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Review: Science meets Business Day 2010 (part I)

Germinating seeds, biosensors in the human body, deaf people learning to hear again, and new approaches to combat the flu virus – the lectures held at the Science meets Business Day, which concluded this year’s BioValley Science Week, once again highlighted the innovations brought about through the joint efforts of research and industrial players on the Upper Rhine. Following on from a talk highlighting the structure of innovation processes and optimal technology transfer conditions, four “dynamic duos” consisting of basic researchers and their industrial partners presented the factors that make the economic location in the cross-border triangle of Germany, France and Switzerland so successful in Europe. Dr. Ralf Kindervater from BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH guided close to 190 members of the audience, including more than 80 schoolchildren from the Freiburg-based Merian School, through a fascinating afternoon.

Dr. Bernd Dallmann welcoming the audience to the Science meets Business Day in the Freiburg Concert Hall. © FWTM

"We are living in a knowledge society," said Dr. Bernd Dallmann, chairman of Technology Foundation BioMed Freiburg, during his welcome address to this year's Science meets Business Day. "The last thirty to forty years show how important the natural sciences are for the development of new processes, techniques and products, and hence for the overall economic development of a state." Dallmann pointed out that Freiburg has been the fastest growing city in Baden-Württemberg for approximately the last 20 years, and he attributed this growth in large part to the creation of one thousand new jobs in the city every year. Dallmann commented: "The University of Freiburg makes a considerable contribution to this growth. The university is the economic growth motor of Freiburg." Dallmannn also pointed out that real innovation only becomes possible when there is "successful cooperation between industry and research", making a reference to the motto of the Science meets Business Day. The moderator of the meeting, Dr. Ralf Kindervater, CEO of BIOPRO Baden-Württemberg GmbH, reserved a special welcome for the group of around 80 sixth-form students from the Merian School in Freiburg, who have been able to choose to specialise in biotechnology studies since 2002. "In a few years' time, it will be you standing here on the podium and giving talks," Kindervater told them.

From an idea to marketable products

Prof. Dr. Jürgen Rühe, prorector of the University of Freiburg responsible for international cooperation and technology transfer, highlighted the importance of cooperation between basic research and industry. In his talk “New impulses for the life sciences at the Excellence University of Freiburg”, Rühe presented the innovation chain that starts with an idea from basic research, moves on to translational research and ends with a marketable final product. “The University of Freiburg has a strong basic research profile,” said Rühe going on to add “and industry has a strong profile in the second part of the innovation chain.” He pointed out that the two parties have to meet somewhere in the middle in order to be able to participate in the entire innovation chain and hence, in the creation of value. Rühe presented the University of Freiburg’s concept for promoting the optimal transfer of technologies. Amongst other things, Rühe talked about the “Innovation Office” at the University of Freiburg, where researchers can obtain a financial evaluation of inventions, and he also mentioned the university’s concept of training young scientists how to set up their own start-up companies. “Since 2002, the University of Freiburg has signed more than 7,000 cooperation agreements with industry and spun off 104 companies, 95 of which are still operating successfully,” said Rühe. Mutual cooperation between academic researchers and industry not only benefits industry but also the university itself, as it throws up completely new challenges for the university. The “Innovation Campus” will therefore in future combine the three pillars “translational research”, “support for start-ups” and “close spatial cooperation with industry”.

Dr. Kindervater presented the first “dynamic duo” of the day as a concrete example of the close cooperation between basic academic research and industrial translation research. In the first part of the duo’s presentation entitled “Learning from nature: biosensors – the intersection of nanotechnology, microtechnology and biology”, Prof. Dr. Gerald Urban, Chair of Sensors of the Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK) at the University of Freiburg, gave insights into his past research. Whilst working in the neurosciences, Urban became involved in the question as to how electrochemical alterations in biological tissues could be measured in real time. Based on initial innovations in the field of microtechnical measurement methods, in the 1980s Urban’s research group developed a glucose sensor on a polymer chip, which contains a glucose-cleaving enzyme. However, in order to enable the long-term monitoring of blood values, something that is of great interest in medical settings, the microsystems engineers led by Prof. Urban had to adapt a broad range of different technologies. For example, they had to embed enzymes in hydrogels in order to ensure their stability for extended periods of time.

Biosensors and intelligent hearing aids

“We were also among the first to combine microfluidics and microelectronics in order to measure the smallest amounts of liquid inside and outside the human body,” said Urban highlighting that this led to the creation of a chip that is able to measure in real time the concentrations of sugar, lactate or glutamate within the body. But how can a prototype be turned into a marketable product? In the second part of the talk, Gerhard Jobst presented the Freiburg-based company Jobst Technologies GmbH, which was spun out of IMTEK in 2002 with the aim of marketing IMTEK’s know-how. “Our core competence still lies in microsystems engineering and electrochemical analytics for use in medical technology,” said Urban. “Our current workhorse is a so-called flow-through biosensor array, which is able to measure glucose, glutamate and lactate in real time, with unsurpassed precision and reliability.” The company’s portfolio includes contract research and development, and the company still continues to operate without the need for loans. However, Jobst and his business colleagues soon realised that research and development is not enough for a small company. “The key to our success is a broad range of equipment,” said Urban going on to add “we had to construct the required equipment ourselves, and we have turned these developments into a business segment.” The company also offers the manufacture of prototypes for use in medicine, software development and services. Both product portfolio and revenues are increasing year on year.

Dr. Bart Volckaerts from the Cochlear Technology Centre Belgium and Prof. Dr. Robert-Benjamin Illing from the neurobiological research laboratory at the Department of Otolaryngology at the Freiburg University Medical Centre highlighted the medical sector as the provider of ideas for the industrial biotechnology sector. In the first part of their joint talk entitled “Deaf people are learning to hear again: the cochlear implant between clinical application and research”, Volckaerts showed how the cochlear implant works: “The implant consists mainly of an electrode that is implanted into the inner ear and that transfers electrical impulses directly to the hair sensory cells.” The electrode is spatially divided into twenty contact sites that address sensory cells with other frequency sensibilities, thereby dividing the recorded sound into different frequencies and transferring these frequencies to the brain. “This innovation is based on the idea of a young scientist who wanted to help his deaf father,” said Volckaerts referring to the founder of the company, Prof. Dr. Graeme Clark. The Cochlear Technology Centre Belgium, established in 1967, has grown into a company with around 2,000 employees whose objective to help deaf people around the world better integrate with family and friends in terms of communication. The key to success is close cooperation with smaller companies, hospitals and research institutions.

Remodelling in the brain

“Our cochlear implant is used in a context that has never previously been investigated,” said Prof. Dr. Robert-Benjamin Illing introducing the second part of the joint talk. Illing showed photos of the surgical implantation of the cochlear implant. Every year, around 200 patients with complete hearing loss come to Freiburg to undergo the procedure to restore their hearing. Those who receive a cochlear implant whilst still young often regain near-perfect hearing and speech. Others do not achieve such good results and are only able to perceive vague sounds. Why such a difference? Illing and his team are investigating how the stimuli that are transferred from the implant to the sensory cells and hence into the brain can trigger learning in the brain. To do this, they insert cochlear implants into rats and use electrodes to stimulate the sensory cells, which then transfer the information to different brain areas of the animals where auditory signals are processed. “The advantage of these experiments over normal sound stimuli experiments is that we have more control and are able to exclude, for example, noise or accidental background sound,” said Illing. Using this method, Illing and his team of researchers have been able to obtain evidence for the onset of long-term remodelling processes at the synapses in different brain areas when deaf, implanted rats are specifically stimulated. Will it one day be possible to define appropriate stimulus parameters for humans in order to enable them to learn to hear properly again?

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