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Max Planck Florida Looks to the Sunshine State, Germany for New Partners

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) – The Max Planck Florida Institute is working with universities in Florida and Bavaria to develop research collaborations and attract visiting faculty members to MFPI, with help from the German state's science minister, who recently visited the institute's campus in Jupiter, Fla.

Wolfgang Heubisch, Federal State Minister of the Bavarian State Ministry of Science, Research and Arts, led a delegation of German officials and university administrators during a daylong visit to Max Planck Florida.

Universities from Bavaria joining Heubisch in the Sept. 7 visit — and expected to participate in future collaborations with Max Planck Florida — include leaders of some of the most prestigious universities in Germany, including the Technical University of Munich; Friedrich-Alexander University, Erlangen-Nuremberg; and the University of Würzburg.

"Florida provides bright prospects for researchers. In that regard, Bavaria matches the Sunshine State. We have a high common potential," Heubisch told GenomeWeb Daily News. "This trip was customized to deepen the interchange between Florida and Bavaria and to explore further opportunities for joint activities. Bavaria and Florida will make good travel companions on the road to innovation and sustained success."

The Bavarian delegation met officials and representatives from Palm Beach County and several Florida academic institutions — including Frank Brogan, chancellor of the State University System of Florida; Florida Atlantic University President Mary Jane Saunders; and David Day, director of the University of Florida's Office of Technology Licensing.

"The plan is now to follow up with them on an individual basis, and hope we'll be able to establish some collaborations between those institutions," Claudia Hillinger, Max Planck Florida's vice president for institute development, told GWDN today.

The institutions hope to team up on research into personalized medicine as well as the development of medical devices. The cross-university collaborations could extend into clinical trials, which the institute does not itself carry out given its focus on basic research.

"It could also be that the Bavarian universities collaborate with other institutions in Florida, and that was also part of the discussion. Max Planck Institute in Florida would be a natural link between Florida and Bavaria," Hillinger said.

The Bavarian schools, she said, could help Max Planck Florida broaden collaborations already in the works with Florida schools. Max Planck Florida and FAU are developing a new, joint integrative biology and neuroscience graduate program that has already begun recruiting students and is scheduled to welcome its first class in fall 2011.

To mark the new joint program, Max Planck Florida and FAU will host an inaugural Neuroscience Symposium set for Sept. 28-29 at the university's Boca Raton campus.

Hillinger said the program can benefit Max Planck Florida by deepening its international pool of young researchers.

Another way Max Planck Florida can build relationships with the universities in Bavaria, she said, could be to accommodate visiting researchers at the institute's guest laboratories.

Max Planck Florida can accept one or two visiting researchers within its current temporary facility, a 40,000-squarte-foot space on the FAU campus, which like the new facility is near the Scripps Research Institute campus that officially opened last year.

However, Max Planck Florida will have six guest labs within the new $60 million, 100,000-square-foot facility now under construction on the MacArthur Campus of Florida Atlantic University, which donated six acres to the institute for the project. More than half the space, 57,600 square feet, will consist of laboratory space for the 15 research groups envisioned as being based there.

"There would be universities, individual research groups, other research organizations. It can be universities within the US. It can be research institutions within the US. And it can be researchers from abroad that work with us in these guest facilities," Hillinger said. "That would also be a natural point of collaboration, where we invite university researchers from abroad to spend a certain period of time with us working on a specific project."

While the researchers and their universities will develop collaborations with Max Planck Florida individually, Bavaria remains a key player because of its financial support for the academic institutions and the Max Planck Society. The German federal government joins with Bavaria and other state governments to assume half of the funding for the budget of the Max Planck Society — except for its Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics, which is funded by the German government and the states of Bavaria and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

"Florida and Bavaria share a lot. Both states welcome technology. Both foster research. And both have emerged as major bioscience players," Heubisch said. "In virtually no time at all, the state of Florida has risen in the biotech field," in no small measure due to the more than $1 billion showered on a half-dozen research institutes by the state of Florida and numerous local governments.

Heubisch said Florida's collaboration with German partners dated back to then-Gov. Jeb Bush's 2005 visit to Bavaria. "Florida has used the biotech campus in Großhadern-Martinsried as a guideline for the development of its own biotech initiative. The close partnership, that was established then, will now contribute to an increasing research dynamic in Bavaria," he said.

Hoping to further that dynamic, officials from Max Planck and the Florida and Bavarian delegations also discussed technology transfer, patents, and commercialization. Hillinger said Max Planck Florida is developing policies designed to facilitate commercializing technologies developed in its Florida institute.

"What we did is compare some ideas and some approaches: How it's handled in Germany and how it's handled in Florida," Hillinger said.

Among issues yet to be decided, she said, is whether Max Planck would commercialize its Florida technologies as it does technologies developed at its other institutes worldwide, or separately. Until now, the Max Planck Society has handled commercialization through its tech transfer entity Max Planck Innovation.

"Our focus currently is to build up our research operation in the institute," Hillinger said. "We have not so much focused on the tech transfer side so far, but that is one of the next steps we'll have to take care of. We'll have to come up with a plan. We're working on a concept, but it's not finalized so far."

Last year, researchers across the society's 81 institutes worldwide reported 130 inventions to Max Planck Innovation, which concluded 76 commercialization agreements. Those numbers are down from 177 inventions, but up from 62 agreements in 2008, according to an annual report. That report also stated that the society expects to record total 2009 commercialization revenue of €13.3 million ($16.8 million), including sales of shares in the startups totaling €300,000, though final figures are not yet available.

Speaking with GWDN in July, the institute's new Chief Scientific Facilities Officer Ivan Baines said he expected commercialization activity at Max Planck Florida to begin with a burst of startups from newly-hired directors, followed by a relatively slower pace as new discoveries take shape over the next "about five years," then another wave of startups, depending on the strength of the economy and venture capital market.

The institute is expected to generate 1,800 direct and indirect jobs, and more than $2 billion in economic activity, over the next two decades.

Officials in Palm Beach County and the rest of the Sunshine State are hoping Max Planck Florida generates enough new spinout companies — and thus new jobs and taxes — to justify the $94 million spent to attract the institute from the state of Florida's Innovation Incentive Fund, as well as the $86.9 million the county agreed to contribute toward the permanent facility construction and operations, including the facility cost. In addition, the Town of Jupiter waived $260,000 in impact fees, while FAU gave Max Planck Florida rent concessions on its temporary facility in addition to the land donation, valued at $6.3 million.

Hillinger said Max Planck Florida welcomed its fourth research group leader earlier this month, when James Schummers began working at the institute. Schummers' research will focus on the functional organization of the human brain cortex, responsible for functions that include sensory perception, motor control, and higher cognitive functions. The research would be applied toward new medical diagnostics technologies as well as toward understanding diseases, such as Alzheimer's, Huntington's, mental retardation, and others.

Max Planck Florida has already established a synapse physiology group led by Jason Christie; a molecular neurobiology group led by Samuel Young Jr.; and a digital neuroanatomy group led by Bert Sakmann, the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and the institute's inaugural scientific director. Sakmann's group is conducting a program dedicated to creating a three-dimensional map of the normal brain.

She said the institute will continue hiring support staffers for the labs of Young and Christie, adding to what is now a staff of 39 — consisting of 17 research scientists, 10 support staff members and the rest administrators.

However, decisions on additional research groups and their leaders, Hillinger said, would not proceed until Max Planck Florida finished hiring the three scientific directors it seeks to oversee the 15 research groups planned over the next five years.

"We hope that we'll be able to finalize things early next year. After that is concluded, we will then follow up with more research groups," Hillinger said.

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