Innovation for Your Health
 

7. November 2018

The Northern Way of Innovation

Over the past years, life science companies, clinics and research institutes in the North offered a fruitful ecosystem for founders and innovative business ideas. Now, new initiatives want to bring forward the next generation of start-ups.

"We have to promote Hamburg's start-up culture," says Thomas Hanke. The Head of Academic Partnerships at Hamburg-based biotech company Evotec AG has focused in one field in particular: infectious diseases. In this respect Hamburg stands tall on the world stage, boasting several top research institutes: whether it's the Heinrich-Pette Institute (HPI), Bernhardt-Nocht Institute, University of Hamburg, Eppendorf University Hospital (UKE), the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), the Centre for Structural Systems Biology (CSSB) and the DESY on the Bahrenfeld Campus - a wealth of promising research groups publishing at the highest level in the field of infection biology can be found throughout the city. Evotec has just set itself the task of transferring as many of the research results as possible from the aforementioned institutes into "industry-ready drug candidates", stresses Hanke.

Bridging the gap between initial research and start-up

Currently, Evotec is establishing, together with the above mentioned institutes, an 'Anti-infectives BRIDGE' - a consortium which is coordinated by Life Science Nord Management within the HIHEAL project. The so-called 'Academic BRIDGE' represents a framework for a partnership of equals between business and science. "These academic BRIDGES have already been introduced in other European locations such as Oxford (LAB282 ), in Toulouse (LAB031) and the US (LAB150, LAB591).

They have proven to be excellent tools for the preclinical validation of promising projects emerging from academic medical research going through our industry experience and drug discovery platforms. That means as a result of these BRIDGES we can really start to consider spin-offs and getting investors on board," explains Hanke. And that is the ultimate goal of Evotec's translation strategy: researchers at participating research institutes can applyfor funding under the 'Anti-infectives BRIDGE' program. Successful applicants will be guaranteed project funding - ideally until the end of the preclinical validation process.

"The role of the Life Science Nord Cluster Management was to establish an appropriate governance structure", says Friederike Saathoff from Life Science Nord. "Thus we built up a good framework under which all participating institutions, funding authorities and the political support of Hamburg could be bundled."

New support which requires academics to rethink

For Evotec, the industry approach is crucial here. "Unlike other funding initiatives, there are no fixed funding periods with a given budget. That requires academics to rethink, too. We will establish milestones for each project and decide how to proceed further based on whether those are achieved or not," states Hanke. Once selected for support, the projects will be advanced as far as possible: "At this stage, we will be competing on an international level and need to act as fast as possible to determine whether the technical aspects of the project are feasible from an industrial perspective and if it can be developed clinically." This includes a preclinical proof of concept in an animal model, or a validated lead structure that is robust enough for patenting. Based on this step, a spin-off could be developed.

"Together with our international network, we will then watch out for seed capital or invest in the company ourselves," says Hanke. In 2017, Evotec has already granted more than 20 million Euros in funding for spin-offs and other investments. The 'Academic BRIDGE' is planned to be jointly financed with the city of Hamburg. For the present pilot phase, in which two infectious biology projects have already been selected, currently available funding instruments will be employed. For the official launch of the BRIDGE in 2019, new instruments need to be evaluated. Hanke: "We're still discussing the specifics."

Advancing Hamburg's start-up culture

Frank Schnieders, managing director of Provecs Medical GmbH, is also convinced that Hamburg has some way to go in its start-up culture. Twenty years ago, when the gene therapy expert, together with his research group, made the move from the Max-Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in Berlin to Hamburg, initially to HPI, and subsequently UKE, such approaches didn't yet exist. One of the rare few who wanted to make the switch from research to business, Berlin had already whetted his appetite for entrepreneurship, and once there he participated in a spin-off established by research colleagues.

In Hamburg, Schnieders wanted to become a businessman himself, based on a research approach of his own, combining immuno- and gene therapy. Yet his initial priority was to lay the foundations for this kind of business - and the UKE offered the ideal environment in which to do just that. "Thanks to funding from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, together with the UKE colleages, we were able to process fundamental animal data and had the chance to register patents. That was very straightforward here in Hamburg," recalls Schnieders. Even after the spin-off got off the ground, the young biotech company was able to use the clinic's infrastructure for a number of years, keeping costs low. "That allowed us to push forward, even with relatively little start capital."

The idea of promoting gene therapy and immunoncology was pretty risky back then. These days, however, Hamburg-based Provecs has struck the right note by entering into discussions with big pharma. "Our expertise - to activate an oncological setting that targets immunology via certain signaling proteins and through highly localized genetic therapies - makes us interesting when it comes to combination therapies in immuno-oncology such as those for solid tumors," explains Schnieders, who is delighted to have attracted interest from international pharmaceutical companies. But the managing director has also forged close ties at a local level. He has gotten together with clinic operator Asklepios, for example, to run analyses on tissue samples that test the effectiveness of immune biomarkers.

"One of the deciding factors for Hamburg is that partnerships are so straightforward." And thanks to the local networks Schnieders also succeeded in starting a collaboration with pharmaceutical company medac. Since 2016, both firms have a joint research venture to promote the development of completely new immuno-oncology drugs. "We're delighted that medac wishes to implement this visionary project with us - for a business of this size the willingness to take such risks is not a given." The move to Hamburg has certainly paid off for Provecs, since a one-time start-up has been transformed into a key local player financed by private capital from local sources. "The commercial perspective, existing in many places across the region, has been a real boon. But a business also needs a certain level of visibilityto rely on," says the managing director. He hopes that today's start-ups don't need to spend quite so much time in this phase. He welcomes initiatives such as that organized by Evotec and hopes that they will develop into something much bigger. "Hamburg might not be Boston at the moment, but our town has a huge potential! We can achieve so much here."

New accelerator program for start-ups in Lübeck

Outside Hamburg, the Lübeck Technology Center (TZL) has been on hand for a good 30 years to provide northern Germany with a lively start-up scene and active entrepreneurship. Since its foundation in 1986, TZL has been offering flexible, scalable offices, lab and production spaces and a host of additional services for innovative companies. Today, it has 20 buildings totaling approximately 50,000 squaremeters across three sites in Lübeck. About 300 companies and more than 4,000 jobs have been created in Lübeck because of and through the TZL - and according to Frank Schröder-Oeynhausen there's still a long way to go.

It has been a year now since Raimund Mildner, longstanding Manager of TZL, passed the torch to him, and he now finds himself at the center of preparations for a new accelerator program for start-ups. "Not only do we want to provide development space, we also wish to connect companies and investors, to tap into and link their expertise," he says. The first step in that direction was for TZL to establish the plattform "Gruenderviertel.de" as a website operated in conjunction with other partners. It acts as the first port of call for entrepreneurs in Lübeck and Kiel to gain information on establishing their own companies. The accelerator program will allow the city to progress even further. The plan is to grant spaces to up to 12 start-ups in a new co-working space on the TZL campus in Lübeck, where they will be provided with 30,000 Euros start capital as well as support from mentors and coaches. "We aim to focus on regional strengths such as life sciences, food, logistics and digitization," explains Schröder-Oeynhausen.

The production laboratory (FabLab) that TZL has been managing since 2014 will be closely attached. Students there have the opportunity to work in an open, high-tech workshop with access to a 3D printer, laser cutter, CNC milling machine and CNC lathe. "That's how ambitious, technically minded inventors, entrepreneurs or interested start-ups can access the latest production technologies quickly and easily," states Schröder-Oeynhausen. And it works. Take the example of Bjarne Andersen, who is studying for a master's degree in medical engineering and is currently developing an orthotic for stroke patients. This medical aid is fitted with tiny sensors that measure how far an arm can be extended following a stroke. It's even possible to integrate small motors into it.

Laying a permanent foundation for start-up ideas

Natascha Koch, on the other hand, has built a prosthetic hand for her bachelor's degree project at the Institute of Signal Processing, University of Lübeck. The device, which was manufactured by a 3D-printer, could enable her to help children in the Third World who have been maimed by mines. "We must set ourselves the task of ensuring that such ideas don't remain stuck in the early stages but rather are built on properly from day one," says Schröder-Oynhausen. With that in mind, in the long run FabLab plans on breaking out of the basement and moving into a new central building on campus. It is envisioned that a new building next to GründerCube could bundle all technology transfer activities.

"We want to make more visible our cooperation between the academic institutes and the TZL," says Schröder-Oeynhausen."However, this project is still at an early stage." He's convinced that Lübeck is the ideal location for such plans. It's not only strong local partners such as the University Hospital, the academic institutes, the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, the banks and local companies that are involved: the TZL manager also views the proximity to the partners in Schleswig-Holstein as a major advantage."We're a small Gallic village that wants to find smart solutions quickly." Currently, extensive efforts are being made to gather LOIs for the new accelerator program. Not only public bodies, but also private companies will be on board. The first call for Germany-widetenders is expected in spring 2019.

Call for new translation solutions

Christian Stein could spend hours discussing how new technologies make their way from academic research to business start-ups. He believes there is no one-size-fits-all solution. As a managing director at Ascenion GmbH, he spends his days dealing with translation. As a partner to a wealth of research institutes from the Helmholtz and Leibniz Association, the Charité university clinic in Berlin, the Medical Technical University Hanover and associated organizations involved in translation research, the Ascenion staff travel the length and breadth of Germany to select the perfect research results for commercial applications and to supervise the process. "However, in the case of radically new therapeutic approaches, a direct jump from research to business can be tricky, as such breakthrough innovations are often too risky for the pharmaceutical industry, even if they have originated in first-class scientific research," says Stein.

An excellent example of such a challenge is the Provirex GmbH start-up, which emerged from the Heinrich Pette Institute with the help of Ascenion. Already since 2005, the team led by Joachim Hauber has been working with research colleagues from the Technical University of Dresden on a revolutionary method to "cut" the HIV virus from the body using genetic scissors - if this genome-editing approach were also to function in humans, it would pave the way to a cure for HIV. "The necessary early clinical studies alone cost over 11 million Euros, however, and private investors shy at investing such amounts forgood reasons," says Stein.

Unconventional funding for HPI spin-off Provirex

Dynamic Hamburg connections are to thank for the solution that now presents itself. In June, the local red-green coalition plugged the funding gap by making three million Euros available to the start-up, with the Federal Ministry for Research and Education contributing a further 5.9 million Euros. That government money now allows the Provirex to raise private funds. The capital is sufficient for a feasibility study to be performed on eight patients at UKE in Hamburg and to ascertain whether the methods work not only for mice but also in humans. "Hamburg has been given a great opportunity to promote a unique research project that is important to society, and in this way, it can become a leader in the field of infection research," said Science Senator Katharina Fegebank (Green Party) to the Hamburger Abendblatt, while Sven Tode, Science Spokesperson for the Social Democrats, stressed that: "Our Hanseatic city has the opportunity to become a leading global location for future gene therapy technologies."

Christian Stein, who has worked as a molecular biologist and also founded several companies himself, is pleased that Provirex has been able to finance further developments because of that flexible partnership between regional and national authorities. He hopes that such novel and groundbreaking approaches will garner long-term support through the new agency for breakthrough innovations currently being set up by the Federal Ministry for Education and Research. "We need tools that take in huge quantities of funds for individual projects - especially in areas that are relevant to society, where the market alone can't raise the necessary capital." At the same time, he sees a risk at present that the interests of technology-transfer organizations may be focused too narrowly on the generation of start-ups - even if the technological foundations have not been sufficiently validated. For this reason, he would prefer to establish new forms of valorization budgets. "Not all projects are suitable for a spin-off, but for licensing. For this reason, we should be considering flexible instruments that allow technology bodies themselves to undertake validation measures with a small dedicated budget and prepare to setup businesses only after their completion," says the Ascenion CEO. Through that process, the start-ups would have a realistic chance of financing further growth through private investors - whether on the national or international level.

Frank Schnieders also notes how the start-up scene in the North is becoming more attractive to industry leaders abroad. "We shine as a location and are now on the radar of many investors." Schnieders believes that northern Germany needs to take greater advantage of such potential: "Many other cities have made mistakes when it comes to promoting start-ups. We can learn from that and bring together our expertise to do it properly."

(Author: Sandra Wirsching for Life Science Nord Magazine)

This text is from the latest LSN MAGAZINE 3_2018 - read more

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