In autumn 2020, an independent jury of six experts, including investors and researchers, selected three teams from the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association (MDC) to receive the funding required to launch a spin-off. The most important deciding factor was whether the feasibility of the transfer idea had been proven. The jury also assessed the novelty of the development – i.e., whether there are already companies with similar ideas – and whether the concept is patentable. The winners of the first funding round will receive up to €250,000 for a maximum of one and a half years. The MDC also organizes training sessions where experienced entrepreneurs share their expertise – for example, in how to prepare a business plan.
Dr. Ingo Curdt, you are the coordinator of the SPOT funding program in the Technology Transfer Office at the MDC. Who is this funding aimed at, and what is special about the new funding initiative?
The SPOT program supports teams that have the potential to reproducibly produce a commercially viable product. We have already supported projects at various stages in the past, but rarely in the final lead-up to spin-off launch. Now, for the first time, we are financing this challenging phase with funds that the MDC has raised from the (ERDF).
What can the chosen teams use the funding of up to €250,000?
The amount can be used for all spin-off preparations – for example personnel, equipment, advertising material, and patent applications. However, in compliance with Germany’s Competition Act, we are not allowed to continue funding the venture once the company is established.
Eight teams applied in the first round of applications, which closed in August 2020. Will there be another funding round?
We want to continue supporting potential spin-off projects over the coming year. We are looking forward to high-quality applications and are already pleased about the keen interest in the SPOT program. In principle, the Berlin Senate’s funding for this current program is only being offered up to 2022.
What is the MDC hoping to achieve by supporting spin-offs and why is technology transfer so important?
Several start-ups have already established themselves close to the Berlin-Buch campus. We enjoy an active and successful working relationship with these companies. If more spin-offs come out of the MDC, this creates a very positive atmosphere for research and innovation. It also creates more jobs in our immediate vicinity. The MDC also receives a share of the license revenues once the start-ups have established themselves on the market.
With its Technology Transfer Office, the MDC has an independent department that provides support in areas such as patenting, commercialization of research results, and spin-offs. It is important to us that high-quality basic research also finds use in apps.
SPOT supports the following research projects:
A highly innovative muscle research team led by Dr. Verena Schöwel develops patient-specific muscle cells to be used for transplants in cases of muscle injury or atrophy. The latter occurs in muscular dystrophy and many other diseases, affecting more than six million people in the European Union alone. As successful therapies are yet to be developed, patients depend on a wheelchair or have to be ventilated. The team is able to produce patient-specific muscle cells in accordance with good manufacturing practice (GMP) regulations. This is a prerequisite for conducting first-in-human studies. The regenerations potential of the transplants was proved in animal experiments. The first-in-human 1/2a phase clinical trial is currently prepared with Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin as sponsor and Universities Ulm and Regensburg as study centers. Thanks to SPOT funding, the group is now working on upscaling the manufacturing process and establishing the last steps towards founding the MyoPax company.
Immunotherapies are considered one of the most important new pillars of cancer therapy. The research group led by Dr. Uta Höpken, Dr. Armin Rehm and Dr. Jara Joedicke is planning to position itself on the market with an innovation in this relatively young field of research. They are working on cell-based immune therapies using so-called CAR T cells. These are specific immune cells taken from the patient that are genetically modified outside the body in such a way that they can recognize and destroy cancer cells. CAR T-cell therapy has already shown remarkable success in international studies for leukemias and lymphomas, but the MDC researchers are now developing novel CAR T cells that are particularly suitable for cancer of the hematopoietic system. The group has already generated the necessary CAR receptors in multiple variants. It also has a bioreactor that can produce the cell therapeutics in line with good manufacturing practice.
The research group led by Professor Michael Bader and colleagues has developed a potential drug that can lower serotonin levels in the body. Serotonin is an important signaling molecule that, in some diseases, is overproduced in the body. This makes the substance a promising candidate for tackling diseases such as pulmonary hypertension, inflammatory bowel diseases like Crohn’s disease, and carcinoid syndrome – in which tumor cells produce excessive serotonin. The research group has already succeeded in patenting the potential drug and demonstrating its efficacy in disease models. It is now working to prove that the substance cannot pass the blood-brain barrier. The researchers are planning to launch a spin-off in order to subsequently test its safety and efficacy in animal experiments.
Text and interview: Susanne Donner