Entrepreneurship at VU Amsterdam. The bar cannot be set high enough

With an investment of 78 million euros, the Amsterdam-based medical high-tech company LUMICKS is taking a big step forward in the further development of the next generation of instruments for biological research and drug development. The company started in 2014 in the basement of VU Amsterdam. The company now almost has one hundred and fifty employees.

04/16/2021 | 2:17 PM

LUMICKS is using this fourth investment round primarily for the further development of a device for cancer research. The so-called z-Movi allows researchers to almost immediately see which human cells are effective in fighting cancer. This makes it possible to develop better immunotherapies, and ultimately even use personal immunotherapy for cancer patients. Meanwhile, a first generation of the product has been successfully marketed, which proves that the technology and the application actually work. Based on this, LUMICKS is working on a commercial roll-out of z-Movi to further develop this technology for other applications in the pharmaceutical chain. In time, this will lead to clinical applications for precision medicine.

“This is promising technology with a lot of potential,” says Erwin Peterman, professor of Physics of Living Systems at VU Amsterdam, and co-founder of LUMICKS. The technique revolves around studying human cells using sound waves: Acoustic Force Spectroscopy (AFS). This technique was developed out of scientific interest. LUMICKS saw the practical applications of the idea and the commercial opportunities.

The success did not come out of the blue. Granting research funds in the start-up phase by the European Research Council to Gijs Wuite, Professor of Physics of Life Processes and co-founder of LUMICKS, was a crucial boost. The first ERC grant enabled PhD student and co-founder Andrea Candelli and others to get started. A proof of concept was also financed for the optical tweezers, another branch of the company. This was followed by a second grant for the development of the AFS. The Innovation Exchange Amsterdam (IXA) played an important role in this. IXA not only provided advice in the initial phase; it also helped with the application for the ERC funds.

IXA is a collaboration of all Knowledge Transfer Offices of VU Amsterdam, Amsterdam UMC (locations AMC and VUmc), University of Amsterdam and Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. The service supports the Amsterdam institutions and scientists in their valorisation projects. “It starts with awareness, but we also help with strategy development and legal advice,” says Bart Klijsen, director of IXA VU-VUmc. “And, we support scientists in applying for patents. An idea or invention does not always have to lead to a company of its own. A researcher can also place it with a large company.”

When LUMICKS was set up, VU Amsterdam only had one key demand. It had to be someone from outside with experience in business. That person turned out to be Olivier Heyning, the current CEO. A lesson from the founding history was that the company's set-up had to be focused on the future of business from the outset. “It usually starts with an atmosphere between the academics and entrepreneurs involved of 'we’re going to do this together', which is very useful and gives positive energy, but it does not always work like that in the end,” says Heyning. “If scientists have to choose between the company and research, they will choose the latter. It’s their strength and their job. As a scientist, you might not think of that right away. That's why it's good to put a team of entrepreneurs behind a start-up right away.”

Investing in business
According to Peterman and Wuite, this was also the most important advice they got before launching a company. “Scientists tend to get stuck in technology,” says Wuite. “But I'm also proud of the way we're making a global impact with that technology. When a company or institution buys our device, they also step into the philosophy behind it.”

In the coming years, VU Amsterdam will invest heavily in guiding and facilitating scientists and students who want to start a business. The StartHub is being built on the campus, a complex that will offer space to 25 start-ups by the end of this year, literally making it clear that entrepreneurship is one of the spearheads of the strategy the university has outlined for the coming five years. In that strategy, valorisation is given the same value as research and education. “A lot has changed in our culture,” says Mirjam van Praag, chair of the Executive Board. “Back then, entrepreneurship was even seen as a negative thing. Especially when scientists did not work on their publications and prioritised valorisation or a social contribution. Especially if they were making money from it. Today, we look at it differently.”

Money, time and freedom
Still, a lot needs to be done, acknowledges Van Praag. A university has three statutory tasks: research, education and valorisation. Although, even outgoing Minister Ingrid van Engelshoven tends to forget the latter task. “For us, impact and entrepreneurship are important pillars. We have to make a connection between science, business and social institutions, which is sometimes complicated. It involves parties from different worlds working together more intensively and learn to see the added value. That’s what we need to work on and invest in together. 

VU Amsterdam rector Vinod Subramaniam is also enthusiastic about the increasing entrepreneurship at the university. Scientists can have an impact on society in various ways. With a publication, a contribution to guidelines and laws, but also a company. The latter requires courage. “We shouldn’t underestimate how much support colleagues need. Besides money, they also need the time and freedom to follow their feelings. If a business doesn’t succeed, it’s not a problem. “The US has a more advanced start-up culture,” says Subramaniam. “You don't count until you've failed two or three times.”

VU Amsterdam has only made a small contribution to the success of LUMICKS, says Van Praag. “But it’s great that this company started with us. It’s an example for others with the same ambition. Because you can never set the bar high enough.”