THE GERMAN Protestant Church recently rang the genomics alarm bells with a warning that current genetic and genomic research could lead us to the day when couples would be able to purchase made-to-order babies through the mail.
From the Western banks of the Atlantic Ocean it might seem that Germany has spent a number of years steadfastly preparing to take the worldwide genomics and biotech sectors by storm. But in fact, Germany, which missed out on its chance to compete with the US in the race to sequence the human genome, is still caught in a very public struggle to overcome its fears and recognize the value of biotech research.
Only recently has the German government signalled its readiness to act on the glaring facts: A vibrant biotech sector is a key factor for competitive economic success as well as for ensuring that Germany’s best and brightest don’t flee to more scientifically liberal countries.
As a result of this realization, a change is stirring within the country. Suddenly everything seems possible. Despite the gloom hanging over the Nasdaq, the German government is providing financing to help new companies get established. These companies are now trying to beat each other in the race for the most brilliant entrepreneurs. Eager venture capitalists and, last but not least, the stock market are also hunting for the best bets in the country, and, admittedly, there are many.
One interesting aspect of Germany’s genomics sector is that it is being led by experienced researchers. Unlike other high-tech branches, such as multi-media and the Internet, where 19-year-old CEOs in chinos and t-shirts celebrated their IPOs in a fraternity party atmosphere, very knowledgeable university professors and other experienced scientists have recently discovered their entrepreneurial spirit, thanks to the new incentives and the public’s changing mindset.
Suddenly these conservative Germans are in the ballgame with their US counterparts. And, as always, when a German starts something it is very serious.
Now there are just a few issues that remain to be solved. First of all, the public money has to starting finding its way to the right companies. Unfortunately, today, the money often flows to the biggest, not the best, names in the game.
Second, a network should be created between these new companies to link their strengths and, thereby, enable them to offer an integrated research portfolio to big pharma.
And, the public in Germany also has to be seduced by this new industry. Thanks to innovative people like publisher Frank Schirrmacher of the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the debate is in full swing: He opened the pages of his newspaper to the entire code of the human genome.
Nevertheless, among the German public, criticism and distrust still outweigh the newfound enthusiasm by far. I think this distrust is the product of a huge misunderstanding and it is incumbent on German entrepreneurs to clarify their intent to the public. Rather than wait for the politicians to set the rules, regulations, and limitations regarding the German biotech sector, businesspeople should design a genome research “Magna Carta” that could define the sector’s purpose and alleviate the questions of ethics that stir among the public.
With the exception of people like Friedrich von Bohlen of Lion Bioscience, very few CEOs have made an honest attempt to win the public’s support for genomic research.
For Germany to secure the future success of its biotech sector, establishing a dialogue between the entrepreneurs, the shareholders, and the public should be next on the agenda.
Only this will ensure Germany’s ability to compete in the race to turn genomic data into new and better drugs and diagnostics.
Gunnar Weikert is the CEO of Inventages, 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. He holds an M.D. as well as a Ph.D. in diabetes research. You can e-mail him at [email protected] .
TrendSpotter is a weekly column that will focus on how trends in politics, patent law, and the US and European markets will affect the genomics industry. The column will appear every Friday. Next week Rochelle K. Seide, a partner and IP specialist at Baker Botts, will lay down some guidelines for protecting your intellectual property.