„Just like Cambridge“ – the Boom of Biomedicine in Berlin

The pharmaceutical company Bayer wants to help turn Berlin into a biotech hub like Boston. This is possible, says head of research Stefan Oelrich in an interview with the Tagesspiegel.


Actually we want to talk about Berlin's biomedical boom and whether the city could become a biotech hub like Boston - but now everything is at a standstill because of the coronavirus pandemic. Is the dream of the biomedical metropolis shattered?

On the contrary. It is precisely at this time that the importance of the pharmaceutical sector for our society becomes apparent. And it is becoming apparent how everyone involved is working hand in hand to overcome this crisis. This will have a positive effect on the development of the industrial healthcare industry in Berlin and beyond.


But isn't it too ambitious a goal for Berlin to develop into a hub like Boston?


If you don't set yourself that goal, you can't achieve it either. Twenty or thirty years ago, it was impossible to move around in Cambridge, the suburb of Boston where the majority of biotech companies are located today, without running the risk of being mugged. Not to mention that there was a significant biotech settlement beyond the Harvard University campus and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. There were hospitals like Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital, but with little cooperation. Similar to what we see here today.

As far as the academic institutes in Berlin are concerned, we have a unique constellation, at least in Germany, perhaps even in Europe. And Berlin is home to Bayer, the largest German pharmaceutical company. It is a good coincidence that the Governing Mayor of Berlin has also assumed responsibility for science in the Senate. He understood that the healthcare industry is the city's most important economic factor and a real magnet for attracting talent to the city. In Boston back then, there were people who said: "Let's do something together, not against each other. This momentum is also present in Berlin. There is a basic, comparable constellation of circumstances. Even if we're of course much later on than Boston.


Boston developed on the basis of the then new approaches in biotechnology. In Cambridge especially, there were wastelands, old factory sites and parking lots where a new industry could be built.

If you look out the window here, you will see a parking lot with a view of the Spree River, within walking distance of the Charité. Much like in Cambridge. Biotech companies could be systematically established here, and perhaps one day it will become a Berlin Kendall Square, just like in Cambridge.


This has also been tried elsewhere, for example in Munich.

Munich is not Berlin. This city is different, the only metropolis in Germany and a place where the access to talent, which you need to actually build such a sector, is easier to approach.


But the few internationally successful biotech companies in Germany are not here: Curevac, BioNTech, Evotec, Qiagen, Morphosys are located in Tübingen, Mainz, Hamburg, Hilden, Munich... What makes you so sure that this can happen here?

Nothing makes me sure. But you have to start somewhere. If Bayer, Germany's largest pharmaceutical company, is involved in this, it could have a knock-on effect. Curevac, BioNTech, Morphosys, these are isolated cases. The question is how we manage to make it on a larger scale.


In the USA, there is venture capital for start-ups, and hardly any investment is made here. What responsibility does Bayer have to step in here?

That's right, there is hardly any risk capital in Germany. Bayer could change this, be a catalyst, because we are closely networked with the venture capital funds in Boston. I am holding talks with some of them and asking specific questions: Don't we want to do something in Berlin? One example is Dewpoint, a company established in Dresden and Boston in which we have a joint venture with the venture capital firm Polaris, and which is now coming to the Bayer campus in Berlin.

What depends on the commitment of individuals when developing a site?

Everything. Whatever is created, someone has started it at some point. I hope that I can help here. In Germany, people are constantly complaining that this or that is going badly. I'd rather do something to make it better in the future. In the life sciences we traditionally have very good basic research, but also an insufficient technology transfer and a low start-up rate. Instead of complaining about health policy, our industry can become more involved. We have to get the snowball rolling.


What has to change in Berlin in order to achieve this? The Berlin Institute of Health should institutionalize the transfer of ideas from research to the clinic. But the start has been pretty rocky.

A lot went wrong. But teething troubles have now been corrected. The way the BIH was constructed was certainly unfortunate, because the management of the MDC, Charité and BIH pursued partially different goals. In a city where the individual institutes, especially the Charité, were chronically undersupplied, a fight for resources flared up. In contrast to Boston, the way of thinking here was still very territorial. But that has now been resolved. Whereby I would like to see projects at the BIH not only from MDC and Charité, but from other academic centers. Projects that can be applied as quickly as possible should be supported. This is patient-oriented translation.


What responsibility does Bayer have for the development of the Berlin site? So far there are few good examples: The stem cell start-up Bluerock was founded in Boston with Bayer capital. The Boston-based eGenesis received $50 million for xenotransplantation. Bayer's subsidiary Casebia is also located in Boston.

Many companies have jumped on the bandwagon to invest primarily in other locations. But in Germany we have a home advantage that we should use. As far as eGenesis is concerned, we have seen the leap innovation, the market proximity and the potential. But here in Germany, nobody has approached us. If it becomes more known that we have the ambition to do something in this country, more local companies will approach us. In any case, we are increasingly looking for cooperations for the Berlin location.


Does science have an obligation here? Do researchers need to approach industry more?

When I talk to young scientists, I do not get the impression that they only have a professorship in mind, which they want to enjoy for the rest of their lives. Many go abroad, learn from American colleagues. The easiest way to break down the walls between industry and science is to communicate with each other. Then many things dissolve. The fact that the pharmaceutical industry does not have a high reputation in public perception is unfortunate. But there are many things that stem from the past. You can no longer put a product on the market today and set a reasonable price for it without a high degree of innovation. Nobody else pays for it. Society has told us quite clearly: if you do not cross a certain threshold of innovation, then we are not willing to pay for it.