Centre of Excellence has crucial role to play in bioscience development

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As the new director of Teesside University’s National Horizons Centre takes up her post, Dr Jen Vanderhoven explains how she wants to make the region a global hub for the bioscience industries.

There has, perhaps, never been a time in history when bioscience has commanded so much front-page news.

From antibody testing to a global search for a vaccine, the Covid-19 pandemic has thrust this field of science firmly into the spotlight.

It is a fact of which Dr Jen Vanderhoven, the newly-installed director of the National Horizons Centre in Darlington, is patently aware and proves why the £22.3m national centre of excellence for the bioscience industries is destined to play such a vital role in the economic resurgence of the Tees Valley.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown precisely why bioscience is so important,” she says.

“From vaccine manufacturing to testing, we have seen a real need for hundreds, if not thousands, of highly skilled jobs in this sector.

“Training these people and ensuring that they have the necessary skills will be critical and, as a university-based institution, we’re perfectly placed to do just that.

“However, in order to succeed we need to make sure we are providing exactly what employers want and a key part of my job will be engaging with the region’s bioscience companies to find out what they need from their workforce.”

This is a challenge with which Jen will be more than familiar, having a vast amount of experience working at the nexus between academia and industry.

She joins Teesside University from Fujifilm Diosynth Biotechnologies where part of her role as vice-president involved developing a five-year research and innovation programme which looked at how the company worked with universities to address the challenges of manufacturing biologics.

Prior to that, Jen was the manager of a government-funded Industrial Biotechnology Network. In this position, she helped to co-author the UK National Industrial Biotechnology Strategy to 2030, which involved working with more than 150 bioscience companies and academics across the UK.

The National Horizons Centre, which opened last year, is a national centre for teaching, research and training in the bioscience industries.

It is working to address the growth needs of the bio-based industries set to transform the UK economy, including biologics, industrial biotechnology and biopharmaceuticals.

As director, Jen plans to work with key stakeholders to build a strategic regional partnership to promote the Tees Valley as a leading region for bioscience research.

She uses the example of the National Horizons Centre’s Central Park base as an example of the close cooperation which will help drive forward this ambition.

The centre sits as part of a cluster of excellence which includes Teesside University’s Centre for Professional and Executive Development, as well the National Biologics Centre operated by the Centre for Process Innovation.

Naturally, any talk of a geographical cluster for bioscience invites comparison with the “Golden Triangle” centred around Oxford, Cambridge and London.

Challenging the South-East for primacy in the life science sector is a lofty ambition, but Jen believes the National Horizons Centre can act as a lodestone, bringing together the various businesses operating in the sector.

By helping to attract talent and investment to the North-East, the National Horizons Centre can ultimately help shift the centre of gravity in the bioscience sector further towards this region.

“We’ve already got some truly global companies operating here such as GlaxoSmithKline, Fujifilm and Quorn, along with some fantastic SMEs producing some truly innovative products,” she says.

“I really believe we can work together to put the North-East on the map.

“Here at the National Horizons Centre, we’ve got a very strong research base in areas such as bioprocessing, biotherapeutics and medical diagnostics, so we want to work with our partners to ensure that we can utilise our expertise to maximise their strengths.”

Over the last year, since it was officially opened, the National Horizons Centre has already made considerable headway in this regard.

Jen points to a research partnership with Quorn to test different methods of making mycoprotein, the main ingredient in all Quorn products, to improve its sustainability and quality.

In addition, the National Horizons Centre is hosting Hexis Lab, a North-East skincare company which is utilising the centre’s state-of-the-art equipment to research the different properties of natural compounds.

The centre has core skills in bioprocessing, proteomics and genomics, featuring a Water’s Innovation Laboratory, equipped with the latest mass spectrometers, a fermentation and bioproduction facility, and animal cell culture and microbial growth rooms. The centre also hosts next generation sequencing tools alongside modern imaging tools, including Raman confocal microscopy, fluorescence lifetime confocal microscopy and animal cell sorter.

Jen is also keen to utilise leading edge research from other disciplines at Teesside University and apply it to the work being done at the National Horizons Centre. In particular, the role of digital within the bioscience industry promises huge potential.

In one such example, researchers at the centre have been working to develop a virtual reality bioreactor.

Not only can this provide a safe virtual learning environment to train process operators in various emergency scenarios, helping to prevent costly mistakes, but in a post-Covid world where face-to-face contact may be limited, students can be taught processes and equipment-use from within their homes.

“I want the National Horizons Centre to be a sustainable and agile environment where people want to work, learn and collaborate,” says Jen.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has not only shown how important the bioscience sector is within our economy, but also how close cooperation between public and private institutions can yield fantastic results.

“The National Horizons Centre is perfectly placed to drive forward innovation and growth in this region and establish the North-East as a global hub for the bioscience industries.”

For more information visit tees.ac.uk/nhc.