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Interview "A startup can be just as big a success as a Leibniz Prize!"

Matthias Tschöp, CEO of Helmholtz Munich, talks about translating scientific discoveries into clinical practice, about ambitious targets, and about ideas he acquired during his time in the USA.

Matthias Tschöp, CEO of Helmholtz Munich, talks about translating scientific discoveries into clinical practice, about ambitious targets, and about ideas he acquired during his time in the USA.

Professor Tschöp, do you recall the moment when you first became aware of the importance of technology transfer?

MT: I first became aware of this topic after completing my university studies here in Munich. Back then I was working in a dual role, both as a doctor at the university hospital and also as a research scientist. During this time I learned enthusiasm for the work, and recognized that our research can contribute something positive to patient health, and help alleviate suffering. On the other hand, I also learned the frustration that highly exciting discoveries often get stuck: there is a publication or a presentation at a congress, but then the research doesn't go any further. That was one of the reasons I went to the USA. There, the process from basic research to clinical application is often much faster and certainly more efficient.

You worked there in the Midwest for a pharmaceutical company, among others.

MT: Exactly, that was a conscious decision: I wanted to learn how it works - how the entire chain from the lab bench to the patient’s bedside can be designed. I actually found the possibilities I got to know there quite spectacular.

What is different in the USA that makes it possible to do things there that are more difficult here in Germany?

MT: There is certainly a more entrepreneurial mindset in the USA, and so much, much more money in circulation, as investors are often prepared to take greater risks. Of course, investors who put a lot of money into medical research at an early stage can make losses. In the USA, however, these can be written off for tax purposes, but not here in Germany. For me, this is an example of how cultures tick differently. The American mentality, coupled with pragmatic speed and a greater willingness to take risks, creates a real "yes, we can" feeling.


How does this feeling affect science?

MT: It's enormously inspiring. Science, after all, is supposed to take on challenges that seem almost impossible - what the Americans call a moonshot. Let me give you an example from the field of diabetes therapy: During my time in the USA, I had been researching the idea of using so-called dual receptor agonists and triagonists for therapy. According to everything that was written about this in the textbooks, this approach should not have worked at all. At that time, despite all the prophecies of doom, there were enough like-minded people who threw themselves into the task with motivation and drive. More than two decades have passed since our discovery, and today the first drug has been approved and another is on the way. I am certain that this would not have been possible in Germany because people would not have dared to tackle something that was supposedly impossible.

You say that in the past tense. Has anything changed in that respect today?

MT: We are in a constant state of cultural change. Today, you can sense a spirit of optimism in Germany to accelerate the process of technology transfer. And now I'm speaking for us at Helmholtz Munich: My impression is that role models such as the Biontech founders have triggered some thoughts among many of our top academic colleagues. Some saw themselves exclusively as top researchers, but they preferred to leave the entrepreneurial stuff to others. Biontech is a great example of what is possible today, even in Germany.

What were the milestones at Helmholtz Munich that led to the cultural change you are referring to?

MT: My idea was to bring a lot of things from the USA to Germany when I returned in 2011. I wanted to break up the structure that is very hierarchical, especially in medicine with its senior physicians and professors and chairs. Traditionally, who does what research and who is allowed to do what is strongly dictated from above. I would like to give young people a greater chance - and then as Director of the Institute for Diabetes and Obesity and now as CEO of Helmholtz Munich, I have the opportunity to do so. Even if, of course, firstly, the changes take longer than I would have thought at the beginning, and secondly, you always come up against unanticipated obstacles during the process.

What are those limits - is it just a matter of the limited venture capital funds?

MT: The bigger problems are related to bureaucracy. The multitude of specifications, the documentation requirements, the committees, the processes - we have to print more and more paper every year to do justice to it all. That's a tremendous brake to the process. But there is also something we need to change in our very own area, namely in science.

What are you thinking about?

MT: We need to change the bar for researchers: There needs to be an understanding that founding a startup and achieving a clinical trial with a new compound are just as big a success as a Leibniz Prize or a Nature paper. But the quality of cutting-edge research must remain very high, and that is of course the basic prerequisite for everything else.


What specifically are you doing at Helmholtz Munich to make the most of your creative leeway?

MT: Just think of our Pioneer Campus: Here we have the opportunity to bring the best minds in the world to Munich - and they bring a whole new approach. Each of them combines different disciplines; researchers, for example, who work on artificial intelligence, but apply it specifically to biomedicine and in turn develop new technologies and applications for it. These are scientists for whom it is no longer possible to define as classical chemists, engineers or physicists; their expertise is more interdisciplinary. A second point: We are driving forward the link with university medicine so that we are closer to the patients and can constantly review our research questions in this light. And then there is a third point: Do you know how many employees there are in the entire Helmholtz Association in the field of health research?

No, tell me.

MT: There are about 10,000 employees. That makes us the largest and most powerful research entity in Europe on this subject. But most of them feel the same way you do: We are not yet perceived as a collaborative institution, and we want to change that in the future. Other goals include bundling leading-edge clusters and providing better support for scientists in the start-up phase so that companies find it easier to overcome hurdles in the early years. To this end, we have joined forces with ESMT in Berlin and the Life Science Factory to establish an academy, the Life Science Entrepreneurial Academy, where we aim to train leaders for this purpose. Here scientists can take a crash course that will help them develop the necessary entrepreneurial skills

How specifically do you want to measure whether you are successfully dealing with the issue of translation at Helmholtz Munich?

MT: Quantitative yardsticks are incredibly difficult. For example, the number of spin-offs alone is too soft an indicator for me, because there is no metric of success behind it. I think it's more appropriate to look at how many investors we've convinced. Another very good parameter is the number of drug candidates that have made it from research to clinical trials. And then there is the one factor that can only be measured in the long term: revenue. This means that money flows back to the research institution via patents. These patents for drugs bring very tangible benefits to patients. Top institutions such as the Weizmann Institute in Israel or the universities of Stanford and Boston earn a lot of money through these patents, which they can then invest in more efficient research. I believe that in the future, public funds alone will no longer be sufficient to find efficient and fast enough answers to the challenges in the health sector. We should be prepared for this - and that is why we are working intensively to improve our translation activities in the long term.

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