If there is one person who put his mark on Oncode Institute since the beginning, it is Angus Livingstone in his role as Valorization Director. In the past, although oncology research was on a high level in the Netherlands already, it often lacked translation to the bedside. This changed since Angus joined Oncode Institute. Now, 4 years later, he is moving on and back to his native Canada, his Oncode shoes are now filled by Chris De Jonghe, the institute’s new Valorization Director. Journalist Hidde Boersma spoke with both of them, to look back and ahead.
Valorization Director until May
A Change of the Guard
I have been writing articles for Oncode for quite some time, and almost every researcher I spoke to used the phrase “and then Angus does his magic” at some point in the interview. How does this work?
Angus: (laughs) Well, I don’t know if I can put the finger on it myself, but it is not the first time I’ve heard this. When researchers have a problem, people say: you need fifteen minutes with Angus. I think part of the ‘magic’ is that I’ve always been solution oriented. Not looking for problems but looking for answers. I also have a fair amount of respect for working within institutional constraints and sometimes working outside of them. There's a little bit of art needed where in general you follow the rules, but sometimes you break them. If you know the rules, and know why they are there, you know when it doesn’t matter that much if you go a little bit beyond them.
So, what do you do in those fifteen minutes?
Angus: Most of the time, the first 14 minutes I just ask questions and listen. Then, in the last minute, I set a course forward. To do that, it is paramount that I understand all the facts and issues. There might be soft issues, like personal motivation, or there might be a lack of resources at institutions. Sometimes I find people want to jump into action before they really understand the situation. I really like to understand the situation first.
Let’s take a step back: Why was the founding of Oncode Institute so necessary, and how did you pull it off so well?
Angus: Well, it started out already in 2006, with the Netherlands Genomics Institute Valorization Advisory Board. It ran until 2012 and made the observation that the technology transfer environment in the Netherlands was not very productive. It was very heterogeneous. Some groups knew what they were doing, but a lot didn’t or didn’t have the resources to execute. So, the concept of Oncode was first proposed in an email in June of 2012, stating that we should establish a world class institute that integrates oncology with valorization.
Subsequently, there were another 75 to 100 meetings necessary before funders were on board. And only then I became heavily involved, in April 2016. This is when the big puzzle started. There were so many stakeholders and so many researchers who I all wanted to talk to on how to proceed. There was a huge communications challenge at the outset, and that was probably my biggest challenge: how to combine all those opinions into one strategy.
I know the Flemish Institute of Biotechnology (VIB) served as an example for Oncode, and Chris, you worked there for many years. How are things different in Belgium?
Chris: In Belgium the work towards valorization started a bit earlier and from a slightly different perspective. Already in 1995, the founders of VIB realized that in order to create impact with fundamental science, you need to bring sufficient excellent researchers together and integrate that with dedicated valorization support.
Now, 25 years later, you see this is paying off. Because that’s how long it takes, to see it pay off. I think that Oncode has even more potential, but we have to be patient.
It is important to realize that the impact of an institute like VIB goes much broader than just the institute itself. VIB is really catalyzing an entire ecosystem. For instance, it gets easier to attract talent from abroad and to boost adjacent economic activity. You create a place where everybody wants to come work and live, so it is good for the whole society.
You have quite an impressive CV. What are the main things you take with you from your previous work?
Chris: I think that a lot of Oncode Investigators have a far more impressive CV. What I specifically take with me to Oncode is the ability to speak “different languages”. I’ve learned to speak the language of researchers, but also that of the industry and of investors. That's something that is extremely helpful in valorization, which is all about translating research results into something that is of benefit for a patient.
Why did you decide to join Oncode Institute?
Chris: It wasn't a hard decision; it was an opportunity that was just too good to let go. The Dutch oncology research is really top-notch. Bringing together the best researchers with a professional valorization team is already a winning combination. Moreover, Oncode is supported by a strong public private partnership and there is a clear connection with patients. Throughout my career, I always wanted to make impact, and this is just the perfect fit.
Chris, can you elaborate a little bit on why valorization is so important?
Chris: It is nice to have scientific breakthroughs, but it is another thing to create something that is actually of benefit for a patient. This doesn't happen by itself. It needs very hard work. It needs research results to be properly protected, to make sure that the right partners are found and that new companies are created. It needs a proactive approach with people who have particular skills in order to translate these research results. I'm really impressed by the fact that right now with Oncode, two thirds of the researchers are actively involved in valorization aspects.
Back to you, Angus. Can you remember one experience that made you especially proud?
Angus: I think the spin-off Single Cell Discoveries, a company that provides fast, complete and cost-effective single-cell RNA sequencing services. It came very early in the process. It was an illustration of a kind of company that some people don't consider as a spin-off, as it is a service-based company and not one which creates new therapeutic or diagnostic tools. I was delighted that it was driven by two young, energetic researchers. They are doing remarkably well. I spoke with one of them a couple of days ago, they're now up to 10 employees, which is great growth. They're participating in other major projects that Oncode is now undertaking, so there is huge synergy.
Chris, if we have this conversation again in a couple of years, how do you think you will have changed Oncode?
Chris: What I hope for is that we can really show a number of concrete contributions to the quality of life of patients. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically demonstrates the value of healthcare and then to think the impact of cancer is still bigger. I really hope we can learn from COVID-19 that we need sustained efforts and extensive collaboration to tackle cancer and other diseases in the world.
The Oncode team and all Oncode researchers would like to take this opportunity to thank Angus again for all his hard work and major contributions to the institute!
Interview by Hidde Boersma
Photography by Marloes Verweij, Laloes Fotografie (Chris De Jonghe) and Suzanne Rushton (Angus Livingstone)