EMD Serono has cooperated with BioMed X to open an innovation center where talented young scientists conduct research projectsStage Image

EMD Serono has cooperated with BioMed X to open an innovation center where talented young scientists conduct research projects

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Integrating talented individuals

A new approach towards innovation




Open Innovation describes an innovation culture that aims to integrate talented individuals from outside the company into the development of new products. EMD and BioMed X GmbH, which is based in Heidelberg, Germany, have further developed this approach into a completely new innovation concept.

  • Ulrich Betz heads the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Incubator at EMD Serono
  • Ulrich Betz heads the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Incubator at EMD Serono
    © EMD Serono

    An innovation is more than just a good idea. Apart from being a marketable product or service, it must also occur at the right time and satisfy a particular demand. When all of these conditions are satisfied, commercial success will follow. Real innovations are not easy to achieve. That is why every company is interested in discovering ways of promoting innovation. Open Innovation, the approach adopted by EMD, encourages external talent from science and research to contribute their input.

    EMD Serono, the biopharmaceutical division of EMD, is already using this concept in the “Innovation Cup”. In this summer school, which takes place every year, young scientists from around the world form diverse teams, in which they work out innovative therapeutic concepts over the course of a week. EMD researchers and managers are on hand to support their endeavors.

    “By calling for ideas for a research topic worldwide, we ensure that many scientists contribute their input.“

    Christian Tidona
    managing director
    BioMed X GmbH

    In numerous lectures and discussions, the participants learn how research and development work in the pharmaceutical industry. An attractive sum of prize money awaits the winning group. For its part, EMD Serono benefits from the interesting ideas produced by the “Innovation Cup” and gets to know potential employees. 

    “The point came when we asked ourselves if it wouldn’t make sense to expand this approach, says Ulrich Betz. “Would it be possible to attract highly talented people who would not only contribute their innovative potential solutions to a specific problem but also implement these solutions over a period of two to three years?” Betz, who heads the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Incubator unit at EMD Serono, was responsible for developing the EMD Serono Innovation Cup. 

    “However, the work would not take place in our laboratories, but rather in an external open innovation structure. In other words, the talented people would work in the stimulating and dynamic environment of a top-class academic institution, where they would have access to scientific networks at the interface between industrial and academic research.” Up to now pharmaceutical companies such as EMD have either sponsored a research fellow at a university, who researches a product-oriented topic, or they have offered young talented people limited contracts in pharmaceutical research.

    The Open Innovation structure

    “The concept is unique for three reasons: crowdsourcing, open innovation, and incubation,” says Christian Tidona, who is the managing director of BioMed X GmbH. Tidona has already helped several startups to grow to maturity. The terms refer to the special structure of the concept. “Crowdsourcing” means that people are asked to voluntarily contribute their ideas.

    “Open innovation” underlines the fact that outsiders are also involved in the innovation process, while “incubation” stands for optimal conditions. “By calling for ideas for a research topic relevant to the pharmaceutical industry worldwide, we ensure that many scientists contribute their input,” says Tidona. “Correspondingly, the brain pool and thus the creative potential is much larger than when just a few people are involved.”

    The project teams realize their ideas in a first-class scientific environment. That is also the reason for the close relationship with the top-class location Heidelberg. In addition, the teams are supported by mentors from inside and outside the company. Betz und Tidona have coined the term “outcubation” for their jointly developed innovation concept.

    It is a fitting description because the top talented people work outside the company as if they were in an innovation incubation. For example, they also attract additional sponsors. Clearly defined rules governing confidentiality protect the rights of each sponsor.

    The selection process in the assessment center

    Three project teams are currently working in Heidelberg.  They were selected in a five-day assessment center. Applications from hundreds of young talented people from more than 60 countries were received in response to the call for ideas on the topics relevant to EMD. Ultimately, just under three dozen applicants were able to form small groups that further developed the potential solutions they had submitted.

    “Scientific expertise, creative energy, the ability to lead, and enthusiasm for product-oriented research were the key criteria when it came to selecting the team leaders,” says Betz. The talented scientists were able to apply for three categories: group leader, post doc or research associate. The latter corresponds to the status of a Ph.D. candidate. Following the assessment center, the designated heads of the groups selected colleagues from the applicants who were present for specific positions.

  • The participants in the BioMed X Innovation Center assessment center are enthusiastic about their projectsEnlarge
  • The participants in the BioMed X Innovation Center assessment center are enthusiastic about their projects
    © BioMed X

    Sharing advantages and risks

    EMD Serono is sponsoring the three project teams, initially for a period of two to four years. BioMed X takes care of establishing a close relationship with the stimulating environment at the Heidelberg innovation hub. At the end of the sponsoring program, EMD Serono can integrate the projects into its own research activities if it wishes.

    If EMD Serono decides not to take advantage of this option, the project remains at BioMed X, which has the right to independently further develop the work. In this way, the partners are sharing both the advantages and the risks. It is an approach that makes the new innovation concept interesting for both participants.

  • Christian Tidona, Managing Director of BioMed X GmbH
  • Christian Tidona, Managing Director of BioMed X GmbH
    © BioMed X

    Motivating the teams

    So what exactly motivates young, highly talented people to apply to conduct product-oriented research at the interface between the pharmaceutical industry and academic research? “The heads of the groups have a permanent contract of employment at BioMedX and can develop their careers in many directions,” explains Tidona.

    “They will be able to publish their results and thus retain a foothold in the world of academic research. They will be also able to participate in courses that prepare them for corporate management. This know-how can be useful if they decide to found their own startup or switch to the pharmaceutical industry. In other words, their options are open.”




    Who are the leading researchers at the BioMed-X innovation center in Heidelberg?

    Jan Reiling heads the "Metabolism and Cancer" project.

    Reiling did postdoctoral work for eight years at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He is investigating the effect of a stress-triggered metabolic process on the survival of cancer cells. His aim is to identify the factors that interfere with this metabolic process and either destroy the cancer cells or act as biomarkers to provide information about the status of the tumor cells. 

    Simone Fulle heads the "Selective Kinase Inhibitors" project.

    Fulle was a postdoctoral student at the biotech company InhibitOX in Oxford, UK and at Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, Germany. She is working on a project called "Rational Drug Design" and developing computer models that show whether, and how, certain active ingredients dock onto cancer-relevant enzymes known as kinases. Good forecasts concerning the structure and effects of a substance improve preclinical research. 

    Lee Kim Swee heads the "Immunosuppressive Environment of Tumors" project.

    Swee was a postdoctoral student at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts and a researcher at Scil Technology in Martinsried near Munich, Germany. He is investigating how tumor cells use certain immune cells in order to avoid immune detection. He intends to derive new approaches to cancer immunotherapy from his research.

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