Why Sanquin is a one-of-a-kind company

As the Netherlands’ central blood bank, Sanquin provides blood to all who need it. The not-for-profit organisation employs around 3,000 people across the country and is the only body in the Netherlands authorised to manage the country’s supply of blood and blood products. But – unusually for a national blood bank –, Sanquin is also constantly conducting research in the fields of transfusion medicine, haematology and immunology, as well as developing new products. “In our plasma products company we develop, produce and sell plasma-derived medicines,” says Rogier van den Braak, Sanquin’s CFO. “And we have established a scientific research department based on blood and all related diseases. Around 250 researchers are working there now. It’s really an asset for the Netherlands and for Amsterdam, because it’s a scientific department for a very specific aspect of medical science – no-one else has that, so we’re very proud of it.”

Indeed, Sanquin is the only blood bank in the world to offer this combination of in-house medical, pharmaceutical and scientific knowledge and expertise. There is also a diagnostics and reagents department, which develops and provides lab tests for medical institutes and pharma companies. Having these different elements under one roof certainly has its advantages. “Based on our scientific research, we try to make new products to help patients,” says Van den Braak, “or we try to create new diagnostic tests.”

Rogier van den Braak, CFO at Sanquin

How collaboration is key to Sanquin’s success

The research fields Sanquin focuses on are constantly evolving – new fields include stem cell therapy and immunotherapy. Many of Sanquin’s studies are conducted in close collaboration with academic centres and life science companies across the Amsterdam Area and beyond, such as Amsterdam UMC and Leiden University Medical Centre. “Within our research department we have research groups that are led by professors who work partly for Sanquin and partly for one of the university medical centres in the Netherlands. That means we are linked to almost all the university medical centres in the Netherlands,” says Van den Braak. “This gives us a broad research network: we do a lot of scientific projects with those universities and their research institutes – with the Amsterdam UMC, of course, but we also have research projects with, for example, the Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI), which is our neighbour here in Amsterdam, and with [rheumatology and rehabilitation centre] Reade in the field of rheumatology testing.”

Sanquin’s diagnostics and reagents business sees the organisation work with hospitals as well as pharmaceutical companies, “for example for new medicine trials that they are running,” says Van den Braak. “If a pharmaceutical company develops a new drug, we can design a test to see if it is working in a patient. We’re doing more and more of that type of collaboration.” 

Another direction Sanquin is branching out in is spin-offs and public-private partnerships. “About a year ago, we founded a new company under the Sanquin umbrella: Sanquinnovate. With Sanquinnovate, we focus on business development for those scientific ideas we haven’t had the opportunity to work with in the other divisions of Sanquin, or where we need to cooperate with external parties for further development.” Examples are MedTech products or the development of non-plasma-based medicines. “One of the more recent efforts from Sanquinnovate is a spin-off company called Alveron Pharma, which focuses on a new type of medicines for bleeding disorders,” says Van den Braak. “This idea didn’t fit in with our traditional plasma-derived medicine department, so we created Alveron Pharma with our partners. The Sanquinnovate team arranged Venture Capital financing, and now we’re in a position to develop the initial idea into a viable product. So that is a new model for us to work with – and we are always on the lookout for partnerships to do this kind of thing.”

Partnerships thrive in Amsterdam’s collaborative ecosystem

The Amsterdam Area is an ideal base for establishing partnerships within the life sciences and health sector, whether it’s with businesses or with research institutes, says Van den Braak. “Amsterdam in particular is really a good place to be for a life sciences company. The City of Amsterdam is putting in a lot of effort to be a good partner for those types of companies. And there’s a strong research foundation: there’s Amsterdam UMC, there’s the NKI, there's Sanquin, and so on. On the scientific side there is a lot of great research work being done in the region. Amsterdam is also attracting a lot of big-name pharma companies, especially since the European Medicines Agency has arrived here. A lot of pharmaceutical companies are heading to Amsterdam as a result, and I think the scientific institutes that are here are very attractive for those companies as a possible collaboration partner. And Amsterdam is really trying to make an effort to welcome these new companies by making a network available and by trying to be an attractive place to be and to live in.”

Working towards a new healthcare campus in Amsterdam-West

Van den Braak has great plans for Sanquin’s place in Amsterdam’s life sciences and health sector. “I think our part of Amsterdam is really well-suited for companies from the sector,” he says. “We think that the Sanquin premises and the surrounding premises of the NKI and the former Slotervaart Hospital can make a perfect new healthcare hotspot in Amsterdam. Building this new healthcare innovation campus is an initiative that we are really supportive of.” The campus would also include co-working spaces for spin-offs by Sanquin or the NKI. “We see a lot of interest from companies that want to come to Amsterdam and make use of our research and diagnostics labs or the capabilities that we have, for instance, for large screening programmes and stem cell research. Our activities and our facilities are attractive for a whole lot of potential new partners that want to come to Amsterdam, and if we can develop our premises in line with the campus model, teaming up with the stakeholders surrounding us, I think we can have a bright future.”

Read more testimonials from Amsterdam's life sciences and health sector.