Genetwister, established on Wageningen Campus is expanding greatly. This past year, the number of employees has grown from 25 to 35 and the company's floor area will grow from 650 to almost 1200 m2 this summer. What exactly does Genetwister do and why is the company located at Wageningen Campus? An interview with Chief Officer Operations Annemieke Jungerius.
What exactly does Genetwister do and for whom?
“We are a commercial research company in the field of biotechnology and we work only for our five shareholders: Bejo Zaden, East West Seeds Group (Thailand), Dümmen Orange, Sakata Seeds Corporation (Japan) and KnownYou Seeds (Taiwan), for whom we are looking for natural variation in plants. They use this knowledge in their own agricultural improvement programmes. Our shareholders believe in the advantages of pre-competitive collaboration. The search for new techniques costs a great deal of time and money with an uncertain success rate. This is where we come in by raising the success rate, for 1/5 of the costs.
Not long after Genetwister was established, from the ATO (Agrotechnological Research) as it was called about 20 years ago, we started developing regeneration protocols and GMOs. We stopped these activities because our shareholders prefer natural variation. These days, we are gathering knowledge about techniques to improve strains, directly applicable or on the longer term. We like to work with commercial materials of as many possible origins, as these can be integrated in existing commercial variety the fastest.
An example of your work? Only recently, we unravelled the bitter gourd genome. This is a type of cucumber, full of health-enhancing nutrients. It is relatively unknown here, but it is an important vegetable crop in Asia.”
How many and what kind of people work at your company?
“At first, we mainly had molecular genetic researchers and laboratory technicians, but we are currently mainly hiring quantitative geneticists, bio-information scientists and software developers. Generating data is one thing, but mining it for something useful is another. Our focus has shifted from mainly laboratory work to computation. This calls for a different working environment. We have gone back from four to two laboratories; moreover, one of the growth chambers has been converted into a server room. We also need more office space for our 'calculators'. We work with all disciplines together on each project. We are all the nerdy type. Expert perhaps is a better term, as we each know a great deal about a small area. We must explain it to each other clearly to arrive at a good result, which means we hold many meetings. This requires more meeting rooms.”
Why are you on a campus?
“This is a natural consequence from our origin as part of the university. Many of our original staff live in Wageningen or its immediate surroundings. Many of our new staff come from abroad and enjoy living here.”
What are the advantages of this?
“Wageningen's name abroad should not be underestimated. Many of our ‘visitors’ are delighted to come to Wageningen. They work here for a few days and we make time for each other. Often they meet university staff or WUR researchers that they are also in contact with.”
There are several companies in Wageningen that do similar research. Do you see them as colleagues or as competitors?
“Some companies are mainly aimed at developing techniques and at obtaining patents. We are scouting techniques everywhere (including the field of human genetics) for our shareholders and we investigate what is interesting for them. We are looking for freedom of operation in existing techniques and we test ideas. Once the technique has been accepted, our shareholders will apply them themselves.
Sometimes, we work together in projects with various WUR groups. Together, we develop a proof of principle and elaborate it for our shareholders, often under confidentiality. Any results for the agriculturalists are also interesting to WUR because they do not take that last step to commercialise their invention. We are very application-oriented and close to the breeding station, which makes our focus just a bit different.”
Are there any advantages to be close to these companies?
“Certainly. We are trying to participate in WUR subsidy projects. WUR is also often looking for a collaboration with commercial companies, because with some projects, this is a requirement.”
Are you using the facilities/appliances on campus?
“Certainly. Especially the sequencing facilities. I know that other companies invest a great deal in new equipment. We don't, we prefer to rent so that we may be free to switch.”
Is there anything missing on campus?
“There are no luncheon facilities on this part of the campus (Wageningen Business Science Park). The restaurant in Impulse is relatively far removed. We would also like to have more meeting rooms. The campus could also be better accessible; especially around rush hour there are always traffic jams.”
How do you view the future on campus?
“We are hitching a ride with the national and international reputation of Wageningen. In addition, Wageningen is nicely located in the middle of the country. It is relatively easy to obtain new staff here. In short, Genetwister will definitely stay on the campus.”