NOM looks back: PRA, leading in drug research for 36 years

How are the companies NOM has worked with in the past actually doing? In this column, together with entrepreneurs, we look back at developments between then and now.

When the American PRA Health Sciences acquired the Dutch Pharma BioResearch (PBR) fourteen years ago, the company employed 350 people in the Netherlands. Peter Ketelaar holds the position of Vice President Global Bioanalytical Services, a job title that hints at the American slant.

Yet what the company does in Assen and Groningen is still 'just' Dutch. 'We are in a branch of sport in which PRA was not represented before the takeover in 2006. From Groningen and Assen we have traditionally focused on first-phase drug research. That is, drugs are tested on healthy volunteers to test their safety. PRA has always focused on the second and third phases of research, which take place in hospitals, in which groups of patients are examined for efficacy and possible side effects of the drug in question.'

Asser pharmacist

It all started in Assen, where pharmacist Jan Jonkman began conducting laboratory research for pharmaceutical companies. A few years later, Pharma BioResearch expanded to Zuidlaren, where it began clinical drug research using groups of healthy volunteers. Again later, a branch within the UMCG was added. Things went crescendo for years, until the end of the last century. A restart, an acquisition and a sale resulted in calmer waters. With new shareholders investments were made and the momentum was restored.

That was all a while before Peter Ketelaar walked into the company in 2005. 'By then we were one of the biggest in Europe, which was mainly our market. We also did some business in the United States, but not much.' That changed a year later with the acquisition by PRA. Ketelaar: 'A very large company with now 18,000 employees worldwide. With us on board, they serve an even larger part of the clinical research chain. That strategic interest is obvious.'

PRA Netherlands in Groningen and Assen remains the company's springboard for Phase 1 research. But it has since added three locations in the US, a laboratory and clinic in Kansas City and a clinic in Salt Lake City. 'The Northern Netherlands continues to lead in European drug research.'

NOM looks back: PRA: leading drug research for 36 years

Peter Ketelaar

PRA now publicly traded

Ketelaar: "Kansas City opened in 2010. I'm still in charge there, am there four times a year. It's great to see how harmonized work is there. Same machines, same logistics processes, same working methods as in the Netherlands. The only difference is that here in Assen we could really set up our own laboratory. In Kansas City we moved into an existing building that we had to convert.

PRA Health Services is listed on the Nasdaq, the US technology exchange. That stock market makes most people think primarily of IT companies. 'Of course we are not, although we are now leading in that too. We want to make clinical research as little stressful as possible for test subjects. So we use such technology, for example, to allow as much as possible to take place from home. With a smartphone you can also do tests and send them on. This is not something we develop ourselves. We do it together with partners,
but it's something we're constantly looking at.'

NOM looks back: PRA: leading drug research for 36 years

PRA Health Sciences in Assen


That home testing brings to mind right away the state of the world anno now: corona. PRA is busy with that. 'We are not a diagnostic organization, we don't do tests to find out if someone is infected. What we can do is help pharmaceutical companies with their research for suitable drugs. And so we do that. We are currently mainly working for our customers to find out how effective already existing drugs are. We do that in the lab, but also in the clinic by trying out those drugs on corona patients.'
PRA (and before that Pharma BioResearch) is rooted in the northern Netherlands. That is one of the reasons NOM is happy to look on and think along. Ketelaar: 'We are an important employer, especially when it comes to higher educated people. We can still find them through our warm ties with the Hanzehogeschool, Noorderpoort and the Rijksuniversiteit, although it is becoming more difficult. Also because we are on important economic pillars, it is logical that we involve the NOM in our development.

It is not about investments in money. However, NOM is helpful when it comes to networking, contacts with governments, large potential customers, educational institutions. It's simple. If we are working on something big like an expansion, we call NOM. There are people there who know how to find our way through permit land. That's just one example. For us, NOM is a talking point, an oracle.'

Pete Hoekstra

Back to the celebration of the lab expansion in Assen. The opening party should have taken place this month, but was postponed to the fall due to the corona crisis. Ketelaar: "The opening is a typical example of how good NOM's network is. We persuaded the American ambassador, Pete Hoekstra, to come and perform the opening ceremony. That only worked out because NOM took care of the rest of the day's program. Hoekstra would get to see more interesting places in the North.
Just for an opening party in Assen, I don't think he would have come to the North.

Now let's hope Hoekstra still has time and desire in the fall. Party or not, PRA continues to build on its growth in the Netherlands and abroad. Ketelaar: "In five years? By then we will still be in Assen, but we will have grown much further as a company. We also have plans to expand in Asia. That's how I think about it, we will continue to do our best to contribute to more effective healthcare.'

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