Most people associate the German region of Brandenburg with Bach’s concertos, or with Fontane’s description of its scenic landscapes, rather than with a high-tech biochip industry.
But this perception may change: BioHyTec, a network involving about 20 small and mid-sized companies, 10 academic institutions, and a handful of other partners all from the area of Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg, is fostering biosensor product development and academic biotechnology training in the region
BioHyTec, founded in 1999, won a regional government grant designed to strengthen the economy in East Germany from the German Ministry for Education and Research in 2000, providing € 8.2 million over six years for collaborative chip development projects. Four projects are currently underway, each guided by a company and involving at least one additional partner, and more of these collabortions are currently in discussion, according to Fred Lisdat, BioHyTec’s chairman. The projects were chosen by the members and evaluated by an external committee, he said, based on criteria like market potential and patent portfolio. “We are coming from the field of applications,” said Lisdat, and the focus is on niche markets for specific applications.
One company, Filt Lung and Thorax Diagnostics, is aiming, in partnership with other companies in the network, to develop a chip-based system for the non-invasive diagnosis of lung diseases. The project is funded with € 700,000 in total, about half of which stems from the government grant, and the other half comes from the commercial partners.
Filt, a 10-year-old company with seven employees that has been selling a breath condensate sampling device for four years, approached the project from the application end rather than the chip technology side. “Our initial idea was not the chip, but we had the diagnostic idea,” said Gunther Becher, a co-founder and business director of Filt. His company had identified disease markers in breath condensate and was looking for a better way to measure them. “We need easier and cheaper analysis of breath condensate because we intend to build point-of-care diagnostics for [local] pulmonary specialists,” he said. At BioHyTec, he found what he was looking for: “We had the problem to solve, the other partners had a solution,” he said.
Two different chip types are part of the project: an antibody chip to measure about half a dozen markers of acute and chronic inflammation of the airways, and a DNA chip to assay tumor markers from the lungs. While feasibility studies for the DNA chip are still ongoing, the antibody array is further along: BioTez Berlin-Buch, which occupies the same building as Filt adjacent to the Max Delbr ck Center for Molecular Medicine, is developing the chip itself, Luckenwalde-based BioMed Research is producing monoclonal antibodies, and Filt will deliver the sampling device and validate chip data with existing methods. Becher expects a prototype to be available by the end of 2003, and a product on the market by 2004.
Another company in BioHyTec’s orbit is Congen, which offers analytical services and products for the agricultural industry, “We are one of these satellites which take the technology and develop applications for it,” he said.
Congen heads a project funded by a total of € 800,000, about half of it in government grants, that is aiming to develop a “poultry chip,” a DNA chip for the fast diagnosis of, initially, about a dozen viral and two bacterial poultry pathogens from air, eggs, blood, tissue or feces. With current tests being slow and laborious, most poultry farms vaccinate their animals, Kuhn said. Having a sensitive detection system, “you could avoid a lot of vaccinations and react if you find a virus,” and save about a quarter of the vaccination costs, he added. Congen’s only partner in this project, providing the chip technology, is the molecular bioanalytics and bioelectronics branch of the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT) in Bergholz-Rehbr cke near Potsdam.
Congen, which was founded in 1998 and has 12 employees at present, is hoping to provide a chip-based poultry diagnostic service by 2004.
The other two projects aim to develop an antibody chip to detect mycotoxins in food - for example in industrial bakeries and breweries, and a sensor chip to detect antioxidants in cosmetics, respectively.
But not everyone is convinced that regional networks like BioHyTec will work. “I am not sure whether you always find the best companies agglomerated [in one region] because really, inventors are not regional but global,” said Marion Dörner, a principal at Munich-based investment company Earlybird. “Nevertheless, I think it’s valuable to have these competence centers. If you have good academia, and Berlin-Brandenburg has good academia, you can find better people.”
In addition to chip development, BioHyTec is planning to establish a biochip production center at Biotechnology Park Luckenwalde south of Berlin, a resource that will be shared by several companies and is scheduled to be up and running by 2004. “For a small company, it doesn’t make sense to establish your own [production center]. It’s going to kill you, it’s too much of an investment,” said Kuhn. According to Lisdat, the center, which is still at the planning stage, will be partly funded by the partner companies but will also try to attract government funding. What is required, though, to switch production from one company’s array to another’s within a day or so is a common chip design. “We have no more than three different types of chips, but we have more than ten different companies,” said Becher.
Whether BioHyTec’s initiatives will help Brandenburg brand itself as a center of biochips, though, remains to be seen. For now, participating companies welcome the help they get. “We think there is a future in biochip-based assays,” said Kuhn, “but we are a rather small company, so we cannot develop these systems ourselves.”