Rudy Dekeyser: Alumnus on a mission for better science

Rudy, cofounder and co-director of VIB for 17 years, left the organization in June 2012. These wonderful years were spent working shoulder to shoulder with partner-in-crime Jo Bury and many other passionate people with one goal in mind: transforming VIB from a blank sheet of paper into an internationally-renowned research institute.

Together with his very professional team, Rudy developed one of Europe’s most successful tech transfer offices. Building on the breakthrough inventions of talented VIB scientists, a patent portfolio was developed and used as the basis for hundreds of partnerships with existing companies and the establishment of top quality biotech companies like Devgen, Cropdesign, Ablynx, Actogenix and Multiplicom, just to name a few. Building the first bio-incubators, catalyzing the first bio-accelerators and establishing FlandersBio and ASTP were other milestones achieved along the way.

Rudy moved to LSP (Life Science Partners), a leading European investment firm, headquartered in  Amsterdam. He kept his diligence and his modesty, and insiders know that his impact on the European
life science scene is greater than ever.

What have been your achievements at LSP so far?
LSP has been investing in life sciences companies for more than 25 years. Our support comes from successive funds, and for each new fund, we need to raise money from institutional investors (e.g. pension funds,  nsurance companies), strategic investors and wealthy families. My first task was to finalize the launch of the LSP Health Economics Fund (LSP HEF). The initial target was to raise 100 million euros. At the end, we were
able to raise 112 million. Subsequently, we started to put this money to work by investing in innovative healthcare companies in Europe and the US.

LSP HEF has a different flavor compared to traditional biotech and pharma investment funds, doesn’t it?
Indeed, the fund was established based on two observations. First, notwithstanding the great progress we
made over the last 30 years, there is still a large need for better prevention, diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Every year, more than 10 million people die from cancer and even more people die from cardiovascular diseases. There are more than 20 million Alzheimer’s disease patients, and more than 350 million people suffer from diabetes. Secondly, due to the aging population and a sharp increase in chronic diseases, healthcare costs per capita have doubled since the start of the century, resulting in huge pressure on governments and taxpayers to keep these expendituresunder control. To break the cycle, LSP HEF decided to only invest in companies developing products that improve the quality of healthcare, but to reduce the cost at the same time. After careful analysis of many hundreds of business plans, we have thus far invested in ten companies developing innovative medical devices, diagnostics or digital health technology. The potential cost savings in the event of full commercial rollout of the products in Europe amounts to up to 7 billion euros.

Can you give an example of a company in which you have invested so far?
An example is Xeltis, a Swiss-Dutch medical device company developing heart valves, blood vessels and cardiovascular patches made of unique bio-absorbable polymers, based on Nobel Prize-awarded science on supramolecular structures. Due to its porous structure, the polymers allow new, healthy tissue to pervade the device. The patient’s own tissue takes over the functionality while the implanted device gets gradually absorbed into the body.

A first clinical study in children born with only one functional ventricle in the heart has been very successful. Due to many complications, the current standard of care for these so-called ‘blue babies’ (they don’t have fully-oxygenated ‘red’ blood) often means that these children undergo a first open heart surgery at the age of 2 to 4, a second one at puberty and a third one at adulthood. This is a big burden on their quality of life that also comes with a huge cost for the healthcare system (estimated at 1 million euros per patient). The Xeltis product offers the hope and expectation that one open heart surgery will suffice, because the polymer is replaced by native tissue. It’s a big step forward for the patient that also results in significant cost savings. The technology is now also in clinical trials for pediatric pulmonary valves and in preclinical studies for aortic valves.

Is it currently more difficult to raise capital for setting up new companies?
When you have a truly innovative technology with great commercial potential and a company supported
by a seasoned management team, you will always find money. I would say there is plenty of risk capital available – in Benelux specifically, which is an obvious hotspot in Europe. At LSP, we have recently raised 250 million euros for a new fund. New and older initiatives combined, there is more than a billion euros in Dutch and Belgian life sciences funds to be put to work in the coming three or so years. To manage expectations, not all that money is for early stage ventures in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Is the Netherlands catching up with Belgium?
Oh yes, not only in raising funds, but also by putting new companies on the scene and expanding them. Furthermore, the culture within the Dutch universities has changed in the past four to five years. Translating knowledge into products is becoming the new adage among young Dutch researchers.

Should we in Flanders be afraid of the Dutch expansion?
On the contrary, in my view, Flanders and the Netherlands could become a leading biotech and life sciences
region in Europe. The boom in the Netherlands will be beneficial for Belgium, too. The most successful US
clusters are thriving on large pools of talented people rapidly moving from one organization to the other.
At the end of the day, it is all about human capital: bright scientists, wise clinicians, professional tech transfer
people, seasoned management, experienced investors, etc. A larger pool of people in Flanders and the Netherlands should result in the easier exchange of a highly skilled workforce between organizations. Companies like Galapagos and argenx, active in both regions, are already role models, and there is much more in the pipeline.

There are rumors that you also have a hand in OncoXL, a brand new Dutch top research institute for cancer. Isn’t it shaped according to the VIB model?
Dutch cancer research is world class. But research sponsors – the Dutch government and a big charity organizations like the Koningin Wilhelmina Fonds (KWF) voor Kankerbestrijding – felt that the results of this research could be translated better and faster into treatments and diagnoses. And this is where the VIB model has been inspirational: combining top science with dedicated and professional technology transfer to bring benefits to patients and society. I have participated with much joy in a working group with representatives
from KWF, three ministries, several government agencies, research organizations and my LSP colleague
René Kuijten to lay out the design of the initial contours of a new cancer institute. For the last couple of months, a dedicated team has been preparing the strategic plan and the launch of what should become a world leading cancer institute based on the principles of excellence in fundamental science and technology transfer.

Jan Hoeijmakers, Hans Clevers, Hans Bos, Anton Berns en René Bernards, five of Netherland’s world level cancer researchers, will become the founding scientists, but the institute aims to rapidly grow to 1,000 researchers by recruiting more talent from the Netherlands and the world.

You participated in the 20 years VIB celebration. How has VIB evolved since you left the institute?
If you look at the facts and the figures, performance has been brilliant. VIB has become an amazing institute
with sound foundations and matured concepts. More than ever, I really appreciate the impact VIB had on the
life sciences ecosystem in Flanders. The return on investment for the Flemish government and society has
been extremely high, although I admit that much of the impact has only been realized through the contributions of many other actors.

What do you think of VIB’s plan to set up a translational component? Is it a wise decision?
I firmly believe that VIB needs to maintain its focus on exploring the frontiers of our knowledge and chasing
true breakthroughs. But VIB’s mission has always been ‘excellent science for the benefit of society’, and this
requires the translation of scientific findings into products. This is why we have established a highly competent tech transfer team fully dedicated to building the bridges between VIB and third parties that can transform the results into new diagnostics, drugs, food or crops. Over time, industry and investors have become more demanding in terms of the results they consider sufficiently validated to take on board. The translational component that VIB is adding to the whole equation will be very helpful in closing this gap, facilitating the bridge building  and thus the translation into real products benefitting society. This will be money very well-spent.

You are currently the president of the VIB Alumni Network. Why is this network important?
The VIB Alumni Network represents a super opportunity for VIB as an institute, but also for both current and former VIB researchers. By now, nearly 3,000 people have left VIB, and this big family is growing year after year – and they are everywhere. You can find them in research institutes, companies, government agencies
and even venture capital funds. For VIB, they can be great ambassadors, increasing visibility and spreading the word that VIB is a welcoming place to gravitate toward at some time in your career. For current and former VIB researchers, it is an attractive network for accessing know-how, technologies, people, money, career opportunities and so much more. The potential of that network is underutilized at the moment. But of
course, VIB is still a young institute and the VIB Alumni Network was founded even more recently. So, there’s work to be done to grow its impact and increase these interactions. An important first initiative is the VIB Alumni Award. With the Award, we want to recognize a meritorious alumna or alumnus for her/his excellent scientific achievements showing outstanding leadership in her/his field of science and with a clear effort toward societal impact. This can be tech transfer, tech development, science communication, etc. The award consists of a prize worth 5,000 euros, and the award ceremony will be held during the high point of the VIB Biotech tour in the Flemish Parliament on February 20th, 2017, in the presence of Minister Muyters.

What do you consider the biggest challenge for VIB in the next 20 years?
In 20 years, VIB has become a member of the champions’ league of research institutes, an amazing performance thanks to the commitment and passion of so many people. But the dynamics in life sciences research are daunting, with new technologies and scientific breakthroughs surfacing not only in Europe and the US, but all over the globe. To maintain its leading position, I believe that VIB will need to become an active player in the world’s leading (in)formal networks of top institutes and keep surfing the waves of true fundamental breakthroughs. Fortunately, the foundations are there, but this is no time for the institute to rest on its laurels.