The second part of the “Science meets Business Day” held in the Freiburg Concert House also provided guests with animated and exciting insights into the cooperation between research and industry. What enables neuroscientists to constantly obtain deeper insights into the dynamic network that is the “brain”? How do engineers manage to repress the extremely strong forces they encounter when handling the smallest quantities of liquid?
Prof. Dr. Ulrich Egert from the Department of Microsystems Engineering (IMTEK) at the University of Freiburg and Karl-Heinz Boven from Multi Channel Systems GmbH in Reutlingen talked about “Brains on Chips: Use of microsystems technology to produce microelectrode arrays for brain research”. Egert explained that the brain consists of an immense number of very tightly arranged cells that undergo constant reorganisation. “Of the one million substances that the pharmaceutical industry tests for their potential use as drugs to combat Alzheimer’s or epilepsy, on average only one of the substances can be turned into a drug,” said the researcher. “We would like to find ways that enable us to predict as early as possible the effect of a certain pharmaceutical substance. But how is this possible considering that the brain is so dynamic?”
Scientists can use electrodes to determine how cells react to the application of certain substances. Egert’s team and the company Multi Channel Systems have been working together for many years on the miniaturisation of electrode chips that are able to present the processes in sections of the brain. Egert and his team use chips with about 60 microscopic sensors to determine the behaviour of individual cells or entire networks. “This work requires a huge amount of technical know-how,” said Egert. “And we would have been unable to do all these measurements without the close collaboration with the engineers from Reutlingen.” Boven presented the company’s success story: Multi Channel Systems was founded in 1996, and sold its first electrode array back in 1997. The company now has 31 employees and makes about two thirds of its revenues abroad.“The close cooperation with the IMTEK scientists is very important for us,” said Boven. “They come up with elements related to practical application. We then ask how we can turn these elements into technological devices.” How big do the electrodes have to be? How can the acquisition of data be organised and processed? For example, the company worked in cooperation with the scientists when it needed to construct a flow-through heater to keep the samples at a constant temperature. In addition, the company is constantly working on the optimisation of the chips’ material and structure, enabling the more effective aeration of the tissue and the provision of medium. “Nowadays we are able to produce chips with 256 electrodes,” said Boven. “The IMTEK testing laboratory even has prototypes with a thousand electrodes.” The long-term goal of the cooperation partners is to produce chips with 64,000 electrodes.
Prof. Dr. Roland Zengerle, head of the IMTEK, and Dr. Peter Koltay, managing director of Freiburg-based BioFluidix GmbH, also provided the audience with insights into miniature devices. In their presentation entitled "Accurate dosage: Nanolitre dosage technique for the life sciences and other areas", Koltay and Zengerle also spoke about picolitres and femtolitres. "The problem with such small quantities is that they give rise to extremely strong forces, like capillary forces, for example," explained Zengerle. These capillary forces make the dosage of extremely small droplets very difficult. But the accurate dosage of small amounts is important in many areas of research and industrial production. More than ten years ago, Zengerle and his team worked with Hamburg-based Eppendorf to focus on how the principle of a micropump could be transferred to the pipetting technique. Pipettes are important tools in molecular biology, where they are used for example for accurately dosing expensive substances such as enzymes in very small quantities.
Zengerle highlighted that although the cooperation with Eppendorf did not lead to a marketable product, it nevertheless led to the development of several concepts that are still used today. "Innovations are always triggered by industry," summarised Zengerle. In 2005, the company BioFluidix was spun out of Zengerle's institute, focusing on the further development and commercialisation of the previously developed techniques. BioFluidix' managing director, Koltay, initially presented an overview of the company's broad product portfolio. He highlighted that the company not only sold dosage components but entire laboratory devices for use in the life sciences. He also envisaged that some of the company's concepts will have a huge industrial market, for example for the coating of solar cells or in the field of microelectronics. "We are doubling our revenues year on year," said Koltay, also pointing out that the cooperation with universities is very decisive for the company. The company is still located at the IMTEK and uses the IMTEK's infrastructure. Koltay also praised the excellent and fertile cooperation with the IMTEK in collaborative projects.
The evening closed with the award of the "Prize for outstanding achievements in biotechnology". The deputy chairman of the BioMed Technology Foundation Freiburg, Dr. Michael Richter, and the director of the Centre for Applied Biosciences (ZAB) at the University of Freiburg, Prof. Dr. Gunther Neuhaus, awarded the prize, which now goes into its fourth year, to Patrick Bernhard, a high-school graduate from the Merian School in Freiburg. "I have come to the three previous Science meets Business Days and seen other people being awarded the prize. I am very pleased that it is me today," said the future student of molecular medicine in Freiburg.