Since 2010, the work group of the German BioRegions in BIO Deutschland e.V. has been organizing the annual, two-day German Biotechnology Days (DBT) as a forum where current players in the German biotechnology scene can exchange their experiences. Ever since it has existed, the event has continually grown and developed into a national biotechnology industry meeting. More than 820 people participated this year.
What currently motivates the German biotech industry? We will put together some excerpts from the 3-5 parallel sessions but our review is by no means exhaustive.
The problem of start-up dynamics in biotechnology:
The 11 company foundings of last year, which were interpreted as signs of a weak start-up dynamics, have been consistently lamented at DBT. One speaker criticized the lack of entrepreneurial spirit in the upcoming generation, pointed out a lack of ideas on commercialization methods, and observed a lack of time commitment combined with a very high risk aversion. In contrast, the numerous support programs available in Germany received a lot of praise. Remarks were mixed when it came to private capital for further investments – some presenters maintained that there is a lack of private equity. Others claimed that there are numerous private equity sessions and a few IPOs in the making and that the required money is available. All in all, the start-up situation seems to have improved. This is demonstrated by the promising presentations at the early stage/start-up session as well as the awarding of three innovation prizes by the BioRegions and, last but not least, the prizes awarded to five GO bio projects during the event. The business ideas of young companies and start-up projects range from new anti-body technologies to immunotherapeutical applications for cancer or organ transplants and RNA-based biomarkers to new imaging technology for surgical microscopy, digital stroke prediction and a mechanical-digital hemogram, for which 1 drop of blood is analyzed in a few minutes.
Modern plant breeding - it can be done without GMOs:
The keynote presentation of a medium-sized, international seed manufacturer demonstrated that it is possible to use modern biotechnology methods in such a manner that allows for the development of new, high-quality varieties for the German market WITHOUT the use of genetic modifications. In contrast, this operation for rapeseed for the US market relies almost exclusively on transgenic plants. A well thought out innovation strategy and clearly-defined requirements for logistical processes are combined in order to unite them in a company. The company representative illustrated the enormously-large amount of time required to develop new plant varieties. Numerous plant generations and extensive testing are required before a new variety can be brought to market. Therefor there is a great amount of interest in using technologies that allows for breeding success to be ascertained or predicted as early as possible. The fact that new varieties continue to be developed is particularly due, in their view, to breeder privilege in variety protection – patents, in contrast, are considered as an obstacle in this process.
Lack of use of bio-economic knowledge:
Biorefineries were a hotly-debated topic at DBT. Extensive research and development on this seems to take place in Germany. Nonetheless, the initial step for a large-scale plant is missing, such as for manufacturing second-generation ethanol based on raw materials such as straw or wood waste. Italy is seen internationally as a leader in this field; there are currently a handful of plants in operation worldwide and roughly 20 are in the planning stages – none of them are in Germany although our neighboring country offers the best conditions for it. There are multiple chemical parks to whose infrastructure a plant could be connected and raw materials are also close by. This lack of implementation is also surprising in that, according to a presenter’s calculations, a single plant can not only produce approx. 16% of the necessary fuel for the transport sector, but it can simultaneously exceed the climate goals that Germany has set for itself. Small pilot plants are in operation and a lot has been learned from them. The speaker of an operator for such a system emphasizes, however, that the next step should now be the practical implementation of a large-scale plant. All in all, it seems that not much potential has been utilized in the global bio-economy. Even urban mining using biotechnological means is being tested, for instance – in the future, metals (including gold) and other elements contained in the ashes of waste incineration plants could be recovered as well.
Big data and personalized medicine:
A lot of time was initially set aside in the agenda for the topic of “big data”. The fact is that data quantities and data varieties in the healthcare sector are seeing a massive increase and it requires methods to meaningfully deal with it. Discussants all agreed that there has to be a priority on specific benefits for the patient. During the DBT, an announcement was made stating that, in the future, the reimbursement of accompanying diagnostics will be improved, which is a strong signal for practically implementing personalized medicine. This will facilitate the selection of therapies that have a good prospect of success for each individual patient, and the course of treatment will be monitored in an improved manner as well. Numerous, innovative solutions are required to ensure the necessary good quality of data. It begins with quality-assured processes and tools for sampling, analysis, but does not end with data processing or data storage. Even non-technological innovations, such as regulating data usage in the future, will be necessary. The special nature of the data must also be given some thought, due to the fact that genetic codes, for instance, cannot be anonymized per se and furthermore affect more than a single individual.
The German Accelerator for Life Sciences picks up speed:
The new German Accelerator for Life Sciences was presented in the DBT. Its objective is to facilitate US market entry for roughly ten innovative, healthcare companies annually – from start-ups to 10-year-old companies. Unlike what the name may imply, the companies do not go through a classic, pre-defined program, but rather receive personalized, flexible support and guidance. The aim is to have German companies benefit from the size of the American market and its affinity for innovation. The key to success is a large network of experts and the accelerator management itself, which establishes contacts on-site with large companies, investors and players in the healthcare sector. The first four companies have already been chosen; they include Ayoxxa from Cologne, the winner of the aws business plan competition “Best of Biotech” in 2010. The supervised companies can look forward to support whose substance and time frame are tailored to their needs – participants themselves will bear personnel and travel costs as a sign of their serious commitment. With regards to premises, the accelerator will occupy offices at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC) in Boston in addition to an office in Berlin. Bayer is already constructing an innovation center here. All in all, this supportive approach is reminiscent of the domestic Go Silicon Valley initiative, from which the Viennese SCARLTRED benefited, for instance.
A worthwhile look beyond country borders:
Organizers took into account the industry’s internationality and, for the first time, the DBT reported a series of English-language presentations across the entire agenda. Furthermore, a challenge was issued to take a small but worthwhile look beyond the country’s borders during a breakfast. A representative from the Polish Life Sciences Community gave an account of roughly 100 innovative biotech companies and just as many medicinal device companies. In addition, he pointed out roughly 50 biotechnology companies in Hungary, although many of them are only accessible via personal contacts and not via a web page. The success examples shown from the Czech Republic and Poland probably made many German entrepreneurs green with envy. Among others, an internationally-oriented company from Prague presented itself which operates the Czech Republic’s first Phase III study. Even a Lodz-based company planning an IPO was mentioned. A Polish drug producer discussed plans to conquer new markets with biosimilars and other products in collaboration with partners worldwide. The biosimilars market seems to be in demand of technologies that allow for bioequivalence to be shown. A relatively new, related product on the market is a device with which mechanical and physiological-chemical conditions can be simulated, that tablets are exposed to in the digestive tract.
In conclusion, a word on BIO Deutschland and Biosaxony as a hosting bioregion. In addition to the event content itself, the Konferenzzentrum am Zoo and the event organization gave a very professional and good impression. The bar is set really high for Hannover, where the DBT will take place next year.