May 12, 2021

Lighthouse Instruments helps Pfizer develop and transport coronavirus vaccines around the world

If you wanted to explain how the butterfly effect works, then this might be the perfect example: more than a decade ago, Lighthouse Instruments was given a freezer by a neighbouring firm at Amsterdam Science Park. Years later, this freezer ended up being the key to scientific studies that would eventually help deliver the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccination to people all over the world.

Derek Duncan, Director Lighthouse “That connection first forged at the Science Park was key to them getting in touch with us ”

Using the freezer, Lighthouse director Derek Duncan carried out pioneering research on how medical vials can maintain their effectiveness at ultra-low freezing temperatures. “The freezer was vital to those studies,” Duncan explains, “and I just ended up with it as our office was next to a company at the Science Park who kindly gave it to me.”

More than a decade later, it was this research that prompted Pfizer to contact Lighthouse with an urgent request: to help develop the vials and processes that would be vital to transporting the firm’s coronavirus vaccination around the globe. “Pfizer got in touch with us when they first started to develop the vaccine,” explains Duncan. “From the beginning of the project we worked with their packaging team and helped them validate their processes, production and shipping and transport. That connection first forged at the Science Park was key to them getting in touch with us.”

Why Lighthouse is a leader in its field

Lighthouse Instruments provides state-of-the-art, laser-based systems for rapid non-destructive headspace analysis of sterile drug products. In 2000 it created laser-based headspace analysis methods and equipment that have revolutionised how the pharmaceutical industry analyses products and packages, and it continues to develop new methods to generate invaluable product and process data across the pharma product life cycle.

As a result, the firm has become the industry leader in its field, renowned for its expertise in creating bespoke solutions for its clients. As well as supplying headspace platforms, Lighthouse offers measurement services and lease equipment. Its in-house experts also support customers with outsourced testing services, scientific studies and lease equipment projects.

“Companies outsource scientific studies to us, so we are now carrying out method development,” explains Duncan. “Firms can buy our equipment and then we can develop methods for them. We can also carry out good manufacturing practise (GMP) work, which means that we can support production facilities in generating data that is used to validate their processes. In three months’ time, we’ll have defined and developed methods which are specific to their situation, as well as all the validation protocols that they can follow to implement them in their lab.”

Derek Duncan, Director Lighthouse “We’re still growing, and so being at the Science Park helps us find talent more easily ”

Extraordinary achievements

Despite Lighthouse’s expertise at creating efficient methodologies for its customers, Duncan says the Pfizer project was like nothing he had ever seen. “The speed at which it was done was unbelievable: I’ve never seen anything move so fast. And I have never seen any company do things as robustly as Pfizer did in the nine months it took to develop its vaccine with BioNTech.”

Of course, Lighthouse Instruments isn’t new to working for high-profile customers. Its client roster reads like a who’s who of the pharma industry’s biggest players, including AstraZeneca, Gilead, Johnson & Johnson and GSK. The company was founded by James Veale, who Duncan met while both were studying for their PhDs at the University of Charlottesville, Virginia. “James started the company in the US and got another one of our lab friends, William Anderson, involved. They spent two years in their basement designing and building the prototype of our first instrument.”

Starting up at Amsterdam Science Park

As Lighthouse was created, Duncan was in the Netherlands, having been invited by Bart Noordam to join him at AMOLF. “It was then I got the call from James to ask whether I would join them at Lighthouse, as they were getting lots of requests from buyers in Europe,” Duncan explains. Noordam would go on to become director of AMOLF and Dean of the Faculty of Science at the University of Amsterdam.

After establishing Lighthouse in the Netherlands, the firm moved to the Science Park’s Matrix Innovation Center in 2011. “We are a science-based company. Everything that we do begins with good science. That means the Science Park was a natural fit for us.”

The firm now employs 20 people in its Amsterdam office. “We’re still growing, and so being at the Science Park helps us find talent more easily,” Duncan says. “We usually have student interns who study at the Park and go on to join us full-time. It’s also an attractive place to work. From a marketing perspective, being here strengthens our position and reputation. We are also now exploring how we can leverage other facilities at the park, such as the glass-blowing facilities. Also, the Netherlands is a gateway to the rest of Europe – it’s a strong logistical hub, especially with Schiphol nearby.”

Though Duncan admits that the Pfizer project is probably some of the most high-profile work that Lighthouse has done, he’s keen to emphasise the importance of everything they do – big and small. “We’re not a routine testing laboratory. We’re a laboratory that helps clients generate data to solve problems and to validate their processes and more. We aim to understand how we can best shape what we do to each client. And that fits into the Science Park atmosphere – we start and end with science.”

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