The Business Science Park Wageningen (BSPW) is home to a large number of businesses that focus on life sciences, food and health, making them part of the Wageningen Campus ecosystem. VHLGenetics was the first business to establish itself at the BSPW, and was founded by a former animal researcher at the university.
Hendrik Tolsma, interim director, and Leanne van de Goor, business developer at VHLGenetics explain how the business got started and how it has developed into an international commercial laboratory specialised in DNA extraction and genotyping of both plants and animals.
VHLGenetics uses ‘DNA is our core’ as its slogan, but what does that mean exactly?
Our core business is to provide a variety of DNA tests performed on samples of non-human material, typically from animals and plants. These tests help our customers understand genetic characteristics or disorders that are relevant for breeding. In the animal segment, we distinguish between livestock and pets. In livestock (mainly cows and pigs), we’re dealing with a large number of samples per customer. The DNA information we provide is used by breeding organisations to calculate breeding values of their animals.
With pets, on the other hand, customers often submit only a few samples to test for genetic characteristics and diseases. The DNA-tests for both livestock and pets are in fact the same, but we present them in a different way. Our DNA tests for pets are available via our CombiBreed web shop. For plant breeding, we’ve been performing DNA-tests for seed- companies for the past 15 years or so. This could be for a number of reasons: as a back-up service, because they lack capacity in their own laboratory, or for some specific projects. Furthermore businesses that don’t have their own laboratory facilities outsource their DNA genotyping to us.
Why does the entrance to your premises say Dr. van Haeringen Laboratorium B.V.?
That’s an interesting story. Hein van Haeringen was a research associate at Wageningen University & Research (WUR), and when the university stopped performing blood-typing in order to verify the parentage of cattle and horses, he continued to provide this service. Initially, he did this from his own garage in Wageningen, and then a few years later he was the first to buy a piece of land on the BSPW where he built a house with a laboratory. So we were the first company here. The first DNA tests were developed in the early 1990s, and that brought the period of blood-typing to an end. Up until 2006, Hein van Haeringen continued to be closely involved with his company, which over time expanded and eventually was completely rebuilt to become the current premises. The GD group is now the shareholder of VHLGenetics.
VHLGenetics is the overarching name which we use for all our international operations. We have a facility in Germany, another in Belgium, and a few years ago we launched a joint venture in Norway. We also have a large distribution network in a number of countries. Our laboratory in Wageningen is the headquarters of VHLGenetics.
How many people work with you, and who are they?
VHLGenetics employs a total of around 60-65 people, with 40 of them in Wageningen. Many of our researchers and laboratory technicians studied in Wageningen and carried on working here after they completed their studies or internship. People often end up here in roundabout ways. We don’t really actively recruit from Wageningen graduates.
What’s the link with Wageningen?
We’re sometimes involved with WUR projects as an SME partner, acting as a liaison between our customers and a WUR research group. A customer might want to know more about new developments in their sector, for example.
What do you contribute to the campus ecosystem?
We participate in the annual Wageningen Campus Expedition, which is a sort of open day for campus residents, because we think it’s good to show what it is we do. Plus, you never know where you’ll find new contacts. After all, we’re neighbours and we all work in a rapidly developing sector.
We currently don’t use any WUR equipment. We have several technologies in-house using our own equipment. Our schedules are tight in order to enable us to perform all our DNA-tests and to use the equipment as optimally as possible. If we need new equipment, we buy it ourselves, because it will be used almost daily.
However, the idea of Shared Research Facilities certainly appeals to us. Conversely, we might phase out some equipment. Maybe that would be of interest to our Campus neighbours?
Looking ahead, what are some of the new developments and challenges for VHL?
Things are developing quickly. Back in 2000, you’d get one sample, and you’d carry out a single test on it. Now we get samples that we have to test for tens of thousands of markers (indicators for desirable DNA) per sample. That also means a lot of data per sample. All of that information needs to be processed and compared to other samples. Your ‘bio IT’ needs to be able to do that. So in that sense, the work is much more data driven than it used to be. Twenty years ago we couldn’t do any of that, both in terms of equipment and IT. As a business, you need to keep up with those developments. Speed is another issue. Breeders need their results quickly so they can make their selections more quickly.
We’re also contributing to research into alternative protein sources. For example, we’re doing tests on cell lines for companies involved in the development of cultured meat to see if the quality remains stable during the process. That involves karyotyping: we dye chromosomes so we can see if the chromosome pairs are still complete. That allows you to monitor whether the cell lines are still of good quality and whether the cell lines remain stable during the process. Cultured meat isn’t licenced yet in the Netherlands and is only being produced on a small scale, but quality control is needed in order to scale up production.
Our work was and remains based on the principle of animal welfare. We do DNA genotyping for pets, and in that way we’re helping to improve the health of those animals through DNA-testing for genetic conditions, for example. Fortunately, breeders and their umbrella breeding organisations recognise that and therefore regularly perform our DNA tests.
Fortunately, there is also much focus on the welfare of livestock. DNA genotyping is useful not just to understand characteristics such as milk production and meat quality, but also health and predisposition to genetic diseases. This enables livestock breeders to make the right decisions. Because good animal health and healthy reproduction is as beneficial to breeders and owners as it is to the animals themselves.
There’s been a lot of progress in that sense on animal welfare over the past 20 years. DNA-testing is a helpful tool to better manage animal welfare.