The Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Ghent, a place where academic and industrial pioneers join forces
For World Animal Day, we spoke with people utilizing innovative technologies on a daily basis to enhance healthcare for humans and animals.
On Wednesday, October 4th, we celebrate World Animal Day as an annual tradition. On this day, you have a valid excuse to give your dog some extra pets or finally purchase that additional cat toy.
For us, this day offers the perfect opportunity to showcase our leading Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Here in Ghent, we have an institute that has consistently ranked at the top of the Shanghai Index for six consecutive years. Not only do they educate competent and socially engaged veterinarians, but they also conduct groundbreaking research, resulting in innovative products and the birth of interesting spin-offs.
We felt it was time to take a closer look at animal healthtech in Ghent, both for its significance in veterinary medicine itself and because of its impact on human health. The challenges within human healthcare are closely related to those within veterinary medicine. Researchers here work tirelessly every day to improve the lives of both humans and animals.
The healthtech sector in the Ghent region has evolved into a vibrant ecosystem, thanks in part to the strong concentration of diverse expertise. We see a lot of cross-pollination, which creates a highly conducive atmosphere for innovation. To showcase this dynamism, we invited Sven Arnouts (Ghent University and Provaxs), Nele Caekebeke (Biocheck.Gent), Sebastiaan Theuns (PathoSense), and Dieter Vancraeynest (Zoetis).
Back in time
To understand current developments, we need to go back about 5 years. Provaxs had been active for a while, focusing on vaccine development to prevent infectious diseases in humans and animals. Around 2018, several major pharmaceutical players, such as Janssen and Pfizer, sold or spun off their veterinary divisions. As a result, these new companies became detached from the research that was previously conducted within the parent company, leading them to rely more on external expertise.
"That was a real opportunity for us because that was the start of the 'Cross Health Platform'," says Sven. "We observed that veterinary medicine and human medicine didn’t really interact within the university. To such an extent that people submitting patents did not consider the fact that a particular product could be used for both humans and animals. And thanks to this platform, we were able to establish the connection.”
Our academics have connections with the industry and know what's going on. What they learn there, they can also introduce in the classroom, which is a great added value for the students.
Some of these companies turned to the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Ghent University for that expertise, which has been at the top of the Shanghai Index for the sixth consecutive year. “We have a number of factors to thank for," says Sven. "First and foremost, the stereotype of professors in ivory towers does not apply to us. Our academics have connections with the industry and know what's going on. What they learn there, they can also introduce in the classroom, which is a great added value for the students."
"In addition, our 'Industrial Research Fund' is a true blessing. Established in 2006, it allowed us to open a dedicated business development centre. This enables us to take technologies to a higher level, making it easier to bridge the gap to the business world, for which the product is intended. This centre is actually quite unique; not many other countries have something like this."
"Moreover, it’s the only veterinary faculty in the Flemish part of the country where you can complete your studies," Dieter adds. "This certainly helped in fundraising for the construction of the faculty, with significant investments in state-of-the-art infrastructure. The fact that they can truly focus on applied science here is a great advantage."
"Indeed," says Sven. "It's not easy to maintain that top position on the ranking, but we see significant benefits in our collaborations with the industry. It gives us a different mindset. From day one, our researchers can consider potential applications in the industry."
On our platform, you can easily detect infectious diseases instead of the veterinarian having to perform specific, separate tests to exclude possibilities. Thanks to our method, you get a complete overview of all viral and bacterial pathogens in a sample.
Groundbreaking research leads to new companies
Entrepreneurship is actively supported within this faculty. Nele and Sebastiaan are living proof of that. "We’re in a highly stimulating environment," says Sebastiaan. "The support from the Industrial Research Fund, for example, is invaluable. It offers an easy way to develop something new without having to seek external investments.” Times have changed, Sven agrees. "When I was a student, that was unthinkable. Now the faculty is a true, healthy breeding ground. An incubator and accelerator in one."
"At a certain point in my PhD, it became evident that I was more intrigued by applied scientific research," Sebastiaan admits. "In 2017, as a postdoc, I came into contact with a new type of DNA sequencing technology called Oxford Nanopore Technologies. It allows for simple and affordable analysis of genetic material. The platform was still under development at that time, but we seized the opportunity to further build around it. In 2020, we finally established PathoSense. On our platform, you can easily detect infectious diseases instead of the veterinarian having to perform specific, separate tests to exclude possibilities. Thanks to our method, you get a complete overview of all viral and bacterial pathogens in a sample. In the meantime, we’ve also developed a cloud platform to connect with partner laboratories and to scale up internationally as a company. AI will also become increasingly important for interpretation."
For Nele, the idea grew out of her PhD. "During my PhD, I focused a lot on biosafety measures. These measures aim to prevent animals from getting sick and, consequently, needing medication. We try to avoid the latter because pathogens can become resistant to therapies, which can cause major problems in both veterinary and human medicine. And while conducting my research, I observed increasing interest and necessity within the animal health sector to focus more on preventive measures. In November 2021, we founded Biocheck.Gent. The core of the company is a scoring system. We measure the level of biosecurity on livestock farms and can assess the risk of disease introduction and spread on the farm. We also provide a lot of advice to people in animal health care and offer training on implementing the measures."
We measure the level of biosecurity on livestock farms and can assess the risk of disease introduction and spread on the farm. We also provide a lot of advice to people in animal health care and offer training on implementing the measures.
Our researchers or students at the faculty have a lot of technical knowledge about what they’re doing or want to do. "But it’s everything that comes with starting a company that is difficult," says Nele. "You need help with the financial aspects, your business plan, and so on. It's a lot when you start. From the faculty, they really stand by your side to connect you with the right people. This way, you can also check well in advance if your business idea would be feasible."
"And we’re supported by the entire local ecosystem," adds Sebastiaan. "PathoSense has benefited greatly from the support of VLAIO and the accelerator Start-it@KBC. Our mentor is also from Ghent! You have to quickly switch from academic thinking to entrepreneurship, and it's good to be confronted with that by people with experience in business or the corporate world."
"But even in terms of science, everyone here knows everyone," Sven adds. "We have extensive connections because we also collaborate with institutes that don't necessarily have a department focused on animal health. Take VIB, for example. We can apply their technologies, and vice versa, they are often looking for good animal models in species like pigs. Because these models are more predictive of success in human health, much more than the mice and rats they use."
We have extensive connections because we also collaborate with institutes that don't necessarily have a department focused on animal health.
Talent within reach
Not every (PhD) student starts a company, of course. Some also join leading tech companies. At Zoetis, for example, the world's largest company focused on animal health. "Currently, about 14,000 people work for Zoetis worldwide," says Dieter. "1400 of them work in the R&D department. We even have about 15 alumni from Ghent University working with us. I myself work within the External Innovation team. We regularly collaborate with institutes, academics, and start-ups. So, in that sense, we have a very close collaboration with Ghent University. You can just tell that these people have the expertise."
"Innovation is very important for us as a company. Not only in terms of products but also in terms of services. We always look at the unmet needs of our customers. What do they need and how do we balance that with regulatory requirements, technical feasibility, and our production capacity? Because that is our ultimate challenge: how do we ensure that we have a viable product. That is why we invest tremendously in R&D. Additionally, there’s also a war for talent, and the fact that we have all these talents from Ghent University nearby is certainly a big advantage."
"Zoetis is also a valuable partner for other animal health tech companies, such as start-ups. But often, start-ups come to us and claim that they have everything. I mean, everything. The 'only' thing they have left to do is to scale up. But that’s just the beginning of their journey. So much can still go wrong. We can work together with these companies to figure out how they can scale up from nanograms to kilograms or from tens to millions of doses. This way, they’re fully prepared when we enter the (inter)national market together."
We regularly collaborate with institutes, academics, and start-ups. So, in that sense, we have a very close collaboration with Ghent University.
What the future holds
Naturally, everyone’s focused on the future as well. For Sven, this means busy months working on the planning for the DIAH conference. "It’s entirely focused on technology transfer and informing academics about what the industry really looks like. By familiarizing them with the development processes within companies, we show them at what level their proof of concept should be. This will be a true world premiere, right here in Ghent."
The newly born but already thriving companies are primarily thinking about scaling up. "On May 1st, PathoSense entered into a partnership with 'Dierengezondheidszorg Vlaanderen,' the largest diagnostic laboratory in Belgium," says Sebastiaan. "In the coming months, we will expand to other countries within Europe. Because, of course, we’re faced with a logistical problem: you can't send your samples from all over the world to Belgium. You need collaborations with local laboratories. They can perform the analysis and send the findings to us through the cloud. Moreover, we also want to further focus on our services to, among others, pharmaceutical companies for in-depth analysis and involvement in clinical trials, such as microbiome analysis."
Nele, CEO of the youngest spin-off from the faculty, is also thinking about expansion. "We want to raise awareness and ensure that farmers take the same measures that we as humans applied during COVID. Our scoring system is already being implemented in many countries and mandated by governments. It’s already being used in Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Italy. But, of course, we want to expand even further. Moreover, we’ve learned that our scoring system needs to be adjusted for other regions in the world. Those regions are very risky because people there live more closely with their animals, produce on a smaller scale, and have less regulation."
Zoetis primarily aims to achieve goals that are targeted at the global market. "Well, we have to prepare ourselves to feed 10 billion people by 2050. With a growing middle class, we see increasing expenditures and a rising consumption of animal proteins. That’s a major challenge, and we want to play our role in it. We want to make animal farming more efficient, sustainable, and animal-friendly in terms of welfare. Furthermore, the role of companion animals is growing day by day: dogs and cats have truly claimed their place within the family today, which results in a greater demand for quality medicine."