Three men, each half a day a week. That’s how MolGen started in 2018. A start-up in an office in Veenendaal. “All three have their own room, a common area. And a coffee machine! We really liked ourselves”, says Niels Kruize (48) of MolGen.
MolGen has already moved a few times within the city. The company has more than 100 employees and offices in the US and UK. Five foreign offices are to be added next year. Although the company is unknown to the general public, it is one of the success stories of the corona crisis.
Kruize, commercial director, is sitting in his boardroom. A golden cufflink in the shape of a DNA strand glistens on the sleeve of his light-blue shirt. It is the logo of MolGen, which specializes in dna and rna extraction from tissue. The company makes machines and materials for PCR testing, the most reliable type of corona test. MolGen exports from Veenendaal to the rest of Europe, North and South America, Africa, the Middle East, East Asia and Australia. For the first time, the company lets a journalist watch.
We give people here the freedom to fail. Does 10,000 euros go down the toilet, too bad
Niels Kruize Commercial Director
Kruize usually gets up around half past five. After showering, dressing and feeding his children’s guinea pigs (extensive, for example kale or strawberries), his first calls start at half past six.
“Usually early in the morning with Australia,” says Kruize. This morning also with our sales rep [verkoper] on the West Coast, who lives in Seattle.”
Kruize says he makes eighty-hour weeks. You have to, he says, when you grow that fast. His company is especially fast because of the corona crisis.
“We have been in this industry for more than twenty years,” says Kruize. „Wim de Groot and Maarten van Haeringen [de andere eigenaren] had a test laboratory in Wageningen where they test animals such as horses, chickens, pigeons and salmon for the origin of diseases. I sold devices and chemicals in the genetic testing landscape.”
In fact, the infrastructure, chemicals and techniques for human diagnostics are very similar to those for animal diseases such as bird flu or plant breeding, says Kruize. “The analogy between the agricultural test market and the human one is 95 percent. Checking whether a tomato has brown rot is done in a similar way to a PCR test. The pandemic came and we said, ‘Wait a minute, we can do this with human diagnostics too. We’ve got everything.”
“The forklifts have priority here,” warns a logistics employee. Kruize walks in a fluorescent orange vest in a logistics hall of car dealer Pon in Veenendaal, of which MolGen uses part. Here you will find chemicals, plastics and machines that MolGen sells.
Most eye-catching are large installations wrapped in clear plastic. Two black robot arms are visible behind a glass plate. “They do automatically what a lab technician normally does,” says Kruize. “My cousin has a company in Etten-Leur, where robot systems are made. We designed a system and built it within two months.”
The machines cost more than 100,000 euros and do the work of four lab technicians. They transfer tissue samples from the collection tube to test plates in preparation for PCR. “The Dutch government has fifteen, but the vast majority go abroad,” says Kruize. “We have customers in Germany who have ten, fifteen of those things. Think of commercial test labs where the samples are tested.”
A little further on are boxes with a red sticker: fire hazard. They are chemicals used for PCR testing. “This here is going to Germany today,” says Kruize.
The majority of sales – in the first six months of the crisis even more than 95 percent – go abroad from Veenendaal, says Kruize.
“England, France, Germany, in those kinds of countries they have set up testing much more industrially than in the Netherlands,” says Kruize. “Factory halls full of our machines. We are now supplying the entire PCR infrastructure even for countries such as Uruguay.”
Kruize steps aside in front of a forklift. “And in this path, this hundred yards to the end, four high, this is all our stock too.”
There are tubes, plates, buffer fluids, machines. “Enough to do hundreds of thousands of PCR tests a day.”
When Kruize is getting coffee at the office, he walks past a painting by Pippi Longstocking on a pirate ship with monkey Nilsson on her shoulder. “Color outside the lines, but within the frames”, is written in paint next to the boat.
There are still four Pippi cloths hanging in the building. One reads, “To keep the track straight, you need sleepers.” To another: ‘I’ve never done it, so I think I can do it.’
Kruize is a Pippi fan and not just because he reads the book to his children. “Because she’s a little naughty. And just doing things. People are jealous of her freedom.”
He recognizes himself in that mentality. “When people say, ‘I can’t,’ I say, ‘Hmm, I think so.’”
That attitude is also part of MolGen, says Kruize. The courage to fall. “You often have to make mistakes to find something that works. We give people here the freedom to fail. Is 10,000 euros going down the toilet, too bad. Learn from it and next time you will find something that will work.”
‘Prices not increased in pandemic’
How much turnover does MolGen have? The Chamber of Commerce has no annual accounts from last year. As a result, no turnover or profit figures are known.
“We try not to be too open about numbers. I can say that we have tens of millions in turnover.”
“That is something that plays a lot in the media, isn’t it,” adds marketing and communication manager Meya Sollman, “that people are called Covid grabs and get a media storm over them. We have not increased our prices at all during the pandemic. We are actually low.”
“And yes, we were small”, says Kruize, “but now we are a serious company that will exist for a long time to come. Not with a top executive who wants to earn the same amount of money and then disappears to Curaçao.”
Moreover, says Kruize, being elated about how well MolGen is doing is not appropriate. “There are also people who have lost their jobs, who worked in a hotel or restaurant.”
How has MolGen been able to finance the growth?
“Nice story,” says Kruize, as he enters the room of fellow board member Maarten de Groot. “Last year we were technically bankrupt nine times. We had more outstanding bills than money to pay them. For example, I would have bought for half a million, customers had not yet paid and we already had to pay money to the tax authorities.”
“Especially for Maarten, it was occasionally pinching the butt,” says Kruize. „Then I shouted: ‘Yes, we have a very large order.’ And he thought: but how am I going to finance this?”
“By making agreements about paying later, it always worked out in the end,” says De Groot. „Of course our suppliers also saw our order intake [ze hadden veel bestellingen]. They have always believed in us.”
In the afternoon there is a lunch meeting with the marketing department about ‘Megaprep’. That is the project name for a PCR self-test, an alternative to the antigen self-test that is now on sale. People can then spit into a tube at home and take the test. If they identify themselves through a companion app, they get proof that they are healthy. According to MolGen, there is interest from America, Germany, England and Australia, and hotels, drugstores and a supermarket chain in the Netherlands are also interested.
“This should make it much easier to do reliable testing and make it much cheaper for companies to test their personnel,” says Sollman. „There is really one goal ours: making things more accessible.”
A marketer makes some proposals for a PR campaign. “What did you think about carefree monitoring? Of: Green bubbels, instead of red zones?”, referring to the red spots that indicate corona outbreaks on maps.
“Yes, of course we are constantly talking about green bubbles,” says Sollman, “that’s a catchphrase we can use.”
Kruize: “That’s a good one.”
With tests with Megaprep twice a week, society can open up a bit again, MolGen sees it for itself. An expansion is also planned for the winter. The current office space of two thousand meters is already too small, the company is expanding to 2,800 square meters.
And Kruize is already thinking bigger. “My wish is to build a MolGen Campus in Veenendaal with various buildings. Up to ten thousand square meters.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of November 26, 2021