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Hugo Hämmerle: At the crossroads between research and industry

The NMI – Natural and Medical Sciences Institute in Reutlingen is a role model for how research findings can be turned into financially sustainable products and services. Prof. Hugo Hämmerle has been a key figure in this success story for over 20 years. In February 2008, he took over as Managing Director of the institute.

When Hämmerle got a job as technical assistant at the University of Hohenheim in 1974, he met a mentor who was responsible for a decisive turn in his career. “Professor Klaus Bayreuther was an excellent teacher who was already teaching modern biology at a time when classical biology was still well established at universities. He was way ahead of his time, already talking about stem and progenitor cells even though he could not prove his hypotheses because there were no adequate methods available,” Hämmerle recalls.

It was Bayreuther who recognised Hämmerle’s potential, supported him and suggested he applied to university even though he did not have the qualifying school diploma. What followed was certainly no walk in the park: Hämmerle prepared for the university entrance exam with discipline and consistency, and was one of the few in the state to succeed. “That particular year, there were only seven or eight candidates, and only two others besides myself passed,” Hämmerle recounts.

Hämmerle’s career: a lesson in keeping on track and not making detours

During his biology studies, Hämmerle developed a preference for physical chemistry and the practical application of taught material in general. After receiving his degree, Hämmerle switched to the University of Tübingen to focus on physiological research issues. For him, this was a logical consequence: “Early on I was interested in the application of physics in the life sciences. To me the most interesting research issues leading to practical application were in the field of medicine,” says Hämmerle. He did his doctorate on the growth and differentiation of smooth muscle cells in the course of plaque development in atherosclerosis. “Our group was one of the first to examine the function and importance of smooth muscle cells in plaque development in cell cultures,” says Hämmerle.
Prof. Dr. Hugo Hämmerle, new Managing Director of the NMI (Photo: NMI)
More or less along the way, he established the third-party funded Department of Cell Biology at the Institute of Physiology at the University of Tübingen. He was able to benefit from his experience of setting up a department immediately after finishing his PhD when he switched to the NMI Reutlingen and again established his own group there. After that he was promoted to head of department and in 1998 he eventually became Deputy Managing Director. The institute was initially concerned with surface and interfacial technology and Hämmerle established different life science research disciplines over the years. This was not always an easy task. “We were faced with the task of bringing together the different mentalities of engineers, technicians and scientists. One challenge was to adapt bold technical ideas and to apply them in a meaningful way – in living systems not everything can be easily transferred from one system to another,” Hämmerle states.

Creating a shared stage for technology and science

Together with the Managing Director Dr. Enzio Müller, Hämmerle established the NMI Reutlingen as one of Germany’s leading and most successful institutes at the crossroads of research and industry. One of the most important components of this success, says Hämmerle, was the development of microelectrode arrays for sensor systems and their application in the retinal implant project in which the NMI Reutlingen was involved as project partner. These retinal implants are already successfully being implanted in humans with certain eye diseases, restoring partial vision in patients. The NMI Reutlingen has also been involved in the development of innovative biochips for analytics as well as chondrocyte transplantation for ailing joint defects under the direction of Müller and Hämmerle.
Prof. Dr. Hugo Hämmerle amid a crowd of people including journalists.
Hämmerle’s career at the NMI began back in 1987 with the establishment of his own work group (Photograph: NMI)
In some cases, successful projects lead to spin-off companies. This “incubator function” of the NMI is especially close to Hämmerle’s heart. “The implementation of technology in industry has always been very important to me, and I have always supported spin-offs as much as I can,” says Hämmerle. As new Managing Director, his aim is to further increase activities in this area. At the same time, Hämmerle is promoting the internal expansion of the NMI. This will include more employees and an additional 2,200 square metres of laboratory and office space.

Promoting internal and external growth

As if this list of plans is not enough of a challenge, Hämmerle also develops new teaching concepts. He has been Honorary Professor at the Medical Faculty of the University of Tübingen for four years. Since Hämmerle is not only a man of research but also active in industry, he hopes to impart more than just scientific knowledge. “At the moment I am planning on giving students an understanding of project and risk management based on examples from my own experience. The Bologna Process for the reform of higher education is aimed at the integration of such know-how and fits in with my own ideas,” says Hämmerle.

The fuelling station for Hämmerle’s many activities is conveniently right behind his house. “Going for a run in the forest with my dog, I have time to think, and that is often when I have my best ideas,” says Hämmerle. He also likes to get on his bike, which is another great method for regaining energy. “I’ve even gone by touring bicycle all the way to Hungary to visit my son. In general I love being with nature. After all, it is my love of nature that drew me to biology in the first place,” Hämmerle emphasises.

(leh) - 15th March 2008
© BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH
Further information:
NMI - Natural and Medical Sciences Institute at the University of Tübingen
Prof. Dr. Hugo Hämmerle
Markwiesenstrasse 55
72770 Reutlingen
Tel.: +49 (0)7121 51530-45
Fax: +49 (0)7121 51530-16
E-mail: haemmerle@nmi.de
Website address: https://www.gesundheitsindustrie-bw.de/en/article/news/hugo-haemmerle-at-the-crossroads-between-research-and-industry