BioMed X GmbH, founded in Heidelberg in March 2013, and Merck KGaA from Darmstadt have established a new way of fostering innovation at the interface of academic biomedical research and pharmaceutical industry-based research. Teams of top young and talented scientists from leading academic institutions worldwide carry out product-oriented research and development projects that are funded by the industry and for which they receive guidance from experienced mentors. The young researchers bring their own ideas to the projects and also have the possibility to publish their findings. After a fully funded project period of two to four years, successful projects are either internalised into the development pipeline of the pharma sponsor or spun off into an independent start-up company.
“A critical step to success in biomedical innovation in terms of drug development is to build teams of outstanding young life sciences talents that carry out product-oriented research projects in an inspiring academic environment and under the guidance of experienced mentors from science and industry,” said Dr. Christian Tidona, founder and managing director of BioMed X GmbH discussing why BioMed X was established early 2013.
The innovation model of BioMed X represents a new type of cooperation between academic research and pharmaceutical industry-based research. It offers “biomedical innovation outside the usual pharma box” where top young talents from life sciences research institutions around the world bring their creativity to preclinical research and development projects whose themes are determined by the industry.
The scientists work together in interdisciplinary project teams of up to eight young talents for a period of two years (with the possibility of expanding the project for another two years). They work in the BioMed X Innovation Center, an open-innovation laboratory facility in the Heidelberg Technology Park. Each team is supervised by renowned experts – a professor from Heidelberg University, a department head from the sponsoring company and a team coach. The young talents are able to turn their ideas into reality and may also publish their results in renowned scientific journals. Such a cooperation model makes project work highly interesting for young talented academics who are specifically focussed on their scientific career and are not generally considering the option of applying for a job in the pharmaceutical industry.
The work of each of the selected teams is financed for between two and four years by a pharma or biotech sponsor who envisages that the project will lead to innovative approaches for own product developments as well as access to creative talents. The sponsoring company determines the topic of the research project, which is led by a topic committee consisting of a team leader, a representative from the sponsoring company, an academic mentor and a coach. The topic committee reports to the joint steering committee consisting of representatives from BioMed X and the respective pharma partner.
The aim of the project is to generate a topic-related IP (intellectual property) package that the sponsor acquires by paying a one-off sum to BioMed X at the end of the project. If the pharmaceutical company is not interested in the IP package, it remains with BioMed X that can then do with it what it wishes. For example, BioMed X can use the IP package to establish a start-up company. Merck Serono, the biopharmaceutical division of Darmstadt-based Merck, was BioMed X’s first partner and is sponsoring a biomedical research project that is being carried out in the BioMed X Innovation Center. Tidona firmly believes that BioMed X will be able to bring another sponsor on board in spring 2014.
Two of the teams selected by Merck started work in autumn 2013; the third team will start its work in early 2014. The three project teams will work on new approaches for cancer therapy, including the identification of new lead structures that play a role in the metabolism and immune defence of cancer cells and the development of software for reducing adverse side effects of new cancer drugs.
The BioMed X concept was jointly developed by Merck and BioRN Cluster Management GmbH led by Christian Tidona. The model is based on Merck Serono’s Innovation Cup, an annual summer camp for identifying and selecting top young talents. The head of Merck Serono’s Innovation Department, Dr. Ulrich Betz, who has developed the Merck Serono Innovation Cup, was also instrumental in developing the BioMed X innovation model.
BioMed X invites applications from early-career scientists with outstanding track records from all over the world. The topics of upcoming research projects and useful information about the positions offered are announced in international job portals, by leading universities and research institutions and by the German Scholars Organisation (GSO). “The large number of over 500 applications from around 60 countries for a research project of a newly founded company shows that in addition to the workplace, the research infrastructure in and around Heidelberg is another important factor that attracts young talents from all over the world,” Tidona explains. The increased global visibility is also a plus point for the entire Rhine-Neckar biotechnology region network.
The best candidates for the position of research group leader, post-doc positions and postgraduate students are selected from the large number of applicants and invited to participate in the BioMed X Boot Camp, a five-day training programme in Heidelberg. Teams (three per topic) consisting of five people on average are set up and concepts and solutions for the respective topic prepared. The teams present their concepts to the joint steering committee which then selects the winner of the BioMed X research grants.
The two- to four-year research projects are carried out in a vibrant research environment in an open-innovation laboratory facility in the BioMed X Innovation Center in Heidelberg. The interdisciplinary research teams are coached by a supervisor from the sponsoring company as well as an experienced academic and receive intensive biotech entrepreneurship and leadership training. This gives the researchers the option after the project to aim for management positions in a large company or a biotech start-up instead of choosing an academic career.
There is also the possibility of finding a job with one of the regional companies or research institutions, thus enabling the scientists to remain in the area after their temporary project positions come to an end. The Rhine-Neckar metropolitan region will also benefit from the potential retention of such talent.
For BioRN, winning the German Leading-Edge Cluster Competition run by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research in 2008 was associated with its aim of becoming a leading European region in red biotechnology by 2018 by facilitating the transfer of results from biomedical academic research into economic value creation. The establishment of BioMed X GmbH at the interface between academia and industry and the successful beginnings of the BioMed X Innovation Center are key in the BioRN leading-edge cluster’s path towards reaching these goals.