When it comes to applying for patents, Germany is way up among the front runners. The mp3 standard (largely developed by the Fraunhofer Institute in Erlangen) or gardasil (the vaccine against cervical cancer discovered by the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg) are just two examples among many. But it is frequently others who make marketable products out of these inventions. The opportunities German enterprises miss out on in this way are colossal.
Claus Heinrich has been chafing over this situation for a long time. As a board member of software giant SAP and honorary professor of business management at the University of Mannheim he has been at home in both sectors – science and business – for many years. The problem is the interface between the two.
- The thing is, he says ruefully, there is no interface.
With the “InnovationLab” BASF, Merck and SAP intend to put an end to this situation. Other major enterprises based between Rhine and Neckar are also in on the act: the global players Heidelberger Druckmaschinen AG, Roche Diagnostics and the Freudenberg Group.
The goals are ambitious. The idea is to establish Germany’s answer to Silicon Valley in the region around Mannheim and Heidelberg, a cluster of scientific expertise and business acumen encouraging application-oriented research, quickly turning it into marketable products, encouraging young scientists and providing systematic support for start-ups – and all under one roof.
- We’re pooling our resources to create an infrastructure for innovation, says Heinrich. This will make success stories like SAP more likely in future.
The visions for the future at the pharmacological and chemical company Merck in Darmstadt are equally heady.
- We want to establish a seamless supply chain from basic research to the final product, says Thomas Geelhaar, board member of the chemistry division.
Initially, research will be concentrating on organic electronics, the development of organic LEDs designed to revolutionise the low-energy lighting sector, medical diagnosis procedures making treatment less onerous on the patient and new forms of photovoltaic energy.
And there is serious money involved. The companies envisage notching up turnovers running into thousands of billions on this market for the future. With this in mind, the partners are prepared to invest astronomical sums. Top-flight researchers from all over the world – Stanford, Harvard, MIT – will be hired to work on specific projects together with the best domestic minds.
For the scientists, the tempting prospect is the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary research backed by financial resources that public universities hardly ever get offered.
- In the last three months I’ve been working with things I never dreamed would land on my desk, says medical professor Norbert Gretz of the University of Heidelberg, the future scientific head of the InnovationLab.
“We really have fun here”
Initially he was sceptical about the idea of a German Silicon Valley, Gretz admits. But then he realised that the transfer of knowledge was by no means a one-way affair. It was not just a matter of the scientists doing the basic research for the companies. The enterprises were just as willing to open their treasure troves for the researchers.
- In the last six months I’ve made greater progress in my research than in the six years before. We really have a lot of fun here,” says Gretz.
The companies themselves make no bones about it. They’re out to make money.
- If a product is right for one of our participating partners, says Heinrich, then they’ll integrate it into their portfolio.
But with an institute of this quality, there are bound to be a host of discoveries materialising on the serendipity principle, although they may have little to do with the core competencies of the respective partners. If things develop in line with Heinrich’s notions, ideas like these can then form the basis of start-ups for small offshoot companies.
The managing director of the future InnovationLab, Bernhard Schweizer, intends to further this development with a special transfer unit.
- We’ll be stockpiling the innovations and if someone wants to make a product out of them, we’ll be there to assist them with the practicalities. The Americans have been doing this kind of thing for decades.
He is convinced that there will be no conflicts between companies, let alone a “clash of cultures” between scientists and entrepreneurs.
- The time is ripe for collaboration of this kind,” he insists. It’s common knowledge that these days you can’t get anywhere by going it alone. We all know that.
By Jochen Schönmann