With over 100 facilities and over 20,000 people in more than 20 countries worldwide, the US headquartered contract research organization Charles River has a truly global position in drug development, and the ‘people factor’ is very much at the forefront of this growth.
‘Scientific research is really a people business. Of course, we have machines and automation, but the people aspect is by far the most important of what we do,’ asserts Erik Baltussen, Site Director of Charles River’s safety assessment operations in the Netherlands. From it’s European base in the Dutch Life Sciences & Health ecosystem, the company supports its clients to take novel targets for therapy and candidate drugs from prospects through to clinical trials. Charles River’s goal is to assist major drug manufacturers in getting new therapies through the development phase and available to the patient as rapidly as possible.
Charles River’s site at Den Bosch in the southern province of Brabant, the Netherlands traces its origins back to 1983 when it was founded as an independent Brabant-based company, NOTOX. It employed around thirteen people engaged in safety research for a broad spectrum of new substances, including, for example, vaccines and agrochemicals. Acquired by Charles River in 2016, the Den Bosch location is now part of a highly connected global operation and employs over 600 people. ‘We also have facilities in Leiden and Groningen in the Netherlands. They operate in discovery – identifying new potential molecules that work on an identified target to potentially cure diseases; in short they invent new molecules. It then comes to us for safety assessment before entering clinical trials,’ Baltussen explains.
Charles River’s discovery-focused location at the Leiden Bio Science Park, was acquired by Charles River in 2014 and is primarily focused on the very first steps in the discovery of novel drugs. The site employs approximately 130 people in Leiden and 80 at its subsidiary in Belgium. In Groningen, 25 people are currently working for Charles River, who mainly focus on developing drugs for central nervous system diseases. Through collaboration, the company branches complement each other and the Dutch biotech ecosystem.
Charles River’s Brabant operations are engaged in safety assessment – determining the safety of new pharmaceuticals, vaccines, and other products. The high-density research and development footprint of the Netherlands confers apparent benefits. ‘Many of our clients are also multinationals, so they increasingly look for partners with a global footprint to achieve uniform service regardless of location. We have really succeeded in developing in that direction, and that has paid off in terms of growth.’
Today, animals are still essential to our understanding of disease progression and biological mechanisms as well as drug safety and efficacy. Charles River integrates innovative alternatives to animal testing to replace and/or reduce animal testing. The company collaborates with several organizations to develop alternative methods and with regulators to get those alternatives accepted. Progression has also been made with regards to cultured cells and other work in labs, which is in most cases more efficient than animal testing. When alternatives are just as good and the regulations allow it, the company actively promotes the use of alternatives to replace animal testing.
The availability of talent is a critical factor for many organizations in powering their growth ambitions. Baltussen explains that tapping into the vibrant Dutch Life Sciences and Health knowledge ecosystem is vital in terms of the company’s development. ‘We have good access to many schools and knowledge institutions all around us in Eindhoven, Nijmegen, Breda, and Utrecht, we are right in the sweet spot of that. It’s a really good location to be in. We have spent a lot of time establishing close relationships with educational institutions to ensure we have a steady stream of talent. By being actively involved, we also gain access to new technology and new developments in education and are able, in part, to provide input to ensure the education is as relevant for our daily practice as it can be.’ For students and graduates looking to launch their careers, the ability to hook up at an early stage with a multinational is an exciting and attractive prospect.’
Proximity to a major airport is also essential for Charles River’s service offering. ‘Whenever we receive an urgent request that we cannot fulfil from a specific site, we can utilize the availability of slots across our various sites to coordinate a single research program. When shipping samples, or materials, it is vital for us to have access to an international airport like Schiphol. In that sense, the Netherlands is very well positioned; it is at the top end of being connected, which is very important for our business. Also for business travel now that is again possible.’ He also cites that it is a direct, one-hour train journey from Den Bosch to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, facilitating international business travel.
Baltussen and his team are in regular contact with the Invest in Holland network, including the Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency and the Brabant Development Agency, to discuss plans for growth, such as the construction of a new building. ‘Sustainability is a crucial aspect of Charles River’s operations. We have set ourselves ambitious goals for this to analyze our whole facility and determine what opportunities we have to improve that,’ Baltussen said.
Continued strong demand for the work that Charles River carries out means that Baltussen is confident about continued growth in the Netherlands. This includes constructing new buildings, expanding labs, and increasing capacity. ‘The main challenge for us is to have enough space, equipment, and people, and that’s a great position to be in.’