Interview: Dr. Rolf Zettl, Chief Financial Officer, BIH

Dr. Rolf Zettl joined the Berlin Institute of Health (BIH) in March 2016, having previously served as managing director of the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres. In his new position as Chief Financial Officer, he is responsible for the overall commercial and administrative operations at BIH, manages the budget, and shares responsibility for the management of the Institute with the other members of the Executive Board. The 53-year-old research manager holds a doctorate in biology and has held senior management positions for the past twenty years with such organizations as the Max Planck Society, the Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Berlin, and the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres. In addition, he has many years' experience as a biotech entrepreneur. In this interview, Zettl discusses personalized treatment models and the importance of technology transfer at BIH.

Under its Strategy 2026, the Berlin Institute for Health (BIH) is opening up new horizons for health and quality of life. Is the strategy under review after the departure of Professor Erwin Böttinger, the former CEO of BIH?

Both the Supervisory Board and the Executive Board at BIH are clearly behind this strategy. Our focus is now on implementing it. We're not going to wait for a new CEO to start a new discussion. Of course, we will continue to work on the strategy because it has to adapt to international developments.

What are the priorities of the strategy?

There are two key aspects. First, we need to refine our portfolio. We need to investigate the mechanisms of serious and progressive diseases in order to develop personalized treatment models to ensure optimal outcomes for patients. This will involve the use of advanced therapies, i.e. novel and experimental therapeutic approaches, especially those based on stem cell and gene therapies. Second, we will work on recruiting outstanding and talented scientists whose main focus is to strengthen the research into advance therapies and help drive the growth of translational research commons of Charité and MDC (Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association) and basically all of Berlin health-research sector.  

What kind of progress are you making on these high-priority issues?

We're making great progress. We've already recruited 250 new employees to work on projects or infrastructure. There's a lot of things in motion: data is being generated and newcomers are being trained in the clinician scientists program that allows physicians to pursue a structured residency with time set aside for clinical and basic research. The focus now is on recruiting top international thinkers to Berlin who will bring additional and complementary competencies and integrating the resulting new growth into the existing research universe at BIH. That's currently underway at full speed. We have a large number of appointment and search committees at work at the Charité. At present, we have 29 hiring processes either underway or about ready to be announced. We also need to obtain space for our new colleagues to work in. We need to find these spaces, get them permitted, and then renovated for future research use. We have two major construction projects underway, one in Buch and another in Mitte, where we will create an additional 10,000 m² (108,000 sq. ft.) of laboratory and office space by 2020-21. The challenge now is to find temporary space so that the research can get started right away.

What role does technology transfer play?

This is a core issue critical to our mission. At BIH, translational medicine tends to have a number of different meanings. It's often used to describe the bridge between basic research and clinical research. But we see translation as going another step, taking the research from the bench to the patient. We also want to build bridges to industry, small and medium-sized enterprises, and start-ups. That's why we need an extremely ambitious and professionally structured technology transfer. This will help us make sure that the innovations that we develop here really do find their way to patients. We want to get the world to notice them, which brings up the topic of digitalization. We're already well down this path. The whole subject of digital health is an additional innovation engine in the healthcare system.   

In November, the international biotechnology and pharmacy industry will be gathering in Berlin for the Bio-Europe, Europe's largest partnering conference for life sciences. What is the significance of international cooperation for BIH? 

They will be decisive. Naturally, we want to be playing in the top international league of institutions recognized for their contributions to the field of translational medicine. We also want to cooperate with international industry. This will be our key goal at Bio-Europe. Although we are a national institution, we want to develop a strong international reputation. For this, we need a corresponding network of partners. But we also have to be realistic and start delivering by having the minds, producing the data, and achieving the visibility to be seen as an international player.