Menzo Havenga, CEO and founder of Batavia Biosciences tells us about accelerated biotechnology.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Menzo Havenga: We are all doing well. Thank you for asking. We are grateful that we are healthy and sincerely hope that we can return to normal living this summer. In the Netherlands, many people are expected to have been vaccinated by then.
Tell us about you, your career, and how you founded Batavia Biosciences.
Menzo Havenga: I am active in the field of molecular virology, graduating with a PhD on the development of retroviral vectors for gene therapy approaches to fight a genetic lysosomal storage disorder named Gaucher disease. Next, I went into the industry and joined a start-up company, Crucell, as employee number 4 in 1994. Within this company, I grew into the position of head of R&D, being responsible for the daily management of a 300 FTE international group of scientists. In 2008, I joined TNO, a Dutch governmental organization. Together with TNO, I build the foundation for Batavia Biosciences over a period of two years before Batavia became operationally independent in 2010. The reason to launch Batavia together with my business partner, Chris Yallop, was based on our own experience in pharma. We experienced that CDMOs typically lack the scientific know-how required to help clients develop novel recipes for product manufacturing. Hence, Batavia was launched with a highly scientifically oriented R&D team. This team knew the challenges in the field of biopharmaceutical manufacturing and provided practical solutions for challenges in production, purification, and testing.
How does Batavia Biosciences innovate?
Menzo Havenga: It is our vision that Batavia helps to reduce human suffering from infectious disease and cancer. We contribute to the development of safe and affordable biopharmaceuticals for all in need. In support of our vision, we reinvest a significant amount of our annual revenues in the development of technology platforms and biological materials. For example, our SATIRN® technology makes vaccines more stable at room temperature to support product distribution, and our HIP-Vax® and STEP® platforms enable low-cost manufacturing of vaccines, viral vectors, proteins, and antibodies. Naturally, we also support our customer’s therapeutic innovations. Their candidate vaccines and therapies hold the promise of curing cancer and protecting against deadly pathogens. Working actively at high speed, low-cost manufacturing platforms allows us to prepare for the next epidemic or pandemic.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Menzo Havenga: We have been very fortunate that the COVID-19 pandemic thus far has had very limited effects on our staff and their families. As such, our operations have only been impacted minimally, and we have been able to meet our company deadlines and deliverables. If anything, the COVID-19 pandemic required us to work harder because the need for medical COVID-19 countermeasures is high whilst we still had to deliver on our other commitments at the same time.
How did Batavia Biosciences deal with this in terms of human resources?
Menzo Havenga: At Batavia, we are proud to have built a very seasoned R&D team. They are critical to maintaining knowledge within the company. We, therefore, have an active mechanism in place that ensures that we can maintain our competitive position. Our personnel turnover has always been below the regional average, both in the USA and in the Netherlands, which we also attribute to the fact that we are working on very exciting projects, such as the development of vaccines to fight COVID-19, Ebola, Marburg, and Nipah naming but a few. However, this year has had its challenges for our staff. The Batavia team is very international, with colleagues from almost 20 different nationalities. One of the major impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic is that travel restrictions weigh heavily on our international colleagues as they are unable to visit their friends and families. Also, many people working in R&D cannot work from home as they require a lab environment. Here, we have successfully introduced workflows to adhere to social distancing to keep everybody safe. The latter is crucial to ensure that the development of new or improved vaccines is not suffering delays. But one thing is for certain; The company will plan a great party for its staff and family once it’s safe again to do so!
Your final thoughts?
Menzo Havenga: Owing to the expanding world population, increased amounts of travel, and increased proximity from humans to animals, the world is seeing a rapid increase in global virus outbreaks. We have already been exposed to many outbreaks this millennium, such as SARS, MERS, Ebola, Swine Flu, and COVID-19. The Ebola outbreak in Congo 2014 and the COVID-19 pandemic taught us that we need vaccine platform technologies to respond to outbreaks rapidly. Batavia is thus heavily involved in the preparation of outbreak responses by developing safe and effective countermeasures.
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