Agro-biotech company KeyGene has been located at the Agro Business Park, part of Wageningen Campus, since 1989. On 20 June, it will celebrate its 30th anniversary with its staff, many of whom have been involved with the business for quite some time. CEO Arjen van Tunen sees the advantages of being a part of the campus: “WUR is a large, powerful ecosystem that you certainly want to belong to.”
What exactly does KeyGene do and who are its clients?
“KeyGene conducts research into biotechnological techniques for developing new crops. For example, we search for new resistances and develop new sequencing and genotyping techniques. We call ourselves ‘the crop innovation company’.
When KeyGene was founded 30 years ago, it was an initiative by five selective breeding businesses (Ensa Zaden, Royal Sluis, De Ruiter Seeds, ZPC, and Cebeco) with the objective of using KeyGene to acquire knowledge about biotechnology and having it operate independently. The current KeyGene shareholders are Enza Zaden, Rijk Zwaan, Limagrain Vegetable Seeds, and Takii Seeds.
Hybrids may not seem interesting in terms of their appearance (phenotype), but are still genetically valuable. By mapping out the genes of crops, e.g. via our mutation detection technique, we can track and use these genes.
This is why we are searching for technologies and genes (as well as applications for those genes) and in this area. We have over 500 active patents and patent applications for 70 different discoveries.
We invest the income from these patents back into our company. This is a very effective business model. We serve as a research arm for our stakeholders and, in terms of our research, act as a bridge between breeding companies and academia.”
30 years of KeyGene: how much has changed over these 30 years? What did you work on back then? What are you working on now?
“For the first 15 years, KeyGene was a business based on a single technology, called AFLP fingerprinting. By 2004, we had done all that we could with it and it was time for some innovation. In 2005, we were the first ones in Europe to have new sequencers, which advanced our work substantially. Our latest discovery is a mutation detection technique that is able to detect variation in genes.
The focus of our research has certainly changed. In our initial years, we worked on fruit and vegetables, but now our focus has expanded to many different kinds of crops. In the early period, we also did research on animals and micro-organisms, but the genetics of these is significantly different than that of plants. We also weren’t familiar with that world. The applications and the market are different, so we currently restrict our activities to plants.
We also shifted the focus of our work towards big data. The new DNA techniques yielded a great deal of data which, in turn, need to be analysed and that requires different expertise.
The competition has obviously changed as well. 30 years ago, Europe and the USA were leading the way, but now there is excellent research being done across the world and China and India are becoming major players.
Compared to 30 years ago, we collaborate with other organisations and universities more often. Everyone is seeking out knowledge that complements their own. You want to use the best expertise when you start a project. If you clearly define the roles in a project and make proper arrangements, then the collaboration typically goes very smoothly.”
What is your link to WUR?
“We work with WUR a lot on new crops, such as the Nederbanaan (a banana cultivar) and rubber from dandelions, a long-running project. We co-financed the method for getting bananas to bloom in a greenhouse. We are currently working on resistance research. During the 100 Years celebration, we provided a workshop on plant breeding with Ernst van den Ende, Director of PSG."
Do you use the facilities/equipment on campus?
“Yes, definitely. WUR and KeyGene use each other’s equipment. We made an arrangement for two of our analysts to work on WUR equipment and two WUR analysts to conduct research at our location. We use the DNA-mapping equipment at the Shared Research Facilities and we will soon be using each other’s greenhouses and testing fields.”
You were already on campus before it was officially Wageningen Campus. Do you experience advantages from being located on Wageningen Campus?
“We not only use WUR facilities, but many of the people that work here also have a WUR background. As a university, WUR is a part of a large, powerful ecosystem which includes the smaller businesses in its vicinity. You definitely want to be a part of it. It offers training programmes and young people with new ideas. We are grateful to be able to make use of it. In return, WUR benefits from the expertise and funding from the surrounding businesses.
That ecosystem provides all of us with more clients. They come for WUR as well as for us. I don’t mean to imply that we all depend on each other. As a business, you ultimately have to be able to keep the promises you make on your own, but I am a proponent of combining each other’s strengths through collaboration.”
There are many companies in Wageningen that conduct similar research. Do you view them as colleagues or competition?
“If these businesses have the same expertise and the same applications, then they are our competition. However, we have more competition in the USA and China. Therefore, it is better to keep the collaboration within the Netherlands in order to stay ahead of the competition.”
Is there anything that is lacking on campus?
“Our area of campus was deteriorating a bit, but that has recently been addressed with new buildings, fewer fences, and more greenery. Some catering services on this part of campus would also be great and it would be useful to have a connection with the businesses on the other side of the canal.”
How do you envision your future on the campus?
“We hope to continue growing here. We have 135 employees in Wageningen and have room for 150, so we still have room to grow.
Not long ago, we built a Crop Innovation Center behind our building: greenhouses with small compartments, a greenhouse on the roof, and many testing facilities as well as climate-controlled rooms. For larger trials, we have 6000 m2 of greenhouse in Huissen and we can expand even more in terms of employees. I can only think of one drawback: the strict regulations in the Netherlands and Europe. In the Netherlands, we have excellent knowledge, facilities, people, infrastructure, innovations, patents, etc., but the regulations here are more stringent than elsewhere. For example, CRISPR-Cas is essentially a goldmine, but we don’t have the ability to exploit it.”