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TRENDSPOTTER: The View from Germany

GERMANY HAS taken a leading role in Europe’s genomics industry, and going forward the country’s contribution promises to grow. Market watchers expect some $200 million in public funds to be made available in the near future, demonstrating Germany’s commitment to staying at the forefront of innovative medical and scientific research.

All of this underscores one fundamental shift in the German mindset: People are no longer afraid of genomic and biomedical research.

Several years ago, the German pharmaceutical giant Hoechst (today Aventis) had to fight tooth and nail to win approval for its genetic insulin production plant, while its main competitor, Eli Lilly, had no problem opening a similar facility across the border in Strasbourg, France. At the time the German public feared biomedical research, with some opponents going so far as to destroy research labs. As a result, Germany fell behind in molecular biology.

About five years ago, however, things started to turn around. The government launched a contest, pitting the nation’s 14 federal states against one another in a competition for public funds. This project, which was worth more than $200 million, allowed Germany’s major research institutes, including Max Planck and the German Cancer Research Center, to keep up with their international counterparts in genome sequencing. In addition, this funding helped trigger a wave of start-ups, resulting in the establishment of such companies as Evotec, Lion, and Medigene.

Today, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has continued this research friendly policy, having realized how important it is for the German research community as well as the economy. Now, Schroeder is even going one step further, promising to change some extremely conservative legislation that limits the types of research that can be conducted on embryos. So far, the German parliament hasn’t made up its mind on these issues, but the issue has stirred a lively public debate.

In order to influence the vast majority of hesitant members of parliament, Schroeder has even set up a national ethics commission, which is very open towards actual research opportunities and might support him in getting the majority to change this law.

As always, Germany is somewhat late to offer a clear position on its stance regarding biotechnology research.

On the other hand, this discussion shows that the overall hostile climate towards advances in genomics research and its applications for making innovative drugs has disappeared, since it focuses on a comparatively minor battlefield which does not hit the genomics industry in general but a rather small group of clinical researchers and gynecologists.

Going forward, Germany’s new and accepting attitude towards genomics research appears secure, allowing Germany to continue to play a leading role in the global genomics market.

Gunnar Weikert is the CEO of Inventage, a Dusseldorf-based venture capital fund. Until recently he was global head of physiomics at Bayer, where he negotiated blockbuster deals with Millennium, Lion Bioscience, and CuraGen. You can e-mail him at [email protected]  .      

TrendSpotter  is a weekly column that focuses on how trends in politics, patent law, and the US and European markets affect the genomics industry. The column appears every Friday. Next week Rochelle K. Seide, a lawyer and IP specialist with Baker Botts, will discuss patent law’s implications for the genomics industry.    

To access previous columns just enter the word "Trendspotter" in the archive search window on the homepage.    

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