Transforming research into new products

Yearbook report 2015 of Max Planck Innovation, the Max Planck Society's tech transfer office

March 06, 2015

Guided by the motto “Connecting Science and Business”, Max Planck Innovation GmbH is a partner of science and industry alike. Its interdisciplinary team provides consulting services and support for scientists from the Max Planck Society with regard to evaluating inventions, applying for patents and founding companies. Max Planck Innovation thus performs the important function of transferring the results of basic research to products that are useful for both the industry and the general public.

Text: Markus Berninger

Fig. 1: Leica SR GSD 3D super-resolution system for 3D localisation microscopy © Leica

Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Award winning products for research and science

Stefan W. Hell from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen was awarded the 2014 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. His inventions in the area of high-resolution microscopy have already been implemented in successful products and are applied in biological and medical research.

On 8 October 2014, Stefan Hell, together with Eric Betzig and William E. Moerner, received the most prestigious scientific award. The prize emphasises how important light microscopy is for the life sciences, especially for virus and cancer research as well as neurosciences. By inventing the STED (Stimulated Emission Depletion) microscope, Stefan Hell revolutionised light microscopy. Due to the fact that light occurs as a wavelength, conventional light microscopes have a limited resolution: objects that are less than 200 nanometres (millionths of a millimetre) apart can no longer be discerned as two separate entities. The same applies to fluorescence microscopy, which is frequently used in biological and medical research, and is bound by this same restriction known as the Abbe limit. In conventional fluorescence microscopy, cell molecules are marked with fluorescent dyes and “switched on” using a laser beam with a particular wavelength, making them glow. If the molecules are less than 200 nanometres (nm) apart, however, they also appear as a single blur. This effect is extremely disadvantageous for biologists and medical researchers; for them, the observation of far smaller structures in living cells is decisive. In the case of the STED microscopy method developed by Stefan Hell, the resolution is no longer restricted by the wavelength of light. For the first time, it is now possible to observe intracellular structures in ten times greater detail compared to conventional fluorescence microscopy.

STED has become a key technology for researchers and medical scientists, which is why a growing number of research institutions and universities are equipping their laboratories with these devices. According to industry insiders, the market for super-resolution microscopy is currently worth up to one billion euros. Max Planck Innovation has been assisting Stefan Hell and the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in marketing their technology for many years. As a result of this cooperation, licence agreements for methods such as gated STED (gSTED), GSDIM (ground state depletion microscopy followed by individual molecule return) and RESOLFT (reversible saturable optical fluorescence transitions) for the development of high-resolution microscopes were concluded with a number of different companies. With its Leica TCS SP8 STED 3X and Leica SR GSD 3D microscopes, Leica Microsystems is currently the only company to market both super-resolution systems associated with this Nobel Prize. When the licence agreement for GSDIM was concluded, Stefan Hell stated: “Leica Microsystems was by far the first company to take the historical breakthrough of the diffraction limit light microscopy and implement this in products. We are glad that with GSDIM, Leica is making available another nanoscopic method – which complements STED microscopy – worldwide.” Berd Sägmüller, Head of the Confocal Imaging business segment at Leica, told Wirtschaftswoche, a German weekly business magazine: “Back then, the decision to acquire the exclusive rights to Dr Hell’s invention was very risky.” Since then, more than 150 devices were sold at a retail price of 600,000 euros each. “The production is now in full swing,” Sägmüller continues. With the release of the MicroTime 200 by PicoQuant in 2014, another microscope based on the gSTED technology recently entered the market.

In addition, Max Planck Innovation assisted Stefan Hell’s department in setting up the two spin-off companies Abberior and Abberior Instruments in 2011 and 2012. The companies were founded by Mr. Hell and those of his colleagues who were involved in implementing STED and the related RESOLFT method in his department over the past few years and fully developed it for industrial use. Based on a modular platform, Abberior Instruments GmbH now offers commercial STED and RESOLFT systems. The new easy3D STED microscope offers a resolution of below 25nm, making it 10 times better than a conventional confocal microscope. Abberior Instruments has already been awarded the “German Industry’s 2014 Innovation Award” (Innovationspreis der Deutschen Wirtschaft 2014) and the “STEP Award 2014” for the best product. The microscopes were presented to an international audience at numerous trade fairs, workshops and roadshows. The microscopes have already been installed in many European countries as well as in China.

Stefan Hell’s Nobel Prize in Chemistry is once again testament to the fact that, in addition to highly advanced devices optimised for the respective methods and applications, suitable dyes are a key component of all known super-resolution methods. That is why the sister company, Abberior GmbH, develops and markets fluorescent dyes that are specifically customised for the different methods of optical nanoscopy. “The agreement with Max Planck Innovation means that a large part of our newly developed dyes are protected by the property rights of the Max Planck Society and ensures the exclusivity of these dyes,” says Gerald Donnert, CEO of Abberior GmbH.

“We congratulate Professor Hell on receiving science’s most prestigious award. His inventions in the field of microscopy are invaluable for biological research and medical diagnostics,” says Bernd Ctortecka, Patent and License Manager at Max Planck Innovation.

Licence agreements

Body Labs, a company based in New York City, licensed a novel software that creates three-dimensional avatars. The technology, which was developed by the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems and Brown University, is suitable for a range of applications, including the online sale of clothing and apparel.

Body Labs has developed the world’s most advanced, fully automated technology for creating virtual, three-dimensional avatars. This technology is the result of nearly a decade of intensive research conducted at Brown University and the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems in Tübingen. It allows users to easily create highly accurate and realistic avatars that can mimic the entire range of human motion. This capability opens up new possibilities for clothing and product design, 3D printing of specialty equipment and apparel, gaming, animation and online clothing sales.

“We are confident that we can use these new algorithms to create a new interface between consumers and businesses,” explains Bill O’Farrell, CEO of Body Labs. “Consumers will be able to select, compare and purchase goods and services based on their individual height, body shape and range of motion,” he adds. To create an avatar, customers either upload a body scan or enter a few body measurements into the web application BodyHub. BodyHub also allows users to modify the size, pose and animation of the 3D clone. Fashion designers could then upload their avatars to computer-aided design (CAD) software where they are dressed and animated, allowing designers to see how their clothing would fit various body types and how the individual items of clothing are altered and shaped by body movement. The company is currently focusing on the apparel and product design markets, but further potential applications include tracking body measurements for sport and fitness, video gaming, comparison shopping and ergonomics.

Based on a licence regarding the use of biological photoreceptors to directly control ion channels – which were the focus of research conducted at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics, among others – the Italian company Axxam developed a new technology for screening medical drugs using cellular light switches, thereby accelerating and simplifying the search for new active ingredients for medicine.

Fig. 2: The new platform allows scientists to test many different active substances in parallel.

Over the past ten years, a dream has come true for many biologists: with the aid of optogenetics, light-sensitive proteins can be implanted into a variety of cells, which can be then be switched on and off using light stimuli. Photosensitive proteins known as rhodopsins transduce light into electrical impulses in the eye’s nerve cells, thus enabling vision in animals. In 2002, Max Planck researchers discovered similar proteins in the green alga, Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, which is activated by light and act as an ion channel. This protein, named channelrhodopsin-2 by its discoverers, Ernst Bamberg and Georg Nagel from the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt and Peter Hegemann from the University of Regensburg, is activated by blue light and causes a massive influx of positive ions into the cell.

The Milan-based company Axxam SpA, a leading provider of research and development, has now developed a screening process that uses optogenetics to simultaneously test a large number of different voltage-gated ion channels. These channels are of particular interest to scientists searching for new active ingredients for medical drugs. The cells are genetically modified to form different variations of channelrhodopsins and the voltage-gated ion channels under examination. The Ion ChannelFLASH platform uses LED-based light sources (FLIPRTETRA), which activate the channelrhodopsins and thus change the voltage in the cells. This approach is used to monitor if a drug candidate brings about the desired changes in the performance of the ion channel under different cell voltages. The new platform replaces time-consuming and expensive methods that require electrodes or unnaturally high concentrations of potassium.

The discovery of channelrhodopsin is yet another example showing that basic research in highly specialized fields can lead to breakthroughs in entirely different areas of research and can result in innovative applications. Within just a few years, optogenetics has helped the original research on green algae – which at first glance was practically irrelevant for medical application – grow into a field of research that can develop new medical treatment options.

Spin-offs

KonTEM GmbH, a spin-off of the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics and the research centre caesar, was acquired by FEI Company. As a result, the phase contrast technology developed by KonTEM is merged in the product portfolio of a globally operating market leader in the field of high-performance microscopy.

The phase contrast system for transmission electron microscopes (TEM) developed by KonTEM creates an image contrast that is two to three times better than that of conventional technology without compromising resolution, thereby opening up new possibilities for examining of biological samples within the limits of modern technology. The technology on which this procedure is based was explored at the Max Planck Institute of Biophysics in Frankfurt and further refined at caesar to turn it into a marketable product. It is currently in the customer test phase. Both the technology itself and the company have received numerous prizes, including first place in the NUK Business Plan Competition in 2011 and the Innovation Award of the cooperative bank Volksbank Bonn Rhein-Sieg in 2012. Benjamin Kaupp, Scientific Director at caesar: “The fact that the company was acquired by an industry leader like FEI shows that KonTEM develops excellent, future-oriented technology.” The M&A mandate for the successful exit was carried out by High-Tech Gründerfonds (HTGF), Germany’s leading seed-stage investor.

In 2014, the Max Planck Society acquired an interest in Abberior GmbH, which was established as a spin-off of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen in 2012. The company’s technology is mainly based on the inventions in the field of microscopy made by the 2014 Nobel laureate Stefan Hell and his team at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry.

Incubators

In order to validate inventions – several of which are the product of basic research conducted at Max Planck Institutes – in line with the industry and help them approach the industry and the market, Max Planck Innovation has set up a number of different incubators over the past few years. This series of positive developments also continued throughout 2014.

Fig. 3: Scientists at the LDC

Lead Discovery Center GmbH (LDC), which was set up by Max Planck Innovation in the year 2008 in Dortmund, focuses on pharmaceutical research and fosters projects originating from research conducted at the Max Plank Society and at other research institutions to help them develop lead structures. In 2014, LDC entered into an alliance with Daiichi Sankyo to develop new drug substances for treating diseases that urgently require effective treatments. The partners will concentrate on pathologies and mechanisms of action relating to the treatment of oncological, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases and disorders. Within the framework of a new partnership with the Arctic University of Norway, the LDC and the University will jointly study a substance library gathered from a wide variety of organisms living in the Arctic Ocean, with the aim of identifying new active ingredients and developing new treatment approaches. The goal of the first collaboration with the Helmholtz Association is to identify potential new active substances for treating neuroblastomas and other types of cancer.

Life Science Inkubator GmbH (LSI), which has been operatively promoting various spin-off projects in the life sciences sector in Bonn since 2009 and in Dresden since 2013, has now – in the framework of one of these projects – developed a new approach to permanently reduce chronic pain using an “intelligent back belt”. Upon receiving its CE certification, the spin-off Bomedus began marketing the bomedus® back relief belt. Thanks to the back belt and its integrated textile electrodes, many types of chronic back pain can be alleviated over the long term without the use of drugs by stimulating the nerve ends. NEUWAY Pharma GmbH was granted 2.7 million euros in a Series A funding round by a consortium of investors with lead investor Wellington. NEUWAY focuses on developing and marketing a proprietary drug delivery platform, as well as on the preclinical and clinical development of innovative therapeutic agents for treating rare diseases of the central nervous system (CNS).

IT Inkubator GmbH took up operations in Saarbrücken in 2014. The company was set up by Saarland University and Max Planck Innovation with the aim of fostering promising information technologies developed by of Max Planck Institutes and research institutes of universities and universities of applied sciences in the German Federal State of Saarland. In March 2014, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the Minister President and Science Minister of Saarland, announced that the joint grant application of IT Inkubator GmbH and the University has been approved, thus ensuring that a total of 1.6 million euros in funding is made available for the incubator concept and the associated Competence Center of Computer Science for the next two years. In the course of the year, numerous potential incubation projects were evaluated, and the first highly promising candidates have already been accepted.

Photonik Inkubator GmbH began its operations in Göttingen in 2014. Its aim is to facilitate the application of new findings from photonics research by means of comprehensively prepared spin-offs. In 2014 the company moved into suitable facilities at the Laser Laboratory in Göttingen, located on the Research Campus of the University of Göttingen. Funded by the Lower Saxony Ministry for Science and Culture (MWK) and the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research (BMBF), Photonik Inkubator accepted and initiated its first project in November 2014. The company is currently evaluating further projects which would receive the respective research and development support in Göttingen to help validate technology, strengthen patent protection, expand the team, if need be, create a business plan and carry out fundraising efforts, so that they are ideally prepared for founding and financing a spin-off company.

Events

Munich was a hub of innovation on the 1st and 2nd of December when Germany’s leading research organisations hosted the third instalment of the Innovation Days conference series, which was first launched in 2012. In 2014 the event was organised by the Max Planck Society and Max Planck Innovation, and aims to promote the transfer of research results and strengthen the link between science and industry.

Fig. 4: Around 220 participants attended the Innovation Days 2014.

The Innovation Days are the perfect platform for bringing together innovative researchers, technology transfer professionals, business development specialists and venture capital experts. Furthermore, the industrial partnering conference provides a unique opportunity to learn more about high-performance technologies and spin-off projects from the Max Planck Society, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Helmholtz Association and the Leibniz Association. Researchers and founders presented 40 selected technologies and spin-off projects from the fields of life sciences (focus on biotechnology) and chemical & physical sciences (focus on materials and lightweight construction). At presentations and panel discussions, experts presented examples of best-practice cooperation models, gave advice on how to secure financing for starting a business and discussed open innovation. Via the online partnering platform, the participants were able to make appointments with each other in advance. Partnering booths had been made available for the more than 100 partnering meetings that took place, at which technologies and spin-off endeavours were discussed with potential funding and licensing partners. Due to the positive feedback received from the participants, the Innovation Days event series is set to continue and will be hosted in Berlin in 2015.

In 2014, Max Planck Innovation and Ascension hosted what was already the 8th Biotech NetWorkshop at Schloss Ringberg by Lake Tegernsee, inviting scientists interested in starting a business, as well as already-established life sciences companies belonging to the Max Planck Society, Helmholtz and Leibniz Associations, as well as the Hannover Medical School. Thanks to excellent and experienced speakers, the event was able to offer the participants from the life sciences sector a broad workshop agenda. Another highlight was Heiner Geißler’s talk on “Mountain Climbing and Management”. Together with the special atmosphere at Schloss Ringberg, the event once again presented an ideal opportunity for young founders and seasoned entrepreneurs to exchange ideas and experiences. Over the past few years, the Biotech NetWorkshop successfully established itself as an intensive networking event.

In September 2014, the Start-Up Days were held in Bonn for the second time. The event was hosted by Max Planck Innovation in cooperation with the technology transfer organisations of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, the Helmholtz Association and the Leibniz Association, which invited scientists from these four non-university research institutions who are interested in starting a business. At presentations and interactive workshops, the more than 90 participants were provided with practical information and cross-sector experiences on how to found and finance a business. We are also thankful for the invaluable support of experienced entrepreneurs who gave presentations and participated in panel discussions to pass their know-how on to the scientists interested in founding a start-up.

Facts and figures

In 2014, 131 inventions were filed with Max Planck Innovation (2013: 127), and 80 exploitation agreements (including agreements on joint inventions/technology transfer agreements) were concluded (2013: 93). Revenues from exploitation are expected to reach 23.5 million euros (2013: 22.5). In 2014, those revenues included the sale of a company and a residual payment from an earlier company sale with revenues of around 50,000 euros (2013: 0 euros). The final figures for the 2014 financial year will not be available until mid-2015 due to the delayed accounting of a number of licensees. With regard to the founding of new companies, there were 3 spin-offs from various Max Planck Institutes in 2014.

A new investment in an affiliated company could be realized in 2014. It is particularly satisfying to note that in addition to a seed investment round, four other follow-up investments were successfully completed in 2014, with a total volume of around 8 million euros. Especially noteworthy in this context is that an increasing amount of funding has been secured in recent years, for example, from EXIST Transfer of Research, GO-Bio and M4 for the pre-start-up phase. With support from Max Planck Innovation, 17 start-up projects of the Max Planck Society have secured a total investment volume in the amount of around 16 million euros from various support programmes for technology validation and start-up preparation since 2010 alone.

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