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NMI – 25 years of success

The NMI in Reutlingen is one of the most prestigious research institutes in Germany, “a beacon of applied research” as the Minister of Economic Affairs recently called the institute. This success is no accident: for 25 years now, the institute with its interdisciplinary team has been working efficiently and actively towards this achievement. Moreover, it greatly succeeded in bridging science and industry.

The institute is now celebrating its 25th anniversary with the self-conscious promise “NMI creates results”. With its interdisciplinary know-how located at the interface of the biological and materials sciences, the NMI is well prepared for technologically and economically important topics of the coming years.

The institute was established in 1983 on the initiative of Dr. Günter Hoff, former head of research of the “New Technologies” division of Dornier System GmbH in Friedrichshafen, Germany. Back then, Hoff proposed the Baden-Württemberg government to establish a scientific research institute in close thematic and geographic vicinity of the universities of Tübingen and Stuttgart. Hoff’s concept had the goal to close the gap between academic and industrial research. He suggested staffing the institute with around 100 scientists from a broad range of different disciplines who would work to translate basic research findings into marketable technologies and products. The concept envisaged the NMI to become an outstanding interdisciplinary applied research institute and be able to compete with the best American institutes. From the word ‘go’, the term ‘Em-Ai-Ti-le von Reutlingen’, which in English means ‘the little MIT in Reutlingen’, was on its beat. The sneerers have long turned silent. Although the NMI with its approx. 180 staff members cannot compete with the famous MIT in Boston, it has nevertheless become one of the top international applied research institutes in its field of activities.

On 18 June 1985, the “Foundation for scientific and medical research at the University of Tübingen in Reutlingen” was established as a foundation under public law. The founding fathers included twelve well-known technology companies, predominantly from the south of Germany, and the city of Reutlingen. A cooperation agreement that was renewed in 2009 underlines the special cooperative partnership of the NMI with the University of Tübingen.

Strategic change

The NMI in Reutlingen carries out economically-oriented contract research and development © NMI

When the NMI was established in 1985, four core areas were defined: materials research, interfacial engineering, technical physics and theoretical physics. Hoff became the director of the institute and held this office until he retired in 1994. At the beginning of the 1990s, economic growth had reached a low, and medium-sized companies were reluctant to sign research contracts. The public research expenditures stagnated after the reunion of West and East Germany. The NMI went through a process of shrinking and was forced to establish a new profile.

In April 1995, Dr. Enzio Müller became the head of the NMI. The broad range of topics was reduced and the institute gradually centred its research priorities on the fields of biomedical technology and surface and interfacial engineering. Pharmaceutical technology and biotechnology were also defined as new business areas. By including biotechnology into its range of activities, the decision makers at the NMI realised very early on that biotech would become highly important for the German high-tech industry.

The establishment of a streamlined administration, the optimisation of structures and the strategic focus on core fields of activity, industrial projects and services enabled the NMI to attain sustainable growth that still continues today. This strategy also proved of value when the Dot-com bubble burst at the turn of the millennium and the biotech boom broke in.

In the 1990s, numerous small companies were established at the NMI. Besides for numerous publications, patents and licences, the establishment of start-ups mirrors the success of the NMI's interdisciplinary research. A total of 12 companies have been spun out of the NMI since 1996, were technologically directly related with NMI developments or used the NMI and its high-tech laboratories as an incubator for company establishment. This shows how well the NMI transfers results from research into industry in Reutlingen and Tübingen.

Prof. Dr. Hugo Hämmerle has been the director of the institute since February 2008. Prior to this appointment, Hämmerle was deputy director of the institute for ten years and responsible for the strategic reorientation of the NMI and its successful founding policy.

New rooms for ideas and development

Hugo Hämmerle, head of the NMI in Reutlingen, speaking at the roofing ceremony. © NMI

Applied high-tech research does not only require excellent brains and a solid financial framework. It also requires rooms: normal and safety laboratories, clean rooms, special building equipment and of course office and storage space, etc. At its original location close to the Reutlingen bus station, the prospering NMI soon ran out of space. At the same time, the city of Reutlingen thought about providing stronger support to the local entrepreneurs. As a result of all this, the NMI was affiliated with a start-up centre in 1996 into which the first new NMI-associated companies moved soon after. In addition, the old building did not fit into Reutlingen's municipal development plans and was to be knocked down. The city of Reutlingen finally decided to reconstruct a building on the intercity industrial estate at Markwiesenstrasse 55 and adapt it to the requirements of the NMI. The NMI moved into the new building in January 1998 and the new Tübingen/Reutlingen science and technology park, into which numerous NMI start-ups relocated over the coming years, was constructed in close vicinity to the institute. In 2010, the NMI was granted funds for an urgently required expansion that does justice to the institute's success and current growth.

Development à la NMI: Many fertile twigs from one stem

The NMI Reutlingen has demonstrated for 25 years as to how individual project successes in applied research can be multiplied and how they entail further innovations for research and industry. This leads to new research lines, new companies and in consequence new jobs – made in Reutlingen.

The NMI is focused on technologies with a great potential for the future, such as regenerative medicine. In the field of tissue engineering, the NMI has over the last few years developed broad skills. In 2002, these skills led to the establishment of a start-up company in cooperation with the BG Casualty Hospital in Tübingen that focuses on the exciting field of high-tech biomedical research: TETEC GmbH, which became TETEC AG in 2003, develops innovative methods for the production of cartilage tissue from autologous cells and has become the leader in this field in Europe. TETEC AG and the NMI are partners of REGiNA, a local ‘health region of the future’ funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research.

Another example of sustainable applied research comes from the field of sensor technology. In 1988, only three years after the establishment of the institute, the NMI presented its proprietary MEA (microelectrode array) that has become a key technology in the neurosciences worldwide. MEAs are miniaturised analytical chips that are used for laboratory application. The glass chips have a size of only a few centimetres. Cells can grow on the glass chips, and the electrodes that are embedded in the glass chip can both record the electrical signals of the cells and electrically stimulate them.

The MEAs are used by three NMI-associated start-ups as basic technology: Multi Channel Systems MCS GmbH has been developing and marketing electrophysiological measuring systems that are equipped with MEAs produced in the NMI clean rooms. The company Cytocentrics AG, which is now headquartered in Rostock, Germany, was established in 2001. The company used the MEA technology to develop devices for automated electrophysiological substance tests in cell cultures.

In addition, the results of the NMI’s MEA research were also used for the development of electronic retinal implants, which in 2003 led to the establishment of Retina Implant AG in cooperation with the University Eye Hospital in Tübingen. Retina Implant is now a worldwide leader in the field of electronic retinal implants. The implants, which are currently successfully tested at the University Eye Hospital, are able to restore – at least partially – vision in blind people.

In parallel to the start-up activities, the MEAs generated research activities that have recently led to the development of a lab-on-a-chip, a miniaturised platform for complex reactions, for example those required for mobile diagnoses at the patient bed. The establishment of the neurochip junior research group in 2009 is also based on the success obtained with MEA research, whose international importance clearly shows once every two years at the 'MEA Meetings' organised by the NMI to invite top researchers from around the world to Reutlingen.

Innovations made in the fields of biotechnology and cell biology have also led to new research lines and marketing/information platforms such as BioChipNet. Moreover, they have inspired the establishment of new companies. The most recent NMI start-up company is Cellendes GmbH, which was established in July 2009. It bases its business concepts on NMI developments and develops and commercialises hydrogels for three-dimensional cell cultures for use in basic research as well as the testing of drugs in the pharmaceutical industry and regenerative medicine.

In the fields of pharmaceutical technology and biotechnology, the NMI supports the development of new drugs. Major focus is centred on the development of new technologies for the analysis of ion channels, protein expression and gene functions. The protein microarray group of the NMI is one of the worldwide leaders in this field of technology.

NMI Natural Sciences and Medical Institute at the University of Tübingen 
The Institute is a foundation under public law headquartered in Kusterdingen in the intercity industrial estate of the cities of Tübingen and Reutlingen. With a staff of 180, the NMI has broad interdisciplinary competences at the interface of the biological and materials sciences. Focused on applied research and development, the NMI achieved revenue of 13.8 million euro in 2009 in the fields of pharmaceutical technology and biotechnology, biomedical technology, surface and interfacial engineering. Since its establishment in 1985, the non-profit research institute has developed into a solid bridge between basic research and industry. As a member of the Baden-Württemberg Innovation Alliance, the NMI focuses in particular on the transfer of knowledge and technology from research into application and supports small- and medium-sized companies.

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