Specs: database specialist in the field of substances for medicinal research

For more than thirty years Specs in Zoetermeer has been a trusted partner for large and small pharmaceuticals in Europe and the US. Founded in 1987, they are primarily engaged in the treatment of chemicals for research into new drugs. First as a supplier, nowadays mainly as a compound manager.

Specs’ global network currently spans more than 2,000 research centers. Headquartered in the Dutch Innovation Park in Zoetermeer, Specs also has offices in North America, India, China and Japan. This makes Specs a world-class player in the field of compound management; the logistics management of chemical substances.

Research chemicals
The chemicals used for drug research run through the company as a common thread. “In the past we collected these substances, which were made for research at academic institutions and universities all over the world,” Johan Tijhuis, CEO at Specs, explains. “After the research was published, the substances lost their value, while we found them interesting because not much was known about these research chemicals.” Specs collected these chemicals and brought them to the Netherlands. They were then subjected to a strict quality control. “Once we were sure we had the right substance, it was placed in a database and offered worldwide for further pharmaceutical research.” After Pfizer introduced high-throughput screening in the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands – and later even millions – of substances could be tested simultaneously and the database grew enormously.

Logistics services
Specs is known around the world as a leading supplier of research substances and service packages for companies and agencies researching new drugs. “Over the past fifteen years we as Specs have been getting more involved in the logistics sector. We had gained an enormous amount of knowledge and experience in handling very large numbers of substances. These all have to be weighed on a balance, sometimes accurate to a hundredth of a milligram. Also, some substances are dissolved in organic solvents and then pipetted by robots into special test plates with 96, 384 or 1,536 substances per plate so that they are suitable for test centers.”

Where at the start of the company it was mainly about the trade in substances, now the entire logistics process is mainly offered to third parties. “From purchasing to storage, measuring quality, processing all substances and sending them around the world. We saw that the trade in these specific chemicals gradually decreased, while we saw opportunities in the area of ​​services. That is why we made a strategic choice in this regard.”

Leading names
Today, a large group of leading names in the pharmaceutical industry are leveraging Specs’ growing expertise in compound management including AstraZeneca, Roche, Johnson & Johnson, Merck&Co, Eli Lilly, Boehringer Ingelheim, Galapagos and many others. “Worldwide, we have more than ten million different chemicals at Specs,” says Johan. “By the way, they are not ours, but others’. These companies outsource stock management and processing to us. Specs only makes the substances available to the researchers of the company concerned.”

Although Specs is all about chemical research substances; perhaps even more important is the data surrounding it. “Then it’s not just a question of how much we have of something, where it is and where it should go, but also what the substance does and in which test it showed which activity. In addition, they also want to know what side effects there were, and whether there are similar substances with the same structure, but a different effect. The answer to those questions depends much more on the available data than on the substances themselves.”

With so many different substances in stock, good control is vital. “The entire process is controlled by scanning barcodes. Every customer has its own our physical storage. The chemicals are in a semi-automatic cabinet with drawers that are in a lift system. The system stores the drawers in their own compartment or brings the drawer to the work opening where the specific jar can be picked.” Because some drawers can hold up to 6,000 different jars, a special laser pointer indicates the jar in question based on the database and the order entered. “Picking the jar is still a manual process, but scanning the barcode checks whether it is the correct one. There are several scanning steps throughout the process. From the incoming flow and stocking, to weighing and the robot department – we can track everything. By continuing to scan the barcode, errors are excluded.”

Until the exit of the order, Specs checks everything itself. Shipments are made through partners such as FedEx. ”We ensure that all data is properly delivered to FedEx and then maintain contact with the end user via a specially developed system so that the entire process can be followed up to the moment of delivery. Brokers and customs are also involved, so that any necessary papers or documents are in the right place at the right time.

Specs has already done a project with Loyals (also located in the Dutch Innovation Park, ed.) with multiple sessions and then it is useful to be so close to each other in the Park. “We also spoke with The Hague University of Applied Sciences and I foresee that in the future we will be able to deploy students or interns for small projects or well-defined assignments, for example,” Johan explains. “If we want a fresh look at certain matters, or if we want to have a package developed that is specifically desired for a certain customer, I certainly see opportunities to do that with partners in the Park. We used to do a lot of this internally, but I am convinced that there are partners within the Dutch Innovation Park who have knowledge in-house that could be a good addition for us. Everything can be done remotely these days, but sometimes you just want to be able to look each other in the eye. We therefore feel very happy in the Park.”

The head office in Zoetermeer has a storage capacity of 1,500 m², while the facility in Cumberland Maryland (America) has been expanded to 2,500 m². “For the time being, we can move forward for years. Many of our people come from the region, which is why for us Zoetermeer is the place to be in the Netherlands. Our employees have been working with us for an average of 19 years. That not only expresses a lot of confidence; they really feel at home here. Moreover, the contacts with the municipality of Zoetermeer are very good. You don’t get that everywhere. Our location in the Dutch Innovation Park offers space for gradual, organic growth. We therefore look to the future with confidence.” To add with a laugh: “With millions of chemicals in your house, you would rather not move.”