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Nature 413, 4-5 (20 September 2001) | doi:10.1038/35095201

regionsBiopolis on the Elbe Dresden

Helen Gavaghan1

  1. Helen Gavaghan is a freelance writer based in West Yorkshire.

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Biopolis on the Elbe Dresden

Rising star: the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (above) has been galvanized by Kai Simons (above right).

It is reassuringly human to know that one person can make a difference. In Dresden, a city striving to become an academic powerhouse in the biological sciences, that person is Kai Simons, one of the directors of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG). "Kai has used his seniority in science to build biotechnology in the area," says fellow director and long-term colleague Wieland Huttner. And as the founding president of the new European Life Scientist Organization and an expert in cell membranes, Simons has plenty of seniority to draw upon.

Simons' aim, and that of a small founding coterie of scientists, is to create an open industrial network of academia and industry that will rival other world-class institutions. Together they are kick-starting three main engines of growth in an enterprise rapidly becoming known as Biopolis Dresden. These are the MPI-CBG, a new 'BioTec' centre (three-quarters industry, one-quarter academic) to be attached to the Technical University of Dresden (TUD), and the Centre for Computational Biology funded by the Klaus Tschira Foundation. Each is creating new jobs at all levels, from technician to professor.

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A New Institute

Biopolis on the Elbe Dresden

Klaus Tschira is laying the foundations for a bioinformatics centre on the banks of the Elbe.

The German government turned its attention to Dresden in the early 1990s, as part of a plan to spread centres of intellectual excellence into the former East Germany. But "they were having trouble recruiting someone of calibre to get the enterprise off the ground", says Huttner.

This was not surprising, argues Simons, given how competitive molecular biology and genetics are, and how exciting environments such as Harvard and Britain's Cambridge are with their mixture of academia, start-ups, universities and related institutes. In 1996, Huttner told the Max Planck Society (MPS) that a traditional research-only institute would not work. Something more was needed and Simons, he suggested, was the person to build it.

That something was a whole new infrastructure that could form a biotechnology network, with open interactions between universities, institutes and industry, says Simons. The crucial question was: "Is it possible to establish a world-class research centre where it did not exist before and be taken seriously by other world-class centres?" Simons says.

In the meantime, the state government in Saxony had concluded that biotechnology would be a welcome addition to the area's economy. The state was also aware that the MPS was looking for a location for a biologically based institute, but it too — as the provider of half of the funds — wanted more than a research-only institute.

Aware of all these swirling aspirations, Simons said yes to the overtures of the MPS in 1996. A little over a year later, the MPI-CBG was founded, and the institute opened its doors for business at the end of January this year. The price tag for construction and equipment was DM130 million (US$59 million), and it now employs around 200 people and has space eventually for about 400. The MPI-CBG's focus is the interface between cell and developmental biology (see News Feature on pages 244–246). Of the 25 group leaders who will eventually staff the institute, 20 have so far been recruited — one of whom will work from the International Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology in Warsaw.

Huttner heads the international PhD programme at the MPI-CBG, which covers cell biology, developmental biology, bioengineering, genetics, biophysics and neurobiology. Some 30 graduates were selected in 2000–01, and this number will rise to 120 by 2003–04.

The MPS's rule for its international programmes is that no more than half of the fellowships can go to Germans, Huttner explains. In the last round, he was particularly pleased to see a high percentage of high-quality candidates from eastern and central Europe.

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Industrial and Academic Partnerships

So much for the institute, but what about the 'something more'? Through 1998 and 1999, while the institute was building up its research groups, Simons and colleagues, including Konrad Müller, a consultant and former head of personnel at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, immersed themselves in the business of giving Dresden the infrastructure of a world-class centre of science.

They worked with the TUD and the state government to establish the intellectual framework and aims of a new centre that would bring biology, medicine and engineering together. The result is a 15-acre site, part of the TUD, in the centre of Dresden and close to the MPI-CBG. The building site will provide a home for industry and academia to work side by side. Such proximity and open interchange between academia and industry is essential for the intellectual health of biology in the area, argues Simons, because the two feed off one another's ideas.

Start-up and young companies will eventually rent three-quarters of the centre, and have access to start-up advice, public relations, marketing, workshops and seminars, as well as central scientific facilities that academics and industrialists will share.

Academics will occupy the remaining quarter. The TUD and the University of Liepzig have created five new professorships covering genomics, biophysics, proteomics, tissue engineering and cell machinery at the new institute. And it is Simons and his colleagues that provide the pulling power to bring in talented researchers to fill these posts.

The centre will be completed in 2003. In the meantime, both academics and start-ups are occupying spare space in the MPI-CBG (see 'Box 1 The path from lab to industry').

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Philanthropic Support

In parallel with the administration and planning needed for both the MPI-CBG and the BioTec centre, Simons and his colleagues were strongly aware of the need for expertise in bioinformatics. "We put feelers out for money to private institutions, the city and the European Union," says Simons.

Biopolis on the Elbe Dresden

Bright future: Tony Hyman knows it is something of a balancing act, but believes Dresden's biopolis will be successful.

They struck lucky with the Klaus Tschira Foundation, a charitable organization established to promote the natural sciences and protect Germany's architectural heritage. Klaus Tschira is the co-founder of software company SAP and is generally viewed as Germany's Bill Gates. His foundation is restoring Lingner castle on the opposite bank of the Elbe from the MPI-CBG. This will provide space for start-up companies and meeting rooms. The foundation is building a bioinformatics centre on the grounds, and another new professor, created by the TUD and the University of Liepzig, will head the centre.

It is an exciting time, says Tony Hyman, one of the four additional directors that Simons tempted to join him at the MPI-CBG. "All the balls are still in the air," he says, "they're still coming down. So far we haven't dropped any." Providing they don't, it seems that the vision of a world-class centre of biology in Dresden could succeed.

Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics
right arrow http://www.mpi-cbg.de

Technical University of Dresden right arrow http://www.tu-dresden.de

Cenix BioScience right arrow http://www.cenix-bioscience.com

European Life Scientist Organization right arrow http://www.elso.org