Rogier van den Braak – Managing director

Gerald de Haan – Director of Research

Utopian ambitions for the blood bank of the future

Smart Health Amsterdam made this interview with managing director Rogier van den Braak of the Hid, and Research director Gerald de Haan of Sanquin for their website. They talk about the plans for the Hid campus, and the value that a network like Smart Health Amsterdam has for this as well.

Sanquin has come a long way since 1998, when the Dutch Blood Supply Act authorised it to manage the country’s need for blood and blood products as the only organisation in the Netherlands. Alongside meeting the responsibilities of a national blood bank for decades, Sanquin has steadily gone the extra mile when it comes to tackling challenges in haematology, immunology and oncology. Ground-breaking research, the development of blood-related products and services, and a willingness to lead the way in public-private partnerships are hallmarks of its operations.

As a leading Dutch centre for research and healthcare innovation, partnering with Smart Health Amsterdam was a natural step, according to Rogier van den Braak, managing director of the Sanquin Health Solutions Group. “We think it is a very important initiative,” he adds, highlighting Smart Health’s work in linking life sciences knowledge to big data and artificial intelligence. “It was the logical thing for us to join that Smart Health movement, because we have a lot of possibilities in that area.

Birth of Sanquinnovate
There had always been a desire to translate more of Sanquin’s research discoveries into real-life solutions, and this ultimately led to the launch of Sanquinnovate, Sanquin’s valorisation arm, in 2017. At the time, explains Van den Braak, “there was a goal to do all kinds of translational research work that should lead to new products and new services. But in the end, what was coming out was actually little. There were a whole lot of ideas generated that were just lying there. So we set out to invest in our business development and project management capabilities.” It proved to be the right decision, with Sanquinnovate soon attracting backing from private equity investors.

Mind shifts
Sanquin’s expansion into commercial activities through its Sanquin Health Solutions Group (of which Sanquinnovate is part) has seen a mind shift occur throughout the organisation. Scientific research has always been of primary importance, but according to Van den Braak, scientists sometimes need a while to get used to the idea of valorisation. The idea “that it’s also very worthwhile to work on solutions that benefit patients in the form of new products and services is a little bit of different angle for a scientist, I think,” he says.

The other major shift in thinking was around cooperation with external parties. One of Sanquinnovate’s founding principles was a strong focus on partnerships, signalling a move away from what had been a more closed mindset of keeping development in-house.

Collaborations with a range of partners large and small, public and private, has led to a whole range of new initiatives. “I think we are really moving towards some sort of network organisation,” says Van den Braak. “We need the broader ecosystem because we are too small to do developments alone. We can bring value to some steps in the whole chain, but we need partners to get the job done from beginning to end.”

Public-private partnerships
Director of research Gerald de Haan is confident that Sanquin’s collaboration with the private sector is beneficial for all involved. The organisation’s governance, he says, is such that its research work will never be compromised by commercial pressure. “I see mostly advantages. It’s very important that you retain control and regulate it properly, so revenues go back into new rounds of innovation. It’s been working quite well so far. If companies could tell us how we should do our work and on what subjects, it would be very problematic. However, the way we have arranged things does not allow that.”

Donor consent
Van den Braak is quick to add that donors are always asked for their consent to their blood being used for research and, potentially, for commercial products and services. “Broadly speaking,” he says, “they are very willing to give that permission because donors want to help a patient and are very aware they are also helping a patient if we use their blood in a diagnostic test or a medicine. And if a donor is not willing to donate their blood for those purposes, well, we don’t use it.”
Public and research institutions take the first steps towards innovation, says De Haan, but the private sector is needed to take things further. As an example, he cites the vaccines used to combat coronavirus. Their speedy development, he says, was only possible because of the groundwork laid by years of research into viral diseases and their prevention, long before the pandemic broke out. But transforming that knowledge into the vaccination of millions of people around the world relied on working with commercial partners.

Creating opportunities
Commercial activities and private funding can also create other opportunities that would almost certainly not be possible to achieve solely with public resources, according to De Haan. “We want to contribute to novel findings that would change the blood bank as we know it. One of the programmes we have is generating blood cells outside of the human body. Inconceivable, right? That 30 years from now we won’t need donors anymore.” De Haan acknowledges that it’s a “utopian ambition,” but at the same time, the concept is sound, he says. And while researchers may be able to discover ways in which blood cells can be generated, it will be up to companies to transform that knowledge into a concrete product at scale.

Growing the innovation ecosystem
Sanquinnovate’s success is built on collaborations that bring together startups and established stakeholders in the life sciences and health sector. The Smart Health Amsterdam ecosystem facilitates such collaborations and the innovations they generate. And to support the further growth of the ecosystem, Sanquin is currently developing a new health and innovation district (HID) around their headquarters. The aim, says Van den Braak, is to create a campus that enables innovation, “bringing together all the startups, scale-ups and so on that need a place to do their work. That need to use facilities such as laboratories that are too expensive for a startup to organise for themselves. We can provide access to that kind of infrastructure, thereby helping them and speeding up the time it takes for their innovations to benefit patients. And Smart Health is very helpful, because it’s a label that attracts people from all over the world to the Amsterdam Area.”

De Haan is also convinced that bringing a variety of partners together is the way to make real progress. “Various institutes and individuals have very specific expertise that is often complementary. We might not know what other people are doing, but it could be interesting stuff that we have a use for. So I think this whole idea of teaming up, both on a small scale in mixed teams, but also on a regional or national level, makes a lot of sense.” And Sanquin, he believes, is ideally placed to offer the scientific expertise, the infrastructure and a successful valorisation model that will stimulate future innovations.