Deep dive: German biotech under the microscope
Nearly every product we consume is the result of biotechnology innovation.
Nearly every product we consume, from our morning breakfast, to our beauty products are the result of biotechnology – and many of those products are likely to be the outcome of German research. The country is home to over 600 biotechnology companies with total revenue of more than 3 billion euros, a third of which is reinvested into R&D. The German biotechnology sector had a record year in 2017, with investment climbing to about 674 million euros, according to Bio Deutschland.
The country is home to over 600 biotechnology companies with total revenue of more than 3 billion euros, a third of which is reinvested into R&D.
The country’s life sciences ecosystem provides the perfect foundation for biotechnology start-ups: universities, research institutions, large and medium-sized companies, venture capital providers, government funding programs, incubators and accelerators. Germany has more than 400 higher education institutions and about 1,000 public research organizations, including the world-famous Max Planck Society and the Helmholtz, Leibniz, and Fraunhofer associations. Among Max Planck’s signature achievements was the first successful use of small double-stranded RNA molecules in 2001, which paved the way for new approaches in the treatment of many diseases.
Innovation thrives in such an environment. Start-ups are supported by a mixture of venture capital and government funding.
This unique ecosystem benefits biotechnology in two ways, argues Thomas Taapken, Chief Financial Officer at cancer-treatment research company Medigene in Martinsried near Munich. The company’s world-class academic research centres allow access to cutting-edge research, he says, and Medigene is able to recruit highly qualified scientists from all over Germany.
Innovation thrives in such an environment. Start-ups are supported by a mixture of venture capital and government funding. The BioRegions of Germany are regional initiatives for the advancement of economic applications of modern biotechnology. Germany’s numerous incubators and accelerators provide financial support, office or lab space, and business advice. Well-known incubators and accelerators include Bayer’s CoLaborator, Pfizer’s Flying Health Incubator and Merck’s Accelerator. One of the first tenants in Bayer’s Berlin CoLaborator space is DexLeChem, a pioneer in the reduction or re-use of expensive resources used in the pharmaceutical and flavour & fragrance industries. The work of DexLeChem has been lauded by AstraZeneca as both sustainable and cost-effective.
Such a framework has allowed biotech in Germany to develop into a flexible tool for contributing to sustainable development across a broad range of industries. Drawing on its unrivalled culture of engineering, Germany has embraced, alongside its highly advanced research and development sector in pharmaceuticals, “white biotechnology”, which aims to use nature’s toolbox for industrial purposes. As it is very resource-efficient, white biotechnology provides an alternative to conventional chemical processes, particularly in the health, nutrition, and cosmetic markets.
BRAIN is a prime example of Germany excelling in white biotechnology. Created in 1993 and traded on the Frankfurt stock exchange since 2016, the company and its partners operate in the chemical, cosmetics, food and medical technology industries, and in green mining. BRAIN has created over 80 joint ventures and strategic partnerships with firms such as BASF, Ciba, Henkel, RWE, Sandoz and Schering. In March, the company set up a US subsidiary in Maryland to help it address North American markets.
Biotechnology and life sciences are a universal technology, and perhaps are the only industries never to have reported a significant industrial accident.
As coordinator of Germany’s Natural Life Excellence Network 2020 innovation alliance, BRAIN brings together players from industry and science to research and produce natural ingredients for healthier foods and cosmetics. Backed by government funding, BRAIN works with partners work to convert carbon-containing industrial waste into valuable materials. A partnership between BRAIN and CyPlus, a subsidiary of the German company Evonik, has led to the development of bio-based methods that could offer innovative and sustainable processes for green mining. BRAIN and CyPlus will let mine operators integrate advanced biotechnological methods into their current processes without significant costs or delays. BRAIN is also researching biological solutions for Urban Mining, where precious metals are salvaged from waste.
Biotechnology and life sciences are a universal technology, and perhaps are the only industries never to have reported a significant industrial accident. The industries have the potential to make a considerable contribution to solving global challenges, in health care, food security, energy supply and environmentally friendly industrial production. The Cologne Paper, commissioned by the German Presidency of the European Council in 2007, predicted that white biotechnology and bio-energy products will have a one third share of total European industrial production by 2030. Due to the highly supportive approach from the government and universities, Germany is leading the way in putting the life sciences sector at the centre of daily life.