On January 1, 1996, VIB became a fully-fledged institute, of which the legal foundations had already been laid in 1995. When it was set up, the Flemish government wrote down VIB’s core activities in a management agreement. The main objective was to strengthen the excellence of Flemish life sciences research on the one hand and to turn the results into new economic growth on the other.
Foundations for the future
Flanders already had a good reputation in molecular biology for several years. This was due to the work of scientists such as Walter Fiers, Raymond Hamers, Herman Van Den Berghe Jeff Schell and Marc Van Montagu
. Flemish scientists were the first to unravel the chemical structure and functional meaning of a gene and then of a complete genome. Flemish gene research associated with disorders such as cancer, coronaries or Alzheimer’s Disease was also acknowledged outside of Flanders. Flemish scientists developed the Agrobacterium transformation system. This technique of inserting genes in plants is currently being applied worldwide. These scientific and technological successes could be realised thanks to the investments made by the various Flemish universities in Ghent, Leuven, Brussels and Antwerp throughout the 1970s to the 1990s to attract talent to their university, offering these people the chance of developing this talent on Flemish soil.
These important biotechnological realisations in Flanders led to the Flemish government’s decision to invest considerably in Flemish biotechnology. The Flemish government recognises the importance of innovation and knowledge as a basis for long-term economic growth, development and prosperity.
Instead of physically integrating the Flemish internationally renowned groups in one place, the Flemish government drew out an innovative concept. The intention of this concept was to strengthen international competition of this Flemish excellence via structural long-term financing and combining competence, maintaining and appreciating the successful integration into the local university. This concept is the basis of fruitful interaction between VIB and the universities involved (Ghent University, the K.U.Leuven, the University of Antwerp and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel). Close cooperation between VIB and these university partners was therefore essential and was determined in specific framework agreements.
With the foundation of VIB and the support and combining competences, the Flemish government’s intention is to generate new knowledge in areas that are relevant to Flemish society, which can be applied for generating and strengthening local economic development. The Flemish government’s investment in VIB is contractually stipulated in 5-years-management agreements.
This large Flemish government investment has some strings attached. As stipulated in the management agreement, the Flemish government has very precisely described expectations of this investment, in terms of scientific productivity and industrial and social valorisation. That is why the Flemish government thoroughly evaluates VIB every five years. It examines whether the preset objectives have been realised and whether the benefits for Flanders justify such an investment.
At the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006 specialized international scientific advisory boards performed a critical analysis of the institute and its departments. The results formed the basis for the 2007-2011 management agreement with the Flemish government. The evaluation was spearheaded by the Department of Economics, Science and Innovation of the Flemish Community, which appointed Idea Consult (BE), Technopolis (NL) and an international evaluation commission led by Charles Cooney (MIT, US) to complete a thorough assessment and cost-benefit analysis of VIB. Soos, a policy research centre for R&D statistics at K.U.Leuven, was charged with carrying out detailed bibliometric and technometric evaluations. During the different stages of the evaluation process, VIB's scientific output (publications), technology transfer activities (patents, licensing agreements, startup companies, etc.), management and governance were all placed under the microscope, its impact on the Flemish research landscape was analyzed and the economic added value quantified. Based on the positive results of these evaluations, the Flemish government concluded that VIB had been very successful and increased its financing under the 2007-2011 management agreement by 20% to EUR 38.1 million. This substantial increase will be integrated into the new long-term strategy of VIB and its research departments.
The expectations are high, the challenges hard but stimulating. If we want to continue to profile Flanders as one of the leading European life science regions, then the knowledge domain must constantly be increased with innovations. New scientific and technological breakthroughs lay these foundations and are also VIB’s main objective. It will boil down to stressing the correct programmes on the level of each functional unit of VIB and to concentrate effort on highly relevant scientific questions. What is essential here is joining the forces of the various research groups in such a way that they result in significant added value.
An essential key in all of this is attracting, educating, selecting and keeping talent on all levels. For this reason, VIB pays extra attention to educating young talent, generating an international mix of talented scientists and technologists and coaching young starting groups. VIB develops an innovative programme in cooperation with a prominent institutional scientific advisory body.
Investing in technology
Entering into new scientific challenges and aiming for breakthroughs require adapted technologies and a research strategy that is geared towards them. VIB therefore pays extra attention to developing and attracting advanced technologies. These must not only be integrated in VIB’s research laboratories, they must also be advantageous to the whole of Flanders. This is why VIB will concentrate on diffusing the institutional knowledge and advance technology in the entire Flemish academic and industrial community.