Max Planck Innovation: connecting science and business

November 21, 2014

With its motto "Connecting Science and Business", Max Planck Innovation is partner of both science and industry. Max Planck Innovation's interdisciplinary team provides consulting and support for scientists in evaluating inventions, applying for patents, and founding companies. Max Planck Innovation offers industry a central point of access to the innovations of the Max Planck Institutes, thus providing the important function of transferring the results of basic research into commercially and socially useful products.

Text: Markus Berninger

Incubation of inventions - extending successful models

The research institutes of the Max Planck Society conduct basic research in the service of the general public in the natural sciences, life sciences, as well as the humanities and social sciences. Many of these new scientific results are also inventions, as they provide novel solutions to specific problems and are suitable for commercial exploitation. Max Planck Innovation helps scientists in unlocking the economic potential of such inventions, for example, through patent protection and providing support in the subsequent commercialization within a licensing agreement or a spin-off company.

Often, however, there is an innovation gap between basic research and technological application, which initially makes additional development steps necessary. A few years ago, Max Planck Innovation therefore launched, together with the Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC) and the Life Science Incubator Ltd. (LSI) two incubators to further develop selected inventions in the field of life sciences, and thus bring them closer to a marketable form. This incubation concept has proven to be a great success and was therefore expanded by Max Planck Innovation both regionally and thematically in 2013.

The IT Incubator GmbH was initiated in November 2013 in Saarbrücken to leverage the commercial potential of inventions in the field of information technology. The company was launched by the University of Saarland and Max Planck Innovation and will accommodate up to four promising technologies a year, which were developed at the research facilities of the University of Saarland and Max Planck Institutes. Many of the created technologies are not yet ready for immediate inclusion in industrial product development. The IT incubator identifies and develops research results with the potential for commercial or industrial exploitation. "The new IT incubator is an innovation bridge linking scientific research with industry, thus advancing the development of new products," says Peter Gruss, former President of the Max Planck Society.

The scientists whose projects are included in the incubator are offered rooms, infrastructure, contacts, technology and professional project management, so that the projects can be further developed in a target-oriented manner. In addition, the incubator joins forces with the respective technology transfer organizations Max-Planck Innovation and S & T (Saarland University Knowledge and Technology Transfer GmbH) in marketing the incubated technologies. "We expect that new businesses are founded to market the products in this way and that established industrial companies will license the new technologies and products," said Florian Kirschenhofer, Start-up & Portfolio Manager at Max Planck Innovation.

In Göttingen, the Photonics Incubator GmbH. The company's aim is to facilitate the application of new insights from photonics research. Peter Gruss, former President of the Max Planck Society, David McAllister, former Minister President of Lower Saxony, and Johanna Wanka, then Lower Saxony Minister for Science and Culture introduced the Photonics Incubator in Hanover in 2013.

In June 2014, the Photonics Incubator started its activities with support by the Lower Saxony Ministry for Science and Culture (MWK) and the Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF). It is working closely with the Life Science Incubator GmbH in Bonn and the Laser Laboratorium Göttingen, and is also supported by the Max Planck Innovation.

License agreements

The US company Sundance Diagnostics licensed genetic markers that determine the risk of suicide in patients who are treated with antidepressants. The new test should help physicians to reduce the risk of suicide in patients who are treated with antidepressants and have certain genetic markers. The scientific basis for the test was laid by researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry.

The test, which is now being developed by Sundance Diagnostics should be brought to market as a laboratory test. In addition, clinical studies for approval with the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and CE marking have been initiated. The American company will submit applications within 18 months to the relevant authorities for this purpose. As researchers found at the Max-Planck-Institute for Psychiatry, suicidal thoughts occur in 8.1 percent of patients that are treated with antidepressants. In 59%, the risk of suicide increased within the first two weeks after the start of treatment or when increasing the dose of antidepressants. In the United States, Canada and some European countries, antidepressants have therefore been provided with a warning since 2005, making doctors and patients aware of the risk of suicide.

So far there was no evidence, however, for doctors which patients may be at risk. "The new test should help physicians to reduce the risk of suicide in patients who are treated with antidepressants. In addition, patients and family members should receive valuable information they can share with their doctor to weigh up the risks and benefits of drug therapy, "says Kim Bechthold, Executive Director of Sundance Diagnostics.

Researchers at Munich's Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry have discovered 79 Scientists at the Max Planck Institute of Psychiatry in Munich have now discovered 79 genetic biomarkers that had a 91% probability of correctly classifying patients at risk of antidepressant-induced suicide.. The researchers also discovered that the increased risk for suicide is not limited to individuals under the age of 25, as described in the warning by the American regulatory agency FDA. Instead, the risk was found in the studies to be present across all ages from 18 to 75. In the United States, more than 9 million new antidepressant drugs are prescribed annually (IMS 2006 National Prescription Drug Audit).

The licensing agreement with Sundance Diagnostics was concluded with Max-Planck-Innovation, the Max Planck Society's technology transfer organization.

Dolby Laboratories acquired usage rights to innovative imaging patent portfolio from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics. The new HDR technology (High Dynamic Range Imaging) produces images with realistic light intensity and color while reducing the amount of data. The technology is based on a novel method, which achieves a higher image quality on HDR-enabled screens and also compatible with conventional LDR screens (Low Dynamic Range). Dolby is now aiming to develop the technology for use with next generation displays.

HDR imaging has been used in still photography for years, and is now increasingly used in motion pictures.  Pictures are captured using a wide dynamic range from very bright to very dark. The wide capture range can be used to represent real world light intensities and colour levels more precisely than prior digital imaging. Resulting higher data volumes require more advanced processing for backward compatibility with LDR systems. Hans-Peter Seidel and Karol Myszkowski, together with their research team from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics, have developed this technology for processing HDR imaging data, which significantly reduces the data volume.  

According to Bernd Ctortecka, Licensing Manager at Max Planck Innovation, "Dolby Laboratories is the perfect match for this invention. Dolby has the capabilities to turn the invention into a great imaging technology for the best entertainment experiences."

A technology called EASYDOnut, developed by the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry and the German Cancer Research Center, has been licensed by spin-off Abberior GmbH. The technology enables the provision of high-resolution images for medical research: STED microscopy creates high-resolution images far below the diffraction limit of visible light. However, the technique’s engineering aspects remain comparatively complex, which impedes its dissemination and use. The new technology simplifies the optical system is now considerably. EASYDOnut precisely guides the laser beams of the STED microscope onto the sample being investigated by means of a single optical element. This innovation can encourage the spread of STED microscopy – also for the benefit of medical research. STED microscopy permits significant information to be obtained, even from living human cells.

Living cells can be investigated with modern fluorescence microscopy. In this process, suitable molecules within the cells are tagged with fluorescent dyes, which are then excited with light so they fluoresce. However, using conventional microscopy, no adjacent details closer than 200 nm to one another can be distinguished (due to diffraction limiting and resolution limited by the Abbe number). The reason for this lies in the wave nature of light and the inherent spatial expansion of a beam’s focal point. With STED microscopy, this focal point illuminating the fluorescing sample is made smaller by preventing the region surrounding the spot of light from fluorescing. This is accomplished by projecting a ring-shaped, second beam of light co-axially with the main beam, but at a different wavelength, one which suppresses fluorescence of the excited dye molecules at the edge of the main beam through what is known as stimulated emission.

Thanks to EASYDOnut, both beams of light can originate from a single point source, so there is no need for time-consuming alignment of the beams with one another. That saves users the cost of frequent technical maintenance. The big advantage of the EASYDOnut system lies in its very simple operation. “As a leading manufacturer of commercially available fluorescent dyes for new techniques in microscopy, the EASYDOnut system we offer our customers is a carefully tuned pairing of optical components and dyes for STED microscopy,” according to Gerald Donnert, Managing Director of Abberior GmbH.

The new technique was developed jointly with the inventor of STED microscopy, Stefan Hell from the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry, Nobel Prize Laureate of 2014, together with Johann Engelhardt and Matthias Reuss from the Optical Nanoscopy Department of the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) as well as Volker Westphal and Lars Kastrup from the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry. The invention has been patented and licensed by Max Planck Innovation and the DKFZ Office of Technology Transfer.

“The innovation simplifies the use of STED microscopes considerably. Observing biological processes in the micro-world of cells is simplified as well as improved, and thus it opens up new paths in biological research and medical diagnostics,” explains Bernd Ctortecka, Patent and Licensing Manager of Max Planck Innovation. EASYDOnut can be manufactured in an almost unlimited variety of optical wavelength combinations.


The Captury GmbH develops a new motion capture technology: Hollywood devotes great effort to chasing monsters through realistic-looking environments. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken have now developed a technology that greatly simplifies the production of such scenes.  Actors' movements are captured with a few cameras in a real scene and then transferred extremely realistically to virtual characters. This will not only simplify the work of cartoon makers, but also assist doctors and sportsmen with motion analysis.

Whenever computer-animated characters roam through wild landscapes, such a Gollum in Lord of the Rings, there were real actors at work. Film studios usually use a procedure called 'motion capture'. The actors wear skin-tight suits with markers attached to them reflecting beams of infrared light that are sent out and received by a special camera system. In this way, the movements of a real actor are recorded and can later be transferred to a virtual character, using animation software. “However, the suits are very uncomfortable for the actors, and the markers interfere with their movements”, says Nils Hasler from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken. For this reason, the Computer Graphics researchers there have developed a method that eliminates the need for markers but captures the movements quickly and realistically.

This method allows actors in their normal clothing to be filmed with ordinary cameras. The movements are then analysed with special computer software and transferred to a virtual character in the form of a skeleton. “We require only a few cameras instead of the several dozen cameras needed for the special effects in Hollywood. The movements are computed so quickly that we can transfer them directly to the animated character without time delay,” Hasler explains. The meanwhile patented computation method has been further refined in the past months. It can now deal with scenes in which several participants are simultaneously active and body parts overlap. “The system even detects a person’s movements when they are covered up by other objects or when there are disturbances in the background. This will allow us to shoot visual effects outside of the studio in the future, for example, out in open nature,” the Saarbrücken-based researcher reckons.

The computer scientists were able to solve yet another problem in the past few months, as Hasler explains proudly: “It was difficult for our software to reconstruct the body movements of actors wearing big coats or women entering a scene in long ballroom dresses. Our new computation method enables us to capture surfaces in such precise detail that, e.g., the draping folds of clothing can be reproduced realistically.” The new technology is also useful in areas outside the film and game industry. Athletes could use it to analyse specific, individual body movements without bothersome markers. Sports journalists would be able to comment on motion sequences, like in pole vault and discus competitions, in live television broadcasts.

“The field of medicine would also profit. It would be easier for doctors to depict and track the degree of recovery after operations on joints,” Hasler explains. The researcher from the Max Planck Institute for Informatics wants to establish a company together with Professor Christian Theobalt and his research colleague, Carsten Stoll, in order to offer their software as a commercial product. “We have already had quite a few inquiries from companies in the film and sports marketing industries,” Hasler reveals.

 Since 2007, Max Planck Innovation has supported spin-offs from the Max Planck Institutes in addition to the funding initiative "Good Practice for facilitating spin-offs: testing new methods to remedy management deficiencies in founding and pre-founding phases". The program was originally initiated by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF) to facilitate spin-offs and to evaluate whether additional support in the form of external management expertise in the start-up phase would have a positive effect on founding process. The funding initiative is supported by Max Planck Innovation under the name "Innovation meets management" with a new concept that is specifically tailored towards the needs of Max Planck Institutes.  The founding projects of the Institute of the Max Planck Society can be supported by the following measures:

  • Industry experts should temporarily plan and implement the further preparation of the foundation and the product in accordance with professional and industry-standard criteria.
  • Project managers help to coordinate and advance the scientific work and promote and support the project team in developing the business model and in planning further technical development.
  • In a last step, the interim manager prepares the operative go-live and foundation of the company.

In 2013, eight spin-offs in various fields such as life sciences, IT, Software and interface analysis were supported as part of the "Innovation meets management". Industry experts, interim managers and project managers shared their expertise, market knowledge and industry contacts with founders in various tasks and activities. The industry experts placed their focus on industry-specific research and development, and market considerations.

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