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Biotechnology in Biberach: a success story that breaks new ground

The pharmaceutical biology department at Biberach University of Applied Sciences has been running courses since autumn 2006, but ten years ago the land on which it stands was just a flower meadow. The three-storey building on Hubertus-Liebrecht-Straße 35 is now full to bursting due to the large number of master’s and doctoral students that have joined the bachelor students. Student numbers were further increased with the introduction of the industrial biotechnology bachelor of science programme in the 2011/2012 winter semester. However, the lack of space is soon to be remedied with the official opening of a second building in June 2013. The new building is only a stone’s throw away from the old one and will house the university’s industrial biotechnology programme.

Prof. Jürgen Hannemann presenting figures that explain the university’s success story. © Biberach University of Applied Sciences

Thomas Vogel, Rector of Biberach University of Applied Sciences, gave a speech outlining the university’s success at the Faculty of Biotechnology’s New Year reception, and the words with which he chose to end his speech came as no surprise: “Biberach University is proud of this faculty. It is a major contributory factor to our excellent reputation.” Vogel was clearly both impressed and proud, but was unable to conceal the fact that he was slightly astonished that the faculty had grown so quickly and become so successful. Jürgen Hannemann, founding dean of the Faculty of Biotechnology, then presented the figures that substantiate this success, before one of the main figures in the field of commercial white biotechnology, CEO of Brain AG, Holger Zinke, spoke about the economic importance and necessity of a bioeconomy and the way to get there. 

The teaching staff for the new industrial biotechnology programme are almost now all in place and Hannemann is shortly expecting a fourth professor to join professors Hartmut Grammel, Heike Frühwirth and Carsten Schips. The industrial biotechnology bachelor’s course also has an additional four members of staff. Up to 120 applications are received for the ten places per semester, a level of interest that Hannemann considers good. In 2012, Biberach University of Applied Sciences also launched the Cooperative Doctoral Study Course, which is jointly run with the University of Ulm. Hannemann also reported with some pride that students from Biberach University who apply for the pharmaceutical biotechnology master’s course tend to do rather well in the selection interviews. This course is also jointly offered with the University of Ulm, which is only around 35 km from Biberach.

 

Third-party funds of five million euros

Hannemann further explained that the university’s research, which is carried out at the Institute of Applied Biotechnology, has a successful track record of acquiring third-party funding. The Institute of Applied Biotechnology has ten doctoral students, who will soon be joined by four more doctoral students and academic co-workers. The project “Protein aggregation in the production of biopharmaceuticals”, which is being carried out in cooperation with researchers from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), is funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with a total of 2.1 million euros. The BMBF has also granted the University funds to purchase a new spectrometer; Christelle Mavoungou, who prepared the application, says that the device will soon be available for teaching and research.

The project “Analysis and design of bacterial enzyme cascades using CO2”, coordinated by Hartmut Grammel who is in charge of the industrial microbiology area of the new industrial biotechnology programme, will receive funds totalling 2.8 million euros. The project is funded under the BMBF’s “Basic technologies for the next generation of biotechnological procedures – Biotechnology 2020+” funding programme and is being carried out in cooperation with the Magdeburg-based Max Planck Institute for Dynamics of Complex Technical Systems. The project is being funded for a period of eight years, which is an unusually long period of time. Biberach University of Applied Sciences is also part of a cooperative project (Enzcap) with the NMI Natural and Medical Sciences Institute at the University of Tübingen and the Institute of Systems Dynamics at the University of Stuttgart. Grammel and his colleagues from the Department of Bioenergetics at the University of Stuttgart are specifically focused on the evolutionary screening and cloning of solvent-resistant enzymes. Enzcap is being funded with around 1.9 million euros for a period of three years.

Biberach University programmes are highly popular

The new industrial biotechnology building will meet the increasing demands for space in the pharmaceutical biotechnology building (in the foreground, left) © Pytlik

Hannemann pointed out that student interest in the university’s pharmaceutical biotechnology programme remains steady. Every summer semester the programme receives up to 140 applications for the 38 places available, and in the winter semester there are up to 400 applications. The 10 places in the pharmaceutical biotechnology master’s course are equally popular and Biberach University is looking forward to being able to increase the number of master’s students with funds announced by the Baden-Württemberg government. Biberach University has 42 faculty members, including 13 professors, and teaches 334 students: 229 pharmaceutical biotechnology bachelor students, 41 pharmaceutical biotechnology master’s students and 64 industrial biotechnology bachelor students. 

Towards internationalisation

Hannemann then went on to highlight that the pharmaceutical biotechnology course has also jumped on the internationalisation train. The university is awaiting the arrival of three bachelor students from the East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai, who will participate in the fourth course semester, which is taught in English, and spend the fifth semester at Biberach-based Boehringer Ingelheim. In turn, students from Biberach will be able to spend some time at Shanghai University. Hannemann further explained that China is the first of several countries targeted by the university’s efforts to bring foreign students to Biberach and send German students abroad.

Zinke: We have entered the biological era

Bioeconomy campaigner Dr. Holger Zinke gave the keynote lecture at the university’s New Year reception. © Biberach University of Applied Sciences

The keynote lecture was held by Holger Zinke, who is one of the most respected representatives of the field of industrial biotechnology. The CEO of Brain AG and winner of the 2008 German Environmental Prize is also a member of the German Bioeconomy Council that provides advice to the German government. His speech was a fervent appeal for recognition of the key importance of biology as a leading science of the 21st century. Bioeconomy refers to the use of biological raw materials and advanced biological and biotechnological methods in key economic areas such as nutrition, industrial production and energy supply. 

“Our economy will at some stage be a bioeconomy”, said Zinke explaining that it is only a matter of time before the shift to a biobased economy takes place and the era of fossil-based production comes to an end. “We are at the threshold of sustainable growth, and if we are unable to cross it, we are headed for certain shipwreck,” concluded Zinke. “This trend is an undisputed, clear and also politically non-controversial fact,” said Zinke for whom the fact that the entire Federal Cabinet, rather than one single ministry, agreed on the 2.4 billion-euro National Research Strategy BioEconomy 2030 represents “a strong statement”.  

Zinke went on to explain that biotechnology has become pivotal to the development of the pharmaceutical industry and quoted a paper commissioned by the German government during its 2007 EU Presidency. The so-called Cologne Paper (En Route to the Knowledge Based Bio-Economy) predicted that by 2030 one third of the country’s entire industrial production will be based on biological systems; the biologisation of the economy will extend to the food and feed industries, the home and personal health care (including cosmetics) sectors, the speciality and fine chemistry as well as energy sectors. 

Chemistry is a major driver of the economy

Although the exact date that this will happen is open to discussion, Hannemann believes that the unmistakable facts are there: biotechnological production is growing three times as quickly (growth rate of 13 percent) as traditional fossil-based chemical production (growth rate of 4 percent) and currently accounts for 12 percent of the sector’s entire production volume. Zinke is clearly hopeful that the chemical industry, which has a strong tradition in Germany, will be a strong driver in the shift from fossil- to bio-based production in the chemical industry.

Zinke did not attempt to hide the fact that he is aware that a master plan to achieve the transformation from fossil- to biobased production does not exist. He also pulled no punches about politicians having taken wrong paths, especially as far as the funding of first-generation biofuels is concerned. He explained that it is still unclear how biomass can be turned into a valuable product, whether this will at all be possible, and if so, what kind of biorefineries will be available. On the other hand, he believes that the transformation from fossil- to biobased production is taking place through cooperation, and cited his own company, Brain AG, as an excellent example of his belief that success can only be achieved through networking. Zinke’s talk was highly motivational for the Biberach students and conveyed the idea that the cause in which they are engaged is of major importance: “The establishment of a bioeconomy is a job for society as a whole.”

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