A closer look at VIB’s ‘technology suites for better science’

28 June 2016
​As modern life sciences become ever more dependent on technology, scientists not only need state-of-the-art equipment at their disposal, they also require high-quality servicing in a wide range of domains. This is exactly what VIB’s Core Facilities aim to offer: leading-edge platforms that enable scientists to exploit the latest technologies to the fullest, supported by the best techno-scientific expertise. Geert Van Minnebruggen, Head of Core Facilities, tells us more about the institutional value of VIB’s so-called ‘technology suites for better science’.
First of all, why have life sciences and technology become so inextricably intertwined?
“Technology has always played a major part in scientific breakthroughs, but in life sciences, one particular milestone is crucial. When the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, new generation sequencing methods started evolving at an unprecedented pace. New technologies used to have a lifespan of about three to five years, but today, a brand-new technique will probably be outdated in six months’ time. For research groups, it has become impossible to keep track of all these rapid technological innovations without losing sight of their own research questions. Acquiring the expensive equipment and developing all the necessary techno-scientific expertise within a single research group is simply too time-consuming and costly.”
“The Core Facilities program at VIB empowers not only internal scientists but also researchers in Flanders, Europe and the world by giving them access to state-of-the-art equipment and consultation.” Chris Guérin (BIC Ghent)
So, this new technology wave encouraged VIB to open up the Core Facilities to the scientific community?
“Absolutely. New technology has enabled life scientists to discover and connect biological building blocks and networks within their specific domains. These, in turn, were often useful in charting interactions on other levels. That’s why we believe in an integrated approach of the so-called ‘omics’ domains: decoding genomes, but also studying the structures and spatio-temporal functions of proteins, expression levels of RNA transcripts and / or even the fate of metabolites during various development and disease states. It’s clear that a lot is happening at the intersection of disciplines nowadays: combining primarily distant domains leads to new insights into the molecular blueprint of many development and disease processes.”
In what ways can VIB’s Core Facilities provide a competitive advantage?
“First of all, we ensure that our scientists have continuous access to a wide range of state-of-the-art technologies and matching expertise. The most recent example is the acquisition of a new state-of-the-art Transmission Electron Microscope in March 2016 (see page 15). This new device allows researchers to outsource parts of their microscopic-driven projects to imaging experts who decipher the structural details of the (sub) organelle of interest and provide high-resolution images to the researcher of use for publications.
Secondly, the Core Facilities are an excellent platform for building networks and integrating expertise. This generates a competitive advantage not just for all of the scientists in our institute, but for the research community as a whole. And thirdly, cutting-edge technology helps VIB to attract talented, (technology-driven) scientists.” The Core Facilities are a strong asset to attract young PIs!
How have the Core Facilities evolved in the past few years?
“Since 2008, we have significantly professionalized the existing VIB Core Facilities and integrated them in a program format. In addition to the classical service tracks, the CFs started to develop cross-platform workflows and novel applications that open up new research opportunities for scientists. In close cooperation with our Technology Watch Team (see box on page 5), we have taken the effort to scout, evaluate (i.e. beta-test) and eventually put a set of emerging ground-breaking techniques in service mode. The results are self-explanatory: an increase in the number of VIB-affiliated high-impact papers, and a premium score for the Core Facility Program by an international advisory council. This puts us among the most renowned Core Facility programs in Europe.”
“The VIB Core Facilities Program makes your research work. The chance of failure is lower when experienced people take care of the experiments that are not your daily business. In this way, the CFs take you from ideas to results much faster.”  Steve Schoonooghe (NSF)

Remaining at the forefront of fast-evolving technologies must be challenging.
“It is. Ensuring the competitive advantage of our Core Facilities bears a number of challenges. Thanks to the Technology Watch Team, we stay abreast of emerging technologies, but there are managerial challenges as well: managing the needs of stakeholders, hiring and retaining the right expertise and acquiring the necessary funding for investments are only some of them. In order to deal with this complexity, maintaining a dialogue with peers is necessary. That’s why VIB became founding partner of ‘Core for Life’, an alliance of some of the finest life science core facilities in Europe. Its mission is to bundle expertise and resources across institutes and countries.”
Who can use VIB’s Core Facilities?
“Our Core Facilities provide their high-tech equipment and expertise to our own researchers, but also to scientists from other organizations and even industrial customers. VIB researchers will be prioritized of course, but for-profit players can definitely benefit from our services as well. In 2015, we launched a new Core Facilities website where potential customers can find detailed info about the program as a whole as well as about the individual Core Facilities.”
In a nutshell, what are the plans for the coming years?
“In collaboration with the Core Facility managers, who all follow the latest trends in their fields,
we have prepared a strategic plan for the next five-year cycle. An important initiative is the set-up of a fund for Core Facility-specific infrastructure investments, which will allow us to roll out a long-term investment strategy. This fund will prove to be essential to keep our facilities state-of-the-art. I also feel it’s my daily responsibility to secure the close cross-talk with the individual VIB research centers as all the activities we undertake are in support of their high-level science stories.
In the years to come, we will also further develop the Core Facility program to bring the expertise of different Core Facility units together. Another aim is to boost cooperation between the tech watch and tech transfer teams. In the end, we’re all pursuing the same goals: to conduct frontline research and translate scientific breakthroughs into tangible benefits for society.”


Tech Watch Team: Complementary to Core Facilities
Since 2008, VIB’s Technology Watch Team is continually analyzing the potential of new, emerging technologies. Over the years, the team has gathered an enormous amount of information about disruptive technologies that could be valuable to VIB scientists. With the help of Technology Watch funds and by expanding the network of technology suppliers, purchasing licenses and negotiating partnerships, groundbreaking technologies are constantly finding their way into VIB labs.

VIB Discovery Sciences: Intense collaboration with Core Facilities
In order to increase the success rate of translational research, VIB has endorsed a new strategic initiative called ‘VIB Discovery Sciences’. Its mission is to translate basic life science research data into drug and agro-biotech innovations. Intense collaboration with VIB Core Facilities is an essential component of this effort.
For example, the VIB Compound Screening Facility (CSF) will play a vital role as the base unit for the agro-chemical unit of VIB Discovery Sciences, while the BioImaging Core (BIC) team will be an important asset for high-resolution/high-content screening. For the biologics discovery unit of VIB Discovery Sciences, the Nanobody Core Facility (NC) and the Protein Service Facility (PSF) will be key partners.

More info about VIB Core Facilities

All members of VIB’s Core Facilities