VIB Technologies: a paradigm shift for future-proof life sciences research
Striving to professionalize new life sciences technologies
March 6, 2023
This blog post is part of the VIB Technologies campaign.
Encompassing the VIB Core Facility program and VIB Tech Watch, VIB Technologies brings highly complex, novel technologies to researchers – and unites researchers across disciplines – to achieve scientific breakthroughs. “We offer much more than just a technology toolbox,” explains Saskia Lippens, Associate Technology Director at VIB. “We are the glue that connects scientists, Core Facilities and research centers around cutting-edge technology. We strive to professionalize new life sciences technologies and build tech expertise in a spirit of continuous improvement and excellence.”
As the orchestrator of tech-related interaction between VIB Core Facilities and research labs, the VIB technology program was first established a decade ago to make sure that VIB scientists – as well as other academic, biotech and pharma researchers – could use the technologies they needed to perform their research.
“Phase one of what is now VIB Technologies was to kickstart the Core Program by making sure scientists had access to tech,” asserts Geert Van Minnebruggen, Technology Director at VIB. “Phase two was all about shifting our focus from offering the technologies themselves to providing strong expertise in those technologies. And finally phase three – where we are now – is to further professionalize the VIB Technologies program, give it a clear definition and vision, and anchor it firmly across the institute.”
Today, VIB Technologies is a professional program comprised of over 100 technology-minded scientists that are embedded throughout most of VIB’s science centers.
From scout to strategist: the evolving role of Tech Watch
Tech Watch is a vital element of VIB Technologies, thanks to its role in identifying high-potential life sciences tech innovations early on, evaluating them for use by VIB scientists and Core Facilities. “In a way, Tech Watch is responsible for challenging VIB as an institute to carefully select technologies for the future – and then develop a roadmap to put them into practice,” Saskia explains.
Over the last decade, Tech Watch has evolved to become a powerful catalyst for strategic tech innovation across VIB.
“The goal of Tech Watch is to bridge labs, units, groups and Core Facilities within VIB to achieve joint missions that cover the tech development process, from identifying novel technologies and developing expertise all the way to achieving resource streams and building infrastructure. It helps paint the whole picture.”
- Saskia Lippens, Associate Technology Director
“When it was established, Tech Watch was more isolated and self-driving,” Saskia continues. “Now the unit works closely with the principal investigator community in biological research as well as with the Core Facilities and Expertise units of the research centers to achieve joint missions that cover the tech development process, from identifying novel technologies and developing expertise all the way to achieving resource streams and building infrastructure. It helps paint the whole picture.”
“Tech Watch experts are in close dialog with VIB scientists – sharing knowledge and participating in feedback loops so that we make the right investments in the right technologies at the right moment,” Geert adds.
Life sciences, they are a-changing
When it comes to modern life sciences, recent years have witnessed a sea change that VIB Technologies strives to support and accelerate.
“Science today is much more driven by a multidisciplinary approach,” Geert continues. “For example, by combining multiple expertise disciplines in examining a cell, we can go much further – really peer into and through the cell and even unravel its most fundamental building blocks. At VIB Technologies, we saw these domain synergies emerge firsthand, quite early on.”
Saskia: “Indeed, we’re working more and more in a cross-platform way. Take the single cell domain, for example, which brings three distinct Core Facilities together to offer workflows that require expertise from the Single Cell Core, Flow Core and Nucleomics Core. It will become ever more essential to work across platforms both within the technology program, but also with our PIs, because this creative intersection is where the truly groundbreaking ideas happen.”
Technology is just the beginning
All three growth phases were absolutely necessary for VIB Technologies to become what it is now. Today, VIB Technologies goes much further than tech.
“Previous development phases paved the way for phase three,” Saskia adds, “where we’re focused on how we can offer technology-related services to make a difference to scientists. Brainstorming and multidisciplinary collaboration enable divisions and units within VIB to become familiar with each other’s strengths and areas of expertise. This is vital prep work for building out efficient, cross-domain service models and complementary expertise.”
“And it’s not just about offering services,” Geert interjects. “It’s about offering excellent services. Our overarching aim has always been to position VIB as one of the top technology players in life sciences. After 10 years of the VIB technology program, we’re now seen as the benchmark. The reason we’ve been so successful is that we embedded technology into VIB’s strategic pillars from day one, unlike
other institutes in Europe, enabling us to move smoothly from phase one to phase two and to phase three – a process that takes funding and strong leadership buy-in.”
Science thrives in an environment of trust
Supporting the professionalization efforts of VIB Technologies, Geert and Saskia are proud to introduce their new technology training unit, which is setting up a dedicated A to Z curriculum covering topics from experimental design to data analysis in specific tech disciplines and beyond.
“With this unit, our mission is to build a foundation of professional technological knowledge that includes all kinds of stakeholders – from VIB scientists to our customers and players in the broader Flemish science ecosystem,” says Saskia.
Saskia also describes a mindset shift in the life sciences community when it comes to knowledge sharing. “10 years ago, institutes – including their core facilities - were very protective of their expertise; it was their ‘territory’. But here at VIB, we’ve flipped it around – we see that when we share our expertise, we achieve ever-better scientific outcomes, and our researchers truly believe in this value.”
“We’re twinning our technology experts with VIB groups and labs, where they become deeply familiar with the new technologies on the table. This enables us to easily transfer the knowledge needed to develop it further, but it also results in something even more valuable: Trust.”
- Geert Van Minnebruggen, Technology Director
“We’ve flipped other ways of working around as well,” Geert asserts. “In the past, a group or lab would bring a promising piece of technology to Tech Watch for investigation. If it had potential, we’d then lift it to a Core Facility or technology unit for broader dissemination. Now with the new spatial activities we’re working in the opposite direction by embedding our technology experts in VIB groups and labs, where they become deeply familiar with the new technologies on the table. This enables us to easily transfer the knowledge needed to develop it further – but it also results in something even more valuable: Trust.”
“We don’t have a specific address anymore,” Saskia adds. “We’re stepping away from territorial boundaries. Instead of science coming to tech, tech is now entering the research lab environment – and the results have been remarkable.”
- Saskia Lippens, Associate Technology Director
As a result, VIB Technologies has become a ‘decentralized centralized’ unit. “We don’t have a specific address anymore,” Saskia adds. “We’re stepping away from territorial boundaries. Instead of science coming to tech, tech is now entering the research lab environment – and the results have been remarkable.”
Momentum takes work, vigilance and agility
A clear mission, strategy and roadmap have always supported the growth trajectory of VIB Technologies. “However, it takes effort to keep the strong momentum going,” says Saskia. “The moment we stand still is the moment we insert a hiccup into our roadmap. Staying ambitious takes constant work, vigilance and agility, as we have to invest in economically interesting technologies while also keeping a close eye on developments as they happen.
“For example, several groundbreaking life sciences technologies highlighted by peer-reviewed journal Nature, such as volume electron microscopy, single cell metabolomics, CRISPR and in-vitro models, were picked up by VIB long before the hype. Even a decade ago, in the case of volume electron microscopy.”
“Quite a few peer institutions offer the cutting-edge tech infrastructure that we do here at VIB, but it hasn’t been maximized. We do this here through continuous improvement, benchmarking ourselves against ourselves and making incremental changes, together.”
- Geert Van Minnebruggen, Technology Director
VIB is also subject to a rigorous 5-year evaluation cycle that makes agility an absolute requirement for its leaders. “We find this evaluation process not a trial, but a key opportunity to familiarize ourselves with the work of international peers,” Geert elaborates. “During evaluation preparation, we question everything, examine every inch of what we do and identify areas where we can do even better, learn from each other, and prepare for changes ahead. Quite a few peer institutions offer the cutting-edge tech infrastructure that we do here at VIB, but it hasn’t been maximized. We do this here through continuous improvement, benchmarking ourselves against ourselves and making incremental changes, together.
“When I consider all the facility heads at VIB, it is clear to me that they are all agility focused, realistic, and pragmatic – but always willing to challenge the status quo. It’s a true privilege to collaborate with professionals who work according to the principle that innovation isn’t a series of big things, but a process of continuous building, rebuilding and conscious evolution to stay one step ahead.”