Public Affairs in biotechnology

Biotech innovations have the potential to create disruptive solutions for global challenges like climate change, food shortage, and much more. As a startup, entering an established market that is being steered by existing policies, value chains and consumers, can be a hurdle. In this article, we discuss the importance of Public Affairs to support commercialization of biotech innovations.   
By Myrna Roefs

Public Affairs (PA) describes an organization's engagement with policy makers, political environments and trade associations. PA is a process of advocating future solutions to solve current societal challenges. PA practitioners engage with stakeholders, explain their organization’s activities and innovations and what policies would help to implement and fully leverage the potential of those innovations for society at large. Planet’s managing director Cindy Gerhardt reflects with three public affairs practitioners active in the biotechnology field about their role:

  • Reint-Jan Groot-Nuelend, Manager Public Affairs at DSM, an established multinational company active in nutrition, health and bioscience.
  • Timen van Haaster, Public Affairs Manager at HollandBIO, the Dutch biotech industry association.
  • Rogier Klimbie, independent Public Affairs Advisor, supporting several startups and ­­companies in different fields.

 f.l.t.r. | Reint-Jan Groot-Nuelend (DSM), Timen van Haaster (HollandBIO), Rogier Klimbie (independent PA advisor)


Why do we need public affairs in biotech?

“Biotech companies offer various solutions that help us make our production systems (varying from producing medicines, food, chemicals or materials) more sustainable. At the same time, policymakers and legislators are also working on proposals for legislation and policy that will contribute to a more sustainable production system. With public affairs, you try to bring those two worlds together,” says Reint-Jan. “You want legislators to know what is possible with biotechnology, and you want companies to know what is on legislators’ agendas, so that they can apply their knowledge and expertise accordingly.”

Cindy adds; “There is a clear need to explain the ins and outs of our sector. Regulators and biotechnologists have different expertise and scopes, but we experience that both are very open to learn from each other. Biotechnology has been present in our lives for thousands of years (think about wine, beer and cheese), and modern biotechnology is capturing the merits of nature’s toolbox even further. We need radical solutions to sustain human, animal and planetary health, and it can be challenging for policy-makers, let alone consumers, to keep up with the pace of biotech innovations. We need to think and act carefully about how to involve stakeholders, address the questions people might have and explain the opportunities biotech brings in laymen’s terms. That is exactly the work PA experts do.”

“Incorporating new technologies takes time, so the sooner people get to know the benefits your innovation brings, the better."

Considering public affairs in your company’s route to market, provides insight into what challenges your innovation could run into at all stages of development. PA is valuable from process development to product development to commercialization. Rogier: “It pays to have public affairs expertise present in the early days of your company. What does your innovation do and what do you hope to achieve? What market are you entering and how does your innovation fit in? In this way you can identify opportunities and crosslinks at an early stage.”

Public affairs can also help determine the right approach in terms of launching your product or innovation and visibility. What is your story, and how and where do you want to tell it? Ideally, the storytelling should not start only when the company enters the market: ”To create a support base, it is good to be visible. also on a small scale,” says Timen. “Incorporating new technologies takes time, so the sooner people get to know the benefits your innovation brings, the better."

What does the Dutch political climate look like for biotech? 

The PA experts are optimistic. “Although it might never go fast enough for start-ups and scale-ups, the Netherlands is a breath of fresh air when you compare it to European or global legislation,” states Timen. The Dutch political climate is more accessible to smaller companies. Rogier explains: “There is a strong general stakeholder’s field here; for almost every interest, there is an organization. All those interest groups can make laws and regulations slow and complicated, but also make it easier to have your voice heard as a smaller organization.”

Attention for and the knowledge about the benefits of using biotechnology have been growing. Reint-Jan: "We notice in the Netherlands an increasing recognition of the importance of biotechnology, both for sustainability and for the economy. A good example of this is the National Growth Fund, which recently granted funding for 3 large biotech-based programs; Biotech Booster (on technology transfer and commercialization of biotech ideas), CropXR (on development of more resilient crops) and Cellular Agriculture (on making animal proteins from cells instead of from animals).” Timen adds: “You hardly ever see such a large amount of funding being allocated for biotech subjects within a relatively short period of time, especially in Europe, but in the Netherlands it is possible.”

“I believe there is a strong role for innovation ecosystems to jointly engage in Public Affairs”, Cindy states. “Consortia and industry association like HollandBIO can streamline individual company’s needs and messaging to stakeholders and regulators to speak with one voice. Especially in a new sector, coordinated actions towards stakeholders are more efficient and productive. I think the Dutch are used to collaborate and network and easily find their way to legislators, media and even competitors to join forces to prepare the landing of new innovations or even whole new sectors.”

What does the work of a PA expert encompass?

Timen explains: “At HollandBIO we work out of 4 programme pillars; innovation, health, sustainability and prevention. My role is not to be a content expert, but to translate the climate in the sector to that in society and in politics. What is new? In what context? Is it regulated by Dutch laws or by European laws? What are the barriers? I give advice to our member companies on one hand, and I talk to members of the House of Representatives, civil servants at the ministries, or journalists. And I actively engage in collaborations with other networking organizations in our sector, like Planet and FNLI.”

Reint-Jan recognized this and elaborates on the role of Planet “We regularly invite policymakers, politicians and ministers at our R&D, innovation and production facilities in Delft. It helps a lot to show them the actual location, speak to people, smell and taste the products, and to organize joint meetings with DSM, startups at Planet and HollandBIO all aiming at the same end result and all adding their own perspective and challenges. Our audience thinks these visits are very useful as we really take the time to have a deep discussion, provide insights and we both do our utmost to engage and understand each other’s worlds.”

When you work in public affairs, you have to have a patience too. Rogier used to be active in the field of health labels on consumer food products (like Nutri-Score) and illustrates: “There is a debate ongoing for 15 years already. There is a lot of scientific proof, but still there is no full alignment on food choice logos for all food products we find in the supermarket.”

Cindy: “As an ecosystem director, I have experienced in practice how important the field of public affairs is. For Planet itself, local, regional and national authorities have been extremely helpful to support Planet as a non-profit biotech hub. But Planet can only be successful when our startups are successfully entering the market. We can collect individual needs and bring those to the table on behalf of the whole ecosystem. And, it is very powerful to be able to show stakeholders around and let them experience in person what e.g. a cultivated meat lab looks like, or what the CEOs in our community need to realize their ambitions.”  

"Big questions need to be answered like who is responsible for the positive impact of an innovation that directly contributes to the health of people and the planet, while it may also disrupt existing markets?”


Is Public affairs on your agenda as a young company?

Public affairs is not always a startup’s first priority. “Especially small organizations don't have their own public affairs person on staff. And that’s logical, because all the money and time goes into developing your product for a commercial proposition,” says Timen. “But it's important to anticipate in an early stage in what public environment your innovation is going to land. That's going to have a big effect on your competitive position and your commercial opportunities, both in the Netherlands and beyond.”

Cindy: “Depending on the phase your company is in, you can decide for the best way to engage in PA. It is never too early to take a more in-depth look into all the dynamics of the market you’re about to enter. Start by dipping your toes in public affairs by connecting your company to a network or hub that has PA on its agenda (such as HollandBIO) to learn from others and mobilize your own efforts, or hire a parttime independent expert (like Rogier) if you don’t have the time or expertise yourself, or if you don’t have the right connections yet. You only hire in your own dedicated PA professional when you believe your innovation is so new or disruptive it needs full time PA attention. Still then, PA will always remain a field of joined forces.”

Even in an inviting collaborative culture, and a national policy system that is open to discussion, especially biotech companies are sensitive to existing regulations that may not match with innovative, new concepts. Rogier explains: "Although biotechnology was already used by the Egyptians, your innovations as a biotech company are so new that they are difficult to fit into existing boxes. That can range from acquiring funding for capital-intensive scale up, to new business models or innovative IP licensing models. Even bigger questions need to be answered like who is responsible for the positive impact of an innovation that directly contributes to the health of people and the planet, while it may also disrupt existing markets?”

All in the same boat

Famous last words come from Reint-Jan: “The great thing about the biotech sector is that we are all heading in the same direction. We have a progressive agenda and are all looking for sustainable solutions to global challenges. That's why we all have an interest in having a supportive public environment for biotechnology, modernizing legislation in the Netherlands and in the EU, and having access to cross-sectoral partnerships. It’s also why we need innovation ecosystems, to collaborate closely. From students, startups and scale-ups, to knowledge institutions and large established companies; we are in this together. We have a promising key in our hands, to offer innovative solutions for the challenges we all face!”