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A European Health Axis

The research clusters of Heidelberg (Germany), Leuven (Belgium) and Cambridge (England) have launched the “Health Axis Europe” initiative, which is aimed at cross-leveraging their innovation resources and working together to increase their international competitiveness by facilitating and coordinating EU-funded collaborative R&D projects, cross-border VC investment and syndication and the cross-border exchange of scientists.

“The fact that Health Axis Europe brings together a large number of stakeholders is a decisive factor in the achievement of our goals,” said Dr. Martin Hinoul, Business Development Manager of K. U. Leuven R&D, speaking at a meeting of the Health Axis Europe Committee in June 2011. “Leuven on its own is too small, as are Heidelberg and Cambridge. If we want to build a European profile, we will need to bring the three clusters together.”

Leuven University library © K.U. Leuven

It’s tempting to dismiss Hinoul’s claims as rather too modest, given that he is talking about cities that are three of the most important science locations in Europe: Leuven is home to the “Katholieke Universiteit” (K. U. Leuven), which is the biggest university in the entire Benelux area, the “Vlaams Institut voor Biotechnologie” and K. U. Leuven Research & Development (LRD), which is one of the most experienced and efficient technology transfer institutions on the European continent and has been involved in the establishment of more than 90 spin-off companies.

University of Heidelberg, Neuenheimer Feld. © University Hospital Heidelberg

Heidelberg is not only home to Germany’s oldest university with an outstanding reputation in the fields of medicine and biology, but also to the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), which are leading research centres in their respective fields of research. BioRN Cluster Management GmbH, founded in 2008 and subsequent winner of the German Leading-Edge Cluster competition, coordinates one of the largest German life sciences regions where many global companies, innovative small- and medium sized companies and start-up companies are located.

And last but not least, Cambridge is home to the largest life sciences cluster in Europe and its famous, 800-year-old university competes with leading American companies for top positions in the rankings of science institutions.

Asian challenges

The fact that these strong regions have launched the strategic “Health Axis Europe” (HAE) alliance with the aim of bringing together the innovative power of the respective clusters and jointly increasing their international competitiveness is a clear sign of the strong competition for financial and other resources. Up until now, the private American universities of Harvard, Yale, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford on the east and west coasts with their huge foundations and equally huge incomes from licence agreements have been the main players. However, universities and research regions, particularly in China, are increasingly moving into the game. Anyone who has observed the rapid development of Tshinghua University in Beijing, the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the Biopolis in Singapore over the last ten years, will be well aware of the challenges of the future. The Chinese and Singaporean governments have not been affected by the financial crises that have troubled Western countries and they have huge sums of money available to invest in the establishment of cutting-edge institutes, enabling them to put together generous packages to attract scientists from the best American and European laboratories. Big industrial parks have been established in the vicinity of these research centres, providing research space for small academic spin-offs as well as many research and development-oriented spin-offs of Western high-tech companies.

Objectives of Health Axis Europe

The Health Axis Europe alliance of Cambridge, Leuven and Heidelberg has three major goals:

  • The support and coordination of EU-funded collaborative projects. The FP7 Health Call of the 7th EU Framework Programme calls for the establishment of European consortia on topics such as personalized medicine, healthy ageing and regenerative medicine, topics in which the universities and research institutions of the three regions have comparable strengths and complementary areas of expertise. In early October 2011, the first five joint EU-funding applications were submitted to the FP7 Health Call. The BioRN Cluster Management, in its role as “Programme Office”, brought together selected consortia and their project ideas with sufficient critical mass to meet the criteria of the Call. The partners will also submit a proposal for the EU programme “Innovative Medicines Initiative” (IMI), comprising of a consortium of high-calibre partners. The IMI programme also offers excellent prospects for HAE consortia in its support for collaborative research projects designed to boost pharmaceutical innovation in Europe. The HAE consortia are not restricted to the Heidelberg, Leuven and Cambridge clusters, but also welcome scientists from research institutions and companies from other regions or countries that wish to become involved in future consortia as cooperation partners.
  • The exchange of outstanding young talents in the life sciences. The exchange programme will be open to students at the universities of the three partner clusters as well as to scientists and leaders from academia and industry. The programme’s objective is to communicate and broaden knowledge and expertise as well as intensify the relationships between all partners.
  • Facilitating cross-border VC investments. Venture capital investors tend to form syndicates in order to increase investment volume and distribute risk amongst themselves. HAE has recognised this by forming a platform where VC companies can collaborate and access information about the opportunities to invest in the three clusters.

Congruence and complementarity

Cambridge Biomedical Campus; model © Cambridge-Biomedical

An alliance can only function properly if the partners share a common innovation culture and have comparable strength and complementary areas of expertise. These were decisive issues when it came to selecting the partners of the HAE alliance: with around 100,000 and 140,000 inhabitants each, the three cities of Heidelberg, Cambridge and Leuven are approximately the same size. The clusters are centered around internationally outstanding areas and are located in the catchment area of big urban centres with global transport connections. In addition, Cambridge and Heidelberg have already been European partner cities for quite some time. With a common focus on health research and health economy, the three clusters are comparable in strength and are all focused on complementary health technology areas.

The Cambridge cluster has a particular focus on regenerative medicine and stem cell research. It is also home to the “Cambridge Stem Cell Initiative” at the Medical Research Council (MRC) which brings together 25 outstanding stem cell laboratories. Jeanette Walker, Project Director of the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, coordinates the HAE activities of the Cambridge cluster.

The Leuven cluster focuses particularly on medical electronics and nanotechnology. It is home to the renowned Katholieke Universiteit (K. U.) with its Electrical Engineering Laboratory (ESAT), and “imec” (Interuniversity Microelectronics Centre), which concentrates on micro- and nano-electronics applications for use in the health sector, amongst other areas. Imec was established as non-profit organization in 1984 and now has a workforce of around 2000 people. It is headquartered in Leuven and has offices in many countries, including Taiwan, the USA, China and Japan. The region’s research activities in the HAE are coordinated by Bart Haex from K. U. Leuven Research & Development Inc., which is the knowledge and technology transfer office of the K. U. Leuven Association.

Dr. Armin Pscherer, Head of the BioRN Innovation Center. © BioRN Cluster Management

Heidelberg and the Rhine-Neckar BioRegion are specifically focused on personalized medicine and cancer research. The cluster brings outstanding expertise in these areas into the HAE alliance. Driven by the 2020 Agenda of the regional BioRegion Rhein-Neckar Dreieck association (BioRN Association), which stipulates the initiation of partnerships with other internationally leading health research locations as one of its three major tasks, the BioRN Cluster Management – which is the operative segment of the association – is highly committed to these tasks. BioRN Cluster Management GmbH, a public-private partnership between the Rhine-Neckar BioRegion, the Heidelberg Technology Park, the Rhine-Neckar Chamber of Commerce and the Rhine-Neckar Metropolitan Region, promotes the internationalization of the BioRN cluster.

Dr. Armin Pscherer, member of the BioRN Cluster Management and head of the BioRN Innovation Center, describes their activities as follows: “We are a neutral mediator between science and industry. We initiate and promote translational R&D collaborations. We do this predominantly within our own cluster, but we also put our own cluster partners into contact with international experts from science and industry in other innovative cluster regions.” Dr. Armin Pscherer is the point of contact for the BioRN cluster and also for the Heidelberg life science region in all issues relating to HAE.

The complementary themes of the three clusters, their scientific excellence and economic power that comes together in the Health Axis Europe alliance represent a profile in Europe that is difficult to outperform. “In order for this profile to be effective, much depends on individual personalities and the personal chemistry between the key partners,” said Professor Dr. Stefan Meuer, Chairman of the BioRN Association. Together with one of his colleagues from the association’s board, Prof. Meuer was able to see personally whether the chemistry between the key figures worked at the meetings that were held to prepare for the launch of  Health Axis Europe. Based on mutual trust, appreciation and the declared will to reach a higher level, the key players of the three successful health research clusters are now focusing on implementing their common goals.

Further information:
Dr. Armin Pscherer
Head of Project and Science Management and of the BioRN Innovation Center
BioRN Cluster Management GmbH
Im Neuenheimer Feld 582
69120 Heidelberg
E-mail: ap(at)biorn.org

Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/a-european-health-axis