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The HAE Accelerator – "compete to speed up your start-up"

The HAE Accelerator is an international programme involving biomedical clusters in Cambridge (UK), Leuven (Belgium) and Heidelberg (Germany) that seeks to identify, train and put innovative start-up teams in the three countries in contact with international VC investors. Of the three business ideas that were awarded a HAE Investors’ Choice Award in September 2013, InoCard from Heidelberg came first with a new gene therapy for myocardial insufficiency.

“Research turns money into knowledge – innovations turn knowledge into money.” This catchy slogan is often used to refer to the translation of research results into commercial products and services. In the field of biomedicine, the creation of innovative biotech companies are of crucial importance in translating research ideas into products and services. However, in order for promising start-up ideas to become successful companies and actually generate money from knowledge, a great deal of money first needs to be invested. This money is usually provided by venture capital (VC) investors. However, in contrast to the USA, German and European life sciences companies have long lacked the commitment of VC companies that they badly need to turn knowledge and innovative ideas into marketable commodities.

The Health Axis Europe

Dr. Christian Tidona (right) with the founders of the start-up company Cogitars during the HAE Summer Camp. © BioRN

“The basic problem is that far too few business ideas are presented in such a way as to attract the interest of VC investors,” said Dr. Christian Tidona, Managing Director of BioRN Cluster Management GmbH in Heidelberg. Dr. Tidona knows from experience that only one in ten business ideas is successful and that a lot of high-quality business ideas are required in order to increase the regional effectiveness of biotech start-ups. In order to reach this critical mass, the Health Axis Europe (HAE) alliance, which involves the biomedical clusters from Heidelberg (BioRN), Cambridge and Leuven, has launched the HAE Accelerator programme, a business plan competition that aims to identify innovative start-up teams in the three regions and invite them to participate in the HAE Summer Camp. The camp is a specific training programme that prepares the winners for the HAE Expo, the highlight of the competition where they will be able to present their business idea and start-up projects to international investors. In contrast to the USA, professionally run accelerator programmes such as the HAE Accelerator have previously not been available to European life sciences start-ups.

The Health Axis Europe. © BioRN

The Health Axis Europe (HAE) alliance, which was initiated by BioRN Cluster Management GmbH with Leading-Edge Cluster competition funds (see article entitled “Constitution of Health Axis Europe signed”) in 2011 is an ideal platform for the launch of a cross-border accelerator programme for innovative biomedical start-ups. The three biomedical clusters in Cambridge, Leuven and the Rhine-Neckar region are among the best in Europe. The pooling and professional presentation of business ideas increases the visibility of the start-ups and boosts their attractiveness for international VC investors.

A crucial element in the successful implementation of the programme is the focus on successful American models as well as access to international entrepreneurship networks and international VC funds that specialise in the financing of biomedical start-up projects. Since BioRN’s successful participation in the Leading-Edge Cluster competition in 2008, the BioRN Network association and BioRN Cluster Management GmbH have been able to accelerate their activities and put the necessary prerequisites for supporting and solving the needs of local biotech and pharmaceutical companies in place. The HAE Accelerator is funded by the BMBF and the Baden-Württemberg government.

The three-tier HAE Accelerator programme

Prof. Dr. Patrick Most, Heidelberg, presenting the InoCard business model at HAE Expo. © BioRN

The HAE Accelerator programme was launched in spring 2013 with business plan competitions in the three partner regions. The programme targets start-up companies that are active in the field of health innovation, i.e. new drugs, diagnostics, medical devices, digital health solutions and platform technologies. In September 2013, nine teams were selected and invited to the HAE Summer Camp, a four-day training programme where they were prepared by mentors and experts for the HAE Expo. The teams presented their business plans to one another in workshops, discussed them in face-to-face meetings with experts and were given support in improving the oral and written presentation of their ideas. Successful entrepreneurs such as Dr. Claus Kremoser from Phenex Pharmaceuticals and Dr. Gitte Neubauer from Cellzome presented their personal experiences and gave participants advice on company establishment and financing. The Summer Camp participants were then invited to HAE Expo where they presented their business ideas to a jury of representatives from international venture capital funds. The start-up teams were also given the opportunity to participate in face-to-face meetings with potential VC investors.

Three business ideas were presented with a HAE Investors’ Choice Award, including the English start-up company Novolytics that has developed a novel therapy for antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the Swiss-German team, Cogitars, which supports pharmaceutical and biotech companies in the clinical development of new medicinal products through the provision of new statistical procedures.

InoCard’s gene therapy for the treatment of myocardial insufficiency

The HAE Accelerator competition was won by InoCard, a University Hospital of Heidelberg start-up company led by Prof. Dr. Patrick Most and Prof. Dr. Hugo Katus, medical director of the hospital’s Department of Cardiology, Angiology and Pneumology. InoCard has developed a novel gene therapy for the treatment of chronic myocardial insufficiency (heart failure). A therapy that could halt or even reverse the progression of the disease is currently not available. Heart failure is one of the most frequent causes of death in the elderly. Prof. Most and his team have shown that the disease is due to the lack of a protein that is crucial for the heart’s pumping capacity. The cardiologists from Heidelberg have developed a method that enables them to introduce a specific gene into the weakened heart muscle using a gene shuttle. This treatment has been shown to have a very successful outcome in a large animal model where the activation of the gene led to the long-term recovery of cardiac function and reversal of the disease process. InoCard will further develop this approach for application in human patients. Prof. Most, who presented InoCare’s business model at HAE Expo, was able to convince the jury of investors of the feasibility and potency of the therapy.

The first HAE Accelerator round was primarily organised by the BioRN Network association and BioRN Cluster Management GmbH. The HAE Accelerator, which provides training to successful start-up teams at the HAE Summer Camp and puts them into contact with international VC investors in the final round of the competition, has clearly benefitted all participating start-up teams from the biomedical clusters in Cambridge, Leuven and Heidelberg.

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