Patient care, diagnostics and medication are being customised. Blockbusters are moving out of patent. A more personalised approach is demanded, involving smaller and well-defined patient groups. Quality of life expectations are growing and can cause healthcare costs to spiral out of control, and there’s a price tag to match. With current policies, healthcare costs will increase by an estimated 50 per cent over the next decade, which puts additional pressure on society to manage costs. The shrinking workforce is straining the sector, which now faces staffing shortages. Government cuts also reduce the investments needed to maintain our current position.

Scientific knowledge is expanding rapidly, as are the resulting opportunities. (Pharmaco)genomics, systems biology, synthetic biology, ICT integration and biotech and advanced imaging are just a few of the exciting technological areas which may spawn a whole raft of new medicine, diagnostics and medical devices. Academia and SMEs play a crucial role in validating these scientific developments.

The pharmaceutical business model is itself changing. The increasing number of deals between smaller biotech companies and large pharma indicates that externalising R&D is a major trend in the sector. Large pharma is moving away from its classic R&D model, towards search and development, outsourcing high-risk, and early-stage research through strategic alliances with innovative SMEs and academia. This renewed business model is geared towards lowering both risks and costs. Another method is open innovation, where competitors and knowledge institutes cooperate in pre-competitive research.


We face a number challenges to address the societal, technological and sector changes, including:

  • How do we contribute to containing healthcare costs?
  • How do we improve and accelerate the development process?
  • How do we combine disciplines and exploit new innovations to the utmost?

The answer to all three seems simple: cooperation. But securing progress is demanding because of the number of players involved and the complexity of the knowledge needed. A change in attitude is also a must; we need to have openness and respect for one another’s needs and goals. Despite the challenge, if successful the social gain will be matched by signifi cant economic potential, both for life sciences companies and for the Netherlands as a whole.

A Framework for Success

The Dutch are masters at building coalitions. Government, universities and businesses work in close collaboration. All stakeholders have set a common goal: to capitalise further on the signifi cant investments of recent years and to face the challenges described here. Jointly, the cluster has defi ned seven specifi c life sciences prerequisites (1):

  1. The relatively small Dutch market should serve as a portal to Europe and the rest of the world
  2. National laws and regulations allowing the greatest possible scope for innovation, while maintaining safety and cost effi ciency
  3. Attracting and training entrepreneurial talent, as the knowledge-intensive and highly collaborative nature of the sector makes qualifi ed entrepreneurs, scientists, regulators and investors indispensable
  4. Access to capital and fi nancing structures attuned to the specifi c requirements of life sciences funding
  5. Securing a strong and accessible scientifi c knowledge base, IP position and research funding
  6. A shared public-private innovation infrastructure, vital to accelerate the development process from bench to bedside
  7. A unifi ed, fi rm, life sciences and health sector organisation linking and representing the Netherlands, with a common voice and message

Focusing on these conditions will let the Netherlands maintain and expand its success within the changing and demanding environment. The agenda has been set, and will soon be put into practice with the support of all the partners in the golden triangle: government, academia and industry.

Jointly Towards a Healthy Future

The Netherlands is the most concentrated region in the world when it comes to creating economic and social value in life sciences and health. As a small nation, the Netherlands is one life sciences region with a huge concentration of knowledge institutes, public-private consortia and companies, most of them linked to a dedicated cluster. Interconnectivity is high and businesses cooperate successfully within and between hotspots, often with other sectors which are strong in the same region, maximising crossdisciplinary innovation.

Nevertheless, our collaborative nature does not end at the border. The Netherlands’ open economy has always been internationally oriented, as shown by our long trackrecord in international trade. So the Dutch life sciences and health sector is open and welcoming to foreign players. Dutch researchers participate abundantly in EU research projects, and many foreign companies have joined our research infrastructure through public-private partnership programmes such as TI Pharma, CTMM and BMM (10).

The Dutch approach is paying off. Despite the economic downturn, the sector shows growth and an increasing number of international investments. With an annual growth of eight per cent, Dutch SMEs are at Europe’s forefront (11).


  1. Topteam Life Sciences, Topsector Life Sciences & Health, For a healthy and prosperous Netherlands, 2011
  2. Life Sciences Health, Dutch Life Sciences Outlook 2011, 2011.
  3. Van Leeuwenhoek Research BV, The economic impact of the Leiden Bio Science Park, 2011
  4. NOWT, Science and Technology Indicators, 2010
  5. Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation, Topsector Life Sciences and international opportunities (note), May 2011
  6. Rathenau Institute, Focus and mass in scientifi c research, 2010
  7. AgentschapNL, Mapping Dutch clusters (trade, production and R&D), 2011
  8. Laane C et al, Partners in the Polder, A vision for life sciences in the Netherlands and the role of publicprivate partnerships, 2009
  9. High Profi le Group, Cahier no II, Towards a joint vision, 2009.
  10. AgentschapNL, The Netherlands in FP7, 2010 11. OECD, Key Biotechnology Indicators, 2009

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Annemiek Verkamman is Program Director at Life Sciences Health (LSH), the national cluster organisation of the Dutch life sciences and health sector. LSH strives to utilise the sector’s potential to the utmost, enabling patients and society to benefi t from its excellent position in research and healthcare. Annemiek was Life Sciences Advisor for Agentschap NL, a Ministry of Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Innovation agency. Before that she was Project Manager for the development of diagnostic products. She holds a Master’s degree in Chemistry from Leiden University and a Master’s degree in Economics and Business Administration. Email: annemiek.verkamman@
Annemiek Verkamman
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