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Science Boosters

Entrepreneurship in the life sciences: Bart Van Acker shares insights

Picture of Bart van Acker to illustrate the pilot episode of our new podcast Science Boosters.

Visionary entrepreneur Bart Van Acker founded pharma and biotech knowledge hub and consultancy company QbD as a one-man venture in 2011. A decade later, QbD boasts almost 400 employees with a presence in 7 countries across two continents. Bart is one of those forward thinkers and serial entrepreneurs that never falter in their ambition, and his business enthusiasm is infectious. 
In the pilot episode of our new podcast, Science Boosters, Bart shares his impressive rise to the top in a conversation with Filip Heitbrink, CEO of Scilife; from bioengineer to Flemish Young Entrepreneur of 2019, to board director, to co-founding and investing into multiple companies in the life sciences space and spurring the stellar growth curve of QbD. He’s eager to help other startup entrepreneurs in the sector, and we’re thrilled to listen to his guidance and personal experiences on Science Boosters.

Filip Heitbrink: 

So we're here with Bart Van Acker. Bart Van Acker is a founder and CEO of Quality by Design, a consultancy company in the life sciences sector. He founded the company about 10 years ago, it has grown from one person, Bart, to over 350 employees with presence in seven countries across two continents. In the past years, QbD has acquired several companies to accelerate growth, and they now have a consolidated revenue of about 35 million euro for the whole QbD group. Also interesting to know in 2019, Bart won the Flemish Young Entrepreneur of the Year award in Belgium. And lastly, Bart is also participating personally in several startups as an investor, to support other entrepreneurs to help them build successful companies. More or less, Bart, is that a clear introduction?

Bart Van Acker:

Quite accurate yeah, I couldn't have done it better.

Filip Heitbrink: 

All right. Okay, yeah, thank you for for coming here to this interview. I'm just very curious about the whole origin of QbD. Origin stories are always nice, right? So maybe you can give us an idea of when and how did you get the idea and concept for for QbD, when you started?

Bart Van Acker:

So the thing is that I'm a bio engineer from education. So I'm biogenetic; studying gene biotechnology. So my interest and my background is also completely focused on the life science industry, the sector where I take all the companies where I participate in, we're all focusing on that specific niche, the life sciences. When I started my career, I started working at big pharmaceutical companies, as a consultant. I was doing that for a big IT company, and became the managing director there. But at that time, I was already seeing that if you can really focus a company specifically on that life science sector, that there would be a lot of opportunities. I personally always saw that, that life sciences and healthcare and making people better; that market at that time (2010) was still quite small, and that it was going to grow in the coming years. And still, if you look at it, nowadays, it has become much more complex. But still, I think, the volume, the size, the increase in the sector, the sector increase will keep on going. But at that time, I was working as a managing director at a big IT company, and it wasn't going as I'd hoped, I couldn't do the things that I wanted to do, because you're just a very small portion in a very big company. So that's when I said, Okay, I'm 30 years old, I want to have my own company while I'm still 30. Because having a company in the beginning, takes a lot of time and effort. So that's why I decided to go for it and start QbD and I just, I think the first target that I set myself, I failed miserably, because the company, QbD, was founded the 18th of August, and I became 31 on the 12th of August, so I missed it by 14 days (laughs). I made up for it I think, if you look back at the last 10 years (still laughing), I reached most of my targets but for the first one I said, I didn't reach it.

Filip Heitbrink: 

Ok, so it wasn't such a great start (sarcastically). But yeah, you made up for it! So the motivation of building the company and starting your own your own project was really the - when you were at a bigger company, you saw: I can do this somehow better, in a smaller setting, very specific to life sciences, that was your main motivation?

Bart Van Acker:

At that time, it was. Of course, I wanted to do more, but I was only 30 years old. I didn't know how. For example, if you look at the network that I have nowadays... also, the complexity of the market has evolved. If you look at that time, a lot of, - for example, a big production facility of Pfizer in Puurs, who is now making a lot of the COVID vaccines, which is a tremendously complex production and manufacturing process, at that time they were making, like, genetics, on that side. They were just making very simple pills, putting them in a blister, in a package. And that was it. And at that time, that was about 90% of the production. In fact, life science was very simple, very, not that complex. And if you look at Okay, it was expected that, for example, so in gene therapy, when I was graduating, we were already thinking that certain gene therapy would be there very quickly. I think the complete genome was sequenced in '95. I was graduating 2003. So it was eight years later. And then already we were thinking okay, we have now sequenced the genome, we will probably be able to read that very quickly and start doing things with it. Now it's 25 years later, and it's still a big book with just letters. And we still do not understand everything that is that is in it. So it came a bit slower than I expected that the complexity of the sector, for example, if you see with with RNA and etc in cancer therapies, personalised cell therapies, all the field where we are working in, it's a very complex, fantastic environment and also I think that pushed us to another level. And where we were helping, very simple processes in the beginning, nowadays, we can help, we need to bring IDs record from ID to patients, so we can help complex products, therapies, medical devices, if you have an idea, and I want to bring it to the patient, it's a very long road ahead of you. And we can, with QbD, and the entire group can help you in every aspect of that thing. And that's, of course, something we couldn't do 10 years ago, and along the way we go towards that.

Filip Heitbrink: 

So, actually, the market getting more complex was a very good thing for QbD, because then these companies require expertise, external expertise, to help them get to the next level, somehow right?

Bart Van Acker:

Yes. The only thing is it, it's not that easy to become, because also the competition, for example, in the more simple things has become much, much harder. We see a lot of very, like Interim, whatever, going into that like staffing playing field because that's like quite similar. Now, again, if you go - what I wanted to do is to not compete with those guys, where you only compete on price, I wanted to go for those complex, more difficult challenges, but then you also have to transform your organisation. So when we were just a staffing organisation, we really become a large organisation where competencies, acquiring knowledge, working together on projects, or across different aspects within the lifecycle of a medical device, or a therapy; that has become really the key in the success of QbD. And the thing is that, nowadays, if you look at who are our competitors, we probably do not have that many anymore, because we were going to the next level.

Filip Heitbrink: 

You're gaining more and more expertise, and you then leave the more simple solutions or services behind. So if you look back at this whole process, what do you think, took you by surprise, or you might have underestimated in your journey? So was there anything that you thought, wow, this was a big challenge that I did not expect?

Bart Van Acker:

No, not really. The thing was that if - I'm a simple guy in the case that I think with a lot of simple 'boeren verstand' as we say in Dutch. So just common sense. I think you can already get quite far. You have to surround your buyer by a good team, quickly make good decisions based on good information. But the most of the things that I saw along the way, of course, we grew as a company. And I personally also as an entrepreneur, a person, a father, whatever. But definitely, as an entrepreneur, a CEO, I also grew. From, as you said, a one-guy company to a company of 350 people with different branches. So you've personally also evolved, but the thing is that it all came quite natural. And that's something that I was quite surprised about. The role that I have today is nothing compared to the role I had 10 years ago, or five years ago, or two or three years ago. But it comes quite naturally. If you, for example, also if you get good advice, if you surround you by good people, I think that's that's very, very critical. It's a team effort. So you have to let people grow, let people evolve, give people opportunities and chances to make mistakes, but learn out of it and become better. I think that's something that I think is very fascinating to see. But along the way, I can't say that there was really - if you look back at it, what I'm really surprised about is the fact, if you look back in what I did, what we did as a team in 10 years, the speed in which things grew - totally unexpected. growing so quickly. And not only just in numbers of people but also as you talked about in acquisitions, with LIST COMPANIES HE MENTIONS. We have so many things, and still there's going to be another acquisition announced probably at the end of this month, we're starting a joint venture. Also probably this year, we'll probably do another acquisition. So things are going only faster and I'm very curious to see where this will end.

Filip Heitbrink: 

So what you did not expect was the speed of success, right? That you accomplished in those 10 years. if you look at - what they always say to young entrepreneurs Is that you have a specific skill set at that moment and you have to think about what person do I need to become to really lead that company? Was that something that was a conscious path? Because 30 years ago, if we would have put you in this position that you are now , or 10 years ago when you were 30, you probably didn't know where to start, right? So you grow into that position somehow. So were you consciously working as an entrepreneur on yourself to become that person that can lead this conglomerate of companies? Or how did you do that on a personal level?

Bart Van Acker:

The thing is that I partner with or I contact a lot of entrepreneurs within the same playing field. I was part of the board of iasb, International Society for pharmaceutical engineering, but I already met people, I think, when I first came to the board, I think it was 30, or 20 years younger than the next guy in the board. So the most of them were 50, or 60, whatever. I was just, I think at that time, 35, or something. So I was one of the youngest, so those are really good spots to learn from people. always I think you have to learn and you have to make it your own and then put on your own flavour. It's not something you can just copy paste. But the most important lesson there is, is that you have to learn from people who have already done the same thing as you are going to do. The thing is, that becomes more and more difficult. For example, at the moment, for example, the position that we are in here now today, it's getting more and more difficult to find people that have done already exactly the same as the thing what I'm going to do now. Having a company from 350, to, for example, let's say 1000 people in the next two to three years. That's not so easy to find, for example, in Belgium, also depends a little bit on what niche you are, but getting advice from people who are like minded. For example, I also started to get into life sciences initiative, which is a group of now, I think, 15 employees and CEOs who come together, who share experiences, who collaborate, etc. That was something that I started together with NAME, so just out of the necessity to discuss things to talk about the difficulties that we see. So indeed, that's important. And along the way you evolve, you make things your own, you learn from your mistakes, you learn from the mistakes from others, which is also something which is much more fun than learning from your own mistakes (laughs), which is most of the time not that nice, but that's important, too. Yeah.

Filip Heitbrink: 

Another question, what is the most overrated part of being an entrepreneur?

Bart Van Acker:

It's the fact that it's - for example, if you look at how an entrepreneur nowadays is perceived, Now, it's like you're almost like, if you're a successful entrepreneur you're almost like a rock star or something people think it's very fancy to do. The thing is 10 years ago, that was not the case. But the thing is that success doesn't come by itself, it's still just working very hard. you can be an entrepreneur with a company of three people, and for sure, that's also very knowledgeable and very, very fancy. But really being an entrepreneur and being in a company from one year of revenue to 10, 50 and all above, That's something completely else. So it's definitely - I think the overrated part is that it's all fun and sexy and those kinds of things which I think if anything, look at yourself Filip, I think you also can agree with that. it doesn't come easy. definitely, if you look back at it, it almost always looks very easy. but it's not a journey with only ups. It's a lot of downs. and a lot of also being alone. Definitely the beginning. that's one of the things I like more about being in the phase we are now today, that it's all with a team and a big team. So that makes it fun. But I do think the overrated part is it's a chill life. No, you go to sleep with it, you wake up with it. There are always things you need to take care of, things you need to discuss. And it's not something that - if you go on holiday, for example, it's still nowadays very hard to shut it off. I just went on a holiday for two weeks, and I was able to not touch my email for seven days. And on the eighth day, I had to open it. Just have a small glimpse on it. And then on day nine, I started replying. It's something - as you say it's your own baby. So it's very hard to let it loose.

Filip Heitbrink: 

Absolutely. Thanks for that. So then another interesting question. What gets you out of bed every morning? So if everything is not just sunshine - so what gets you out of bed and do it anyway? Right?

Bart Van Acker:

Yeah, that's the ambition. I think, along the way it even became worse, it's not a good term you should call it but I think it has strengthened, it became harder. So the ambition that I have now is bigger than the ambition I had five years ago. So I'm very, very, very, very curious if you see that the growth, the expansion, the things, the projects that we are doing are getting more and more challenging more and more interesting. Our sector is also in this fight - COVID has given also an additional push to science and the life sciences sector in general, which I think is in a way good because it - is the thing is, in essence, all the life sciences are about making people better, giving people the capabilities to do things and to heal people. And I'm just very, very curious how that shift will end. And yeah, that's maybe - that's really something that - I have a lot of ambition I really want to go as far as I can doesn't even need to be that I want to be the biggest or the largest. That can be a consequence, of course. But just I really want to look back at the road that we took and say we we did we did everything possible, and we got the maximum out of it.

Filip Heitbrink: 

That makes sense. So with all this ambition, if you could clone yourself Bart, what would you do?

Bart Van Acker:

I think you would not be able to live with a second Bart (both laugh).

Filip Heitbrink: 

If you would have much more of time, twice the amount of throughput? Just more of the same?

Bart Van Acker:

The thing is, I think I already mentioned that if you look at all the participation that we have... I'm not the type of guy that needs five houses etc. We have participation in investments in different companies always really very clear to folks in life sciences, I have no idea, I have no interest to participate in any other company, because it's a sector that I really love that I know a lot about, but I see a lot of opportunities, etc. So it's not that -, okay, of course, QbD is my biggest company, it's my baby, and it will always be my favourite. we use the profit of QbD to invest in other companies to strengthen the position of QbD and the QbD group in general. So I'm already doing that a little bit. So cloning myself, of course, we could go the double as fast. But I think we're already going fast enough. Looking back on what we did, so no reason to clone myself.

Filip Heitbrink: 

Allright. Just a final question, Bart. What would be your one piece of advice to entrepreneurs that are starting out?

Bart Van Acker:

There is a tendency nowadays to sell quickly. And I think that's not always a good thing. I think it's important that, for example, I think if you look at, I'm not a big fan of Mark Zuckerberg, but the thing is, he was able to put aside the 3 billion or the 4 billion, a lot of billions. He could have sold Facebook a couple of times already, but he didn't. And he brought Facebook from a very small company to the company that is today. And if you look at that, and it's not that I say that everybody needs to be an x billion dollar company. But the thing nowadays, what you see that people are definitely, if I look around is that people sell very quickly. And they say, yeah, I'm just gonna start all over again. There is a book from a very successful entrepreneur in Belgium, which I just read, and he clearly states that if he looks back at it, he probably wouldn't have sold his company because he is now very curious about where could she have landed. So my advice to people is, don't go for the easy money too quickly if you have a successful company, you probably will be able to make it even more successful. And of course that comes with risk and I can always understand that people do it but my advice would be just sit it out a little bit longer and a little bit longer and a little bit longer. And I think you probably will look back at it with a lot of joy and a lot of pride.

Filip Heitbrink: 

Thank you very much both for your for your thoughts and your time in this interview today. And really appreciate it.

Bart Van Acker:

Thank you, no problem, have a nice day Filip.

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