Science parks are all the rage these days but 35 years ago the concept was still novel. That is when the city of Leiden in the province of South Holland set up such a park on a greenfield site next to its local hospital and university, to a degree of scepticism. It was a slow start but eventually the idea took hold and today Leiden Bio Science Park hosts the largest life sciences cluster in the Netherlands.

“It was very difficult to convince people [of the merits of the idea] at the start,” says Leiden mayor Henri Lenferink. “But now it attracts companies in its own right: they know about the park and they want to be there. The services provided at the park are very good, and it has a strong reputation for research and applied sciences.”

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Best medicine

With more than 100 biomedical and life sciences companies set across 110 hectares employing more than 19,000 people, the park’s main competences are in regenerative and personalised medicine. It was ranked among the top five most successful science parks in Europe in 2017 by Euraxess, an initiative of the European Commission.  

“There is still room to grow. We expect there will be 28,000 [employees] in 10 years,” says Arnoud Nierop, account manager at the park.

Though the UK’s impending exit from the EU does not delight many Dutch officials, it provides Leiden with an opportunity in the form of the European Medicines Agency’s shifting its headquarters from London to Amsterdam, just 20 minutes from Leiden by train.

The lynchpin foreign investor at the park is pharma giant Johnson & Johnson, which employs 2100 people, but there is also a community of about 60 university spinouts, start-ups and scale-ups, as well as four incubator buildings.

Getting personal

The park has both evolved and grown over the past 35 years, and its management are confident that it will continue to do so. “The focus had traditionally been on drug development but is now more on personalised medicine. We are looking at how artificial intelligence can take life sciences to the next level,” says Mr Nierop. “We are changing the focus from an old-fashioned park to more of a modern-day campus. We have to adapt to a more modern way of living and working, to give more density and make things more compact.” 

Park managers also want to strengthen the commercialisation of ideas coming out of the university and research institutes through spin-outs and improve facilities for start-ups, while attracting new companies that fit the mould and that help strengthen the entire ecosystem. In such a knowledge-intensive field, maintaining the right levels of education, training and development is essential. In that vein, a new biotech training facility was established a few years ago.  

“In total we have been pretty successful in all this already,” says Mr Lenferink, though he knows there is no room for complacency if this grandfather of science parks is to keep up with the younger – and proliferating – competition.