November 2006 marks the tenth anniversary of VIB, the Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology, a research institution focused on molecular medicine and structural biology which is also at the heart of biotech cluster FlandersBio in Belgium.
Formed through partnerships with Ghent University, the Catholic University of Leuven, the Free University of Brussels and the University of Antwerp, VIB currently has 65 research groups and has established eight venture capital-backed companies so far, including Devgen, CropDesign and, most recently, Ablynx and Peakadilly.
In August, Peakadilly received €8.5 million ($10.8 million) in a Series A financing, while fellow Belgian biotechnology business Ablynx raised €40 million in a Series C financing a few days later.
Frank Bulens is an executive investment manager at Belgian private equity firm GIMV, which invested alongside KBC Private Equity in Peakadilly and with KBC, SR One (the venture capital arm of GlaxoSmithKline) and Gilde in Ablynx. He says VIB has been a life science success story: “They take a very pragmatic and professional approach, getting the technology together with the right management and packaging it in a way that is VC-fundable.”
Bulens says GIMV got involved in Ablynx before VIB was even established but, at that time, “the technology was not ready for a commercial approach. That came through VIB, which saw its potential”.
Pieter van der Meer, general partner at Gilde, which also invested in another VIB start-up, CropDesign, alongside Atlas Ventures, GIMV and Sofinnova Partners, says VIB has been a valuable source of biotechnology opportunities. “We meet representatives of VIB like Rudy Dekeyser on the boards of Ablynx and CropDesign and at various biotechnology conferences, so we see them at least once a month and often get to hear about interesting businesses.”
Dekeyser, vice general director and director of technology transfer at VIB, has been with the organisation since its foundation, and says its start-ups have managed to raise €250 million in capital to date from venture capital firms, including from the Euronext flotation of Belgian biotech firm Devgen in June 2005.
VIB, says Dekeyser, almost always takes shares in its start-up companies and puts one member of the organisation on the company's board. “Over the last five years, we have built a good reputation among venture capital firms and we are known for putting a lot of effort into producing research dossiers that will eventually raise funding,” he says. “We frequently have a situation where we are receiving calls on a bi-weekly basis from venture capital firms asking if we have new dossiers that they may be interested in. It provides us with a very lively and active network.”
A fundamental factor in VIB's success and that of Flanders as a biotchnology cluster, says Dekeyser, is its academic standing: “If you look worldwide, and not just in the case of biotechnology, every time you have a flourishng cluster there are always knowledge centres present. In order to establish companies, you need money from venture capital, good management teams and good dossiers that attract interest. We hear a lot from VCs that there is plenty of money available in Europe but a lack of good dossiers, so it's important to have places like VIB and the universities that can help translate ideas and research into funding.”
While Dekeyser admits Flanders is still some way off being compared with Cambridge in the UK, he does believe that it has caught up with renowned life science centres such as Munich. “There are more than 30,000 people active in life sciences in the Flanders region and probably around 80 biotechnology companies that are well-established. On the Continent, Flanders is considered as one of the leading clusters for life sciences, with money available and the potential for flotations.”
Gilde's van der Meer agrees that the region has developed as an important biotechnology cluster and attributes part of its success to the work done at VIB. “They have an extremely professional transfer desk and are able to create start-up companies that meet the right criteria for venture capital. It is absolutely essential for venture capital funding that you have a critical mass in terms of intellectual property, with multiple product opportunities. The companies coming out of VIB are armed with a broad platform looking for funding rather than being a single product company, so they come to us with a very balanced investment proposal.”
Having already set up a biotechnology incubator and established a seed capital fund in 2005, VIB is hoping its next ten years will prove equally fruitful.