What does it mean to make it in the north? This is part of a series of portraits of local people, organisations, and companies working to further internationalise Groningen, Friesland, and Drenthe. In this instalment, we meet Linda Dijkshoorn, the founder of EV Biotech. The company is less than a year old, but thanks to its winning mixture of high-tech innovation and support from various institutions, it’s already making waves in its sector.
By Erin Goedhart-Stallings
EV Biotech is based in the airy new Innolab Agrifood building on Groningen’s Zernike campus. Moving in to the new building in January was, Linda says, ‘like a prolonged Christmas, unpacking boxes. It’s a great adventure because we’re a very young team.’
The company, in Linda’s words, is ‘using digital technology to develop microbial cell factories that will create molecules for industries like fragrance, flavour, pharma, and materials.’ The team’s first project, to ‘prove’ their method, is creating vanilla. ‘Most [people] don’t realise that 99% of the vanilla eaten all over the world is not the natural vanilla made by a vanilla orchid; it’s actually a by-product of crude Earth oil… My team and I are specialists in engineering bacteria, so we’re taking the relevant genes from the orchid and making that exact pathway, copying them and putting them in a bacteria or microorganism. And then the microorganism produces vanilla exactly the same way as the orchid.’
This is already a seriously clever method. But what sets EV Biotech apart is that it tests the usual thousands of variants of the bacterial ‘host’, without actually doing anything to the host itself. Linda explains: ‘a company might create 10,000 variants, test them all and hope one might work. What we do differently is build digital models in a digital laboratory. Instead of testing all 10,000 physically in the lab, we test them on the computer.’ Naturally, this drives up success rates, and this combination of scientific and digital expertise is completely new.
EV Biotech’s methods were refined by Linda in her PhD at the University of Groningen. Launching a company here, Linda says, was a clear choice: ‘I think the business ecosystem in Groningen is one of a kind in the Netherlands, and community and connection are key words for Groningen itself.’ The company has been supported by VentureLab North: who train prospective entrepreneurs, Fit Professionals of Finance, who provided an accountancy student to assist with finances, and the Life Cooperative, who help companies in the Groningen biotech sector work together on, for example, buying expensive equipment and sharing knowledge.
All of this innovation is enriched by the wide-ranging backgrounds of the staff at EV Biotech. Linda says ‘we’re a small but international company: I’m half Portuguese and half Dutch, and we have two Russians, one Indian, one Pole; and a Dutch woman. I think the diversity actually helps us’
Linda thinks more young scientists should consider taking the leap into entrepreneurship (‘I get put forward a lot because I’m one of the few female entrepreneurial CEOs in Groningen. And I know a lot of women who are way more talented than I am!’). She’s also passionate about the potential of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). ‘For instance, most people don’t realize that the insulin diabetics use has been produced by GMOs for almost 50 years. It’s produced by E. coli bacteria, an organism we use as our workhorse in the lab. Without it, drug makers would still have to slaughter cows to extract the insulin. We are already living in a future where GMOs are basically a daily thing. So why not use them to make our lives better? GMOs are basically like a pencil. It’s a tool, right? And you can choose to use the pencil to make a piece of art or you can threaten someone’s life with it because it’s sharp.’
Around the world, leaders in the synthetic biology and biotechnology realm say that GMOs will help us save the planet. Linda agrees and, if EV Biotech continues to make such leaps and bounds, more are sure to follow.
Erin Goedhart-Stallings is a writer and editor who works on Make it in the North with the International Welcome Center North (IWCN). For more information about Make it in the North, just visit www.makeitinthenorth.nl