Teesside University’s £22m National Horizons Centre opened last September with two objectives, to drive research into bioprocessing and to plug the yawning skills gap.

Co-author of the UK’s National Industrial Biotechnology Strategy to 2030, Dr Jen Vanderhoven, left, took the helm of the National Horizons Centre on September 1st.

Educated to PhD level in biochemistry and uniquely experienced in defining strategic vision for the commercialisation of biotechnological advances, Dr Vanderhoven’s career straddles both business and higher education – and the interface between the two.

After completing her PhD, she wanted to stay in bioscience, but not in the lab. She said, with a laugh: “I’d done three years of pipetting and that was enough for me!”

She discovered the true measure of her skills when she joined Swiss company Metrohm, renowned designer of chemical lab instruments and process and specialists in titration, ion chromatography, electrochemistry and spectroscopy.

Two years running, she won the coveted Sales Person of the Year title after smashing Metrohm’s UK-wide sales targets by more than 200%.

It was while she was working at Sheffield University, managing one of 13 UK-wide BBSRC funded networks in industrial biotechnology, that she set off down the track to national policy authorship.

“Initially my role as network manager was about encouraging academia and industry to work together in applying the fundamental science that academics are doing in the lab, to solve real-life challenges in industry,” she said, “and that’s what I’ve really enjoyed doing throughout my career.”

She said: “There used to be a pot of Government money, the Industrial Biotechnology Catalyst Fund, to which academics and industrialists could apply to fund development of new products such as medicines, fuels and feed-stocks, but it was discontinued a few years ago.

“The manager of another Industrial Biotechnology Network, Dr Mark Corbett, and I petitioned for the resurrection of the fund and that evolved in to us commissioning a full analysis of what the industrial biotech sector needed to be successful in the UK, which in turn led to us writing the UK National Industrial Biotechnology Strategy to 2030.”

They worked with RSM International consultancy, and with more than 150 bioscience companies and academics across the UK in doing so, something that has stood Dr Vanderhoven in good stead – she has an enviable contacts book.

Their findings confirmed what they already knew. Government funding is crucial to taking ideas from laboratory to production line.

“Academics are providing key solutions that industry needs to get hold of,” she said, “but there is a lot of risk in taking up new ideas.

“Product and process development can cost millions, so Government funding is certainly needed to bridge that gap.”

Another career highlight was at international contract development and manufacturing organisation Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies, where she jointly led the integration management office during the acquisition of an $870m bio-manufacturing business, along with the company’s CFO.

She then proceeded to develop and implement a global strategic business change portfolio worth in excess of £500M to ensure the company achieved its global vision, and established the company’s international Science and Innovation Portfolio.

She also refreshed how the company engaged with universities and external agencies and, as a result, led on the development of Fujifilm’s Centre of Excellence in Bioprocessing 2.0, a five-year research and innovation programme in which the company and universities addressed the challenges of manufacturing biologics.

She says now, “It’s really Fujifilm that cemented my passion for the commercialisation of novel scientific ideas.

“It also spurred me on to seek this even bigger challenge, because it took me back to that industry-academia interface that is my sweet spot – it’s where I enjoy working most.”

Dr Vanderhoven intends to be very visible as Director of the National Horizons Centre and as such is keen to “get out there”, to hear directly from scientists and business leaders about the challenges they face.

She also wants to know what it is they need for and from their workforces.

While NHC’s first objective is to help surmount the obstacles to commercialisation, the very close second is paving the way to apprentices, graduates and postgraduates emerging work-ready, along with upskilling current workforces.

The world class facilities housed within the National Horizons Centre are already used for professional development programmes and apprenticeships, as well as a range of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in the disciplines of biosciences.

Having work-ready workforces is more critical than ever at the moment, as the world races to produce a Covid vaccine. Vaccine manufacturing and the production of other biotherapuetics requires in depth bioprocessing knowledge and skill sets.

“Bioprocessing sits between fundamental biological science and engineering,” she said, “but there aren’t many courses that combine biology and engineering – they are two such separate disciplines.

“However, we do need to get people trained in the arts of biotechnology and bioprocessing, so Teesside University and NHC are busy designing two new courses, a degree and a masters.

“The NHC also has a host of shorter courses that will enable the upskilling of the existing life sciences sector and those from more traditional chemical engineering and manufacturing backgrounds to retrain for the growing bioprocessing sector.”

The exigencies of Coronavirus have now brought another of the NHC’s strengths to the fore, as a niche provider of virtual reality training. Students can be taught processes and equipment-use in the comfort of their own homes.

Dr Vanderhoven said: “The whole Covid situation has highlighted the fact the UK needs more capacity to be able to manufacture vaccines at speed, for Covid and any future pandemics.

“Now the Government is pumping millions into new sites to manufacture vaccines and with that comes the need for a skilled workforce – thousands of people will be required. NHC can jump in to fill that gap.

“The next few years are set to be truly transformative and exciting for the NHC – we will further the centre as a truly global partner for digital and technological innovation for the bioscience and bioprocessing manufacturing community, being a primary source of high quality graduates and the partner of choice for industry training and collaboration.”