How Amsterdam’s LSH sector is evolving

The life sciences and health sector in Amsterdam is changing. In fact, the industry is undergoing unprecedented change. Digitalisation is advancing, there are emerging scientific breakthroughs, data science is being pushed to the fore and established organisations are rethinking what they do. In short: the sector is evolving into a world-leading hub.

The Amsterdam Area’s life science and health sector has been leading the way globally for many years, driven by the city’s openness to collaboration, the concentration of its many research institutions, multinationals and startups, its investment in specialised hubs and its constant innovation. But this focused, ambitious attitude requires leaders - individuals, initiatives and businesses - to take charge, address challenges and inspire responses.

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But what does it take to think deeper, disrupt, inspire and lead the way for others in the industry? And what is it so necessary to have leaders who can help the industry evolve?

These questions aren’t easy to answer, but in Amsterdam there are several initiatives and companies which are already trying to educate and inspire the industry’s leaders of tomorrow. One is the newly launched Healthcare Leadership Academy (HLA), a non-profit community of healthcare students and young professionals. To develop the healthcare leaders of the future, members take part in a one-year course which includes everything from campaign training to teambuilding.

‘Leadership is all about making a change’

For Jim Determeijer, a medical student who also works as a scholar for the HLA, leadership starts with a will to make a difference. “Leadership is very different to management and has much more to do about changing something,” he explains. “Most people who are clinically trained are not trained in leadership. You have to provide people with a platform to discuss what needs to change, and then give them the tools, confidence and network to do so.”

Life Sciences and Health in the Amsterdam Area

“Healthcare is changing all the time and innovating, but really going in a different direction is something that takes a lot of courage,” Determeijer adds, citing activist Wanda de Kanter – who the HLA works with – as someone who exemplifies the qualities of a true leader. “We also have Zoorginstituut Nederland’s Sjoerd Repping in our faculty network. The sector needs these leaders to show what’s possible when it comes to evolving and changing.”

Why good leaders help improve patient care

As well as disrupting and bringing about change, leadership is also necessary for better patient care, says Roel Breuls, a former biomedical engineer who now works as a leadership development consultant for clients including Amsterdam UMC, UvA and the Netherlands Cancer Institute. “Medical leadership is about adopting a pro-active attitude by healthcare professionals who ensure healthier organisations, based on the vision that better care starts with healthier organisations,” he explains. “And if you want to lead other people, then you must be capable of leading yourself.”

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Breuls started to become more interested in leadership in LSH when, during his early career, he noticed a separation between its management and the medical professionals treating patients. “It’s very important to have leaders in a hospital so all the energy goes to patient care or research. But you see a lot of energy being lost due to conflict or bad management. I want to reduce that waste. I believe that good leadership is necessary for better patient care. And, of course, that’s the number one priority of a healthcare professional.”

Anant Murphy, Vice President of market access and pricing at Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, agrees. “Without proper leadership in LSH, we risk failing to truly leverage scientific breakthroughs to help patients,” he says. “If LSH leaders cannot ‘bridge’ capital with research, for example, innovation may starve. If leaders cannot connect governments with private actors, we risk failing to create the right regulatory environments. The LSH sector is multifaceted, and leaders are required to bring parties together. Leadership, and the bridges it can build, are critical.”

The challenges in Amsterdam’s life sciences and health industry

But, like anywhere, the LSH industry in Amsterdam faces challenges: Time-to-market needs to be accelerated, data needs to be shared more easily, ethical issues must be addressed. But Amsterdam has all the necessary puzzle pieces to help develop the next generation of leaders in LSH, says Murthy. “Amsterdam has a government with a broad economic development agenda, first-class universities and academic medical centres, a growing financial sector and a global outlook which enables it to attract top talent from around the world.”

Scientists working in Amsterdam's life sciences industry

And, according to Breuls, the city’s organisations are now doing more than ever to develop talent. “Almost all the academic universities in the Netherlands are doing something with leadership,” he says. “People see the value in it. You also see good collaboration between them to help develop leadership skills, and it’s only getting better.”

Helping to develop the leaders of tomorrow

Akshat Kshetrapal is the director of accelerator Rockstart’s health programme, which has now been running for three years. Rockstart has also launched a new health leadership program to help its health partners collaborate successfully with startups.

Kshetrapal says that “having leaders is the most important thing we look for” in the startups it invests in. “It’s crucial,” he goes on, “and we have made it a focus of what we do. We’re looking for people who can adapt and steer the ship across rough seas. And we’re looking for someone who can hold two conflicting ideas in their heads and balance them out. In healthcare, you’re looking for founders who can understand the industry as it stands and how their innovation fits in and can also see what the future looks like. It’s very rare for someone to have both: the Steve Jobs of the healthcare world – people who can see what the market needs and develop it.”

For Kshetrapal, Amsterdam is already home to ‘truly visionary leaders that are doing ground-breaking work’ in LSH. He mentions Bert-Arjan Millenaar, the founder and CEO of Healthtech venture builder NLC, and Zorgdomein’s Walter Balestra. And Kshetrapal says that these people, and organisations, are instrumental in investing in the future leaders of the LSH sector. “There’s a lot of focus on investing in good people.”

As the Amsterdam Area’s life sciences and health sector evolves, the future promises better patient care and therefore better conditions for society at large. Though there’s still lots of work to be done, it looks like the city region is already home to many inspirational industry leaders, and ready to unlock the potential of those that can help take it into the future.

Read more insights about Amsterdam's life sciences and health sector.