Dutch bioscientists hope for boost from EMA relocation

Universities stand to benefit if companies relocate to stay close to sector agency, say experts

November 28, 2017
Pharmaceutical worker
Source: iStock

The relocation of the European Medicines Agency from London to Amsterdam in preparation for Brexit should boost Dutch pharmaceutical research, and could weaken the UK in one of its traditionally strongest areas, observers believe.

The Dutch biosciences industry, while much smaller than that of the UK, Germany or Switzerland, boasts a cluster of about 100 biomedical companies at the Leiden Bio Science Park, a grouping located just to the south-west of Amsterdam that formed part of the government's successful bid for the agency.

Hubertus Irth, scientific director of the Leiden Academic Centre for Drug Research, part of Leiden University, said the move means that the Netherlands "certainly will be a more viable player in the pharmaceutical industry".

Hosting the agency should make the Netherlands more attractive as a base for pharmaceutical companies, who have to deal with the EMA to get their products approved, he explained.

"If you are working on filing...an application...the interactions between the filing company and the EMA are quite intensive," and have to be discussed in detail, he explained.

New private investment should spill over into the Dutch research system, he said, noting that around half his centre's income comes from the private sector. The EMA's 900 jobs should also give local graduates better employment prospects, he added, as well as internship opportunities for students.

Adam Cohen, director of the Centre for Human Drug Research, another Leiden-based clinical research institute, said that hosting the agency was "reputationally" important for the Netherlands, although given how easy it was to travel around the continent, companies were unlikely to save significant amounts of time by shifting their operations to the country to be in close proximity to the agency. 

"Europe is Europe – it's not a very big place," he said. "From that point of view it's not going to be a big shift."

"Will there be a mass exodus from England now? No. Instead of having to go to London they will have to go to Amsterdam," he said. Nonetheless, "psychologically it makes a difference" for companies to be located in the same country as the EMA, he said.

Amsterdam hosts just under 170 life sciences companies, according to a 2016 report from KPMG, Site Selection for Life Sciences Companies in Europe, with another 300 short trips away in Rotterdam and Utrecht. London has more than 500, more than any other city in Europe, including the headquarters of global giants GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca (headquartered in nearby Cambridge).

Germany has nearly quarter of a million people working in life sciences, the most of any country in Europe, followed by the UK (174,000), France (146,000), and Switzerland (105,000). The Dutch industry is substantially smaller, with 26,500 employees.

david.matthews@timeshighereducation.com

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