At the Amsterdam Life Sciences Café on 7 March 2019 in Amsterdam Science Park, Wouter Bos presented an action plan to establish the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area as a centre for healthcare innovation with artificial intelligence as its cornerstone.
During the past year, the Amsterdam Economic Board and the City of Amsterdam have been working closely together to develop the report ‘Strengthening Life Sciences & Health in the Amsterdam Region’, which will be published in April after it receives final endorsement by Amsterdam’s city council. As announced earlier this year, Amsterdam will initially invest €2.4 million in expanding the project.
With his varied background in business, academia and politics – as well as being the former chairman of the board of directors of VU University Medical Centre (now part of Amsterdam UMC) – Bos was an obvious choice to involve as a consultant and ambassador for the plan. And the mood throughout the report’s presentation was certainly celebratory.
Building on the EMA’s move to the Netherlands
“The initial question I was given was how could we maximise the benefits of the regulatory European Medicines Agency moving to Amsterdam as a result of Brexit,” says Bos, who played a key role in bringing the EMA to the city.
“But as we looked closer at the situation, we realised the plan needed to be more than just an instrument to get more investors to the city,” says Bos. “How do we include the stakeholders already in the city – the schools, the startups, the corporates? And how will this plan fit with the rest of the Netherlands? As a country we’re too small to compete. We need to complement each other.” Eindhoven has Brainport. Wageningen excels at agriculture and food science. Leiden is a biotech leader. So what’s Amsterdam’s unique selling point?
As a location, Amsterdam already has a strong basis for applying AI to the health industry: three large hospitals with specialised knowledge and access to medical data, two universities offering degrees in AI, the Innovation Center for Artificial Intelligence (ICAI) and a whole range of life science corporates, SMEs and startups. Meanwhile, locally based corporations such as TomTom, Booking, Adyen, Amazon and Google, along with the thriving gaming industry, are actively applying AI across a variety of sectors.
But Bos also warns that we have to act fast since he’s already observing a brain drain of students to the US. “It’s now or never. Once we’re able to retain more of this talent, we’ll know we’re successful.”
Amsterdam’s AI plan
Amsterdam’s AI plan is threefold. First, a proposition must be developed and promoted that not only lines up with the larger AI strategy of the Netherlands, but also connects with the EU’s AI strategy as well as its funds.
Second, the region’s general business and innovation environment must be enhanced in terms of factors such as quality of life, sufficient workspace and access to financial capital and health data.
Third, the ecosystem must be continually reinforced through connecting and community building – particularly by promoting interaction between governmental parties, knowledge institutions and entrepreneurs.
Download here the .pdf the detailed action programm.
See for presentation: Life-Sciences-Café 7 maart 2019
Challenges and opportunities
Naturally, challenges still need to be overcome, such as strong privacy laws and a fragmented national healthcare system. However, Bos believes some of these issues can be turned into strengths. Certainly great strides are being made locally to develop a unified health data system that puts privacy first.
As Jeroen Maas, Amsterdam Economic Board, later observes: “We’re getting the hospitals to talk to each other. They want this. They want to work together on improved health data for better patient outcomes. They just don’t know how to exactly. Yet!”
During the extended question period after the presentations, other potential roadblocks were brought up. For example, the long-expected AI strategy for the Netherlands has not yet been published. When asked when this report might arrive, Bos’s answer – “Well, I don’t work for the government. I’m not a politician.” – was greeted with much laughter “Yes, it feels great to say that. But seriously, I believe it’s being released in the second quarter of this year.”
Competing with the Googles of the world
Another of the attendees is Jeroen van Duffelen, co-founder and COO of Aidence, a company that applies artificial intelligence to medical image analysis.
“We see similar initiatives in the UK where the Nationalised Health Service (NHS) is making huge budgets available for AI technologies like ours, potentially making it more straight forward to commercialise our product and rapidly scale up. Today, backed by recent investments of over €12 million, Aidence is sticking to its Keizersgracht location in the centre of Amsterdam.”
“Beyond access to investors, we get a big benefit from being here,” explains Van Duffelen. “We’re getting those people who don’t want to work for Booking or Google where it’s all about optimising click-through rates. These people want to do something more meaningful. Of course we still have to pay market rate salaries. But in the last week we hired six people – so already we’re competing with the Googles and the Bookings.”
And as Bos had noted earlier in this fruitful interactive session: “What would you prefer to do? Book hotel rooms or cure cancer?”
About the Life Sciences Café
Our Life Sciences cafe’s are organised by the Amsterdam Economic Board and EY. As well as offering presentations and debates, each Life Sciences Café event is a fantastic opportunity to meet and mingle with colleagues from the life sciences sector and representatives from the broader business community in Amsterdam. If you have any feedback, ideas or extra information that may influence future editions of the Life Sciences Café, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.If you want to be informed you can sign up for our newsletter here.
Fotografie: Brenda de Vries / Copy: Edenfrost