How do scientists feel about their inventions?

How knowledge becomes business

The figures are impressive: to date, around 4,500 inventions have been taken care of, around 2,700 exploitation contracts concluded, around 160 spin-offs supported and exploitation revenues of 500 million euros posted. Max Planck Innovation, the technology transfer office of the Max Planck Society, successfully mediates between science and business.

Text: Tim Schröder / Markus Berninger

The Max Planck Society conducts basic research. That is their job. In the institutes scattered all over Germany, astronomers listen to the echo of the Big Bang, and anthropologists fathom the growth of the brain Homo erectus and materials scientists determine the rate at which cracks propagate. The researchers get to the bottom of things. They want to explain the world and sometimes bring to light insights that change the worldview a little bit. The work should be “free and independent”. This is what the statutes prescribe.

And indeed, some research projects seem so free, independent and at the same time remote that it seems almost ethereal, like those cosmic clouds of dust in which new stars are formed - also a topic of the Max Planck researchers, by the way. But that's only one side of it. Because the Max Planck Society not only produces concentrated knowledge, but also a lot of patents and inventions that can be used in practice; Ideas that advance industrial development and lay the foundation for new products - that benefit many people.

At that time, the usual instruments needed more than an hour to image individual body sections of patients. Thanks to a new measuring method, the flash process reduced the time to a few minutes and was so fast that it was possible to record moving images of the heart for the first time - a sensation.

"This development was so drastic that from now on no manufacturer could live without it," says Jens Frahm, head of the Flash team at the time at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, "that was of course a uniquely good market position for us . “But it would take years for scientists to reap the rewards of their development. First they experienced their own business crime story with Flash.

Dispute over patents for flash processes

Basic researchers are rarely smart business people. Not everyone is familiar with the tough rules of the game of patent law. In 1985, Frahm and his employees therefore counted on the support of Garching-Innovation (GI), as the technology transfer office of the Max Planck Society was still called at that time. A wise step. Garching-Innovation - renamed Max Planck Innovation (MI) at the end of 2006 - mediates between worlds, between business enterprises and basic researchers. In 1985 the innovation consultants already had 15 years of experience in technology transfer and transferred many developments to companies in the form of licenses.

Flash develops into a patent law battle of unimaginable proportions: The large electronics manufacturers immediately recognize the importance of the invention. Frahm and the GI want to make the technology available to several companies and are initially negotiating partnerships and rights of use with General Electric in the USA and Siemens. At least enough money will flow from the agreement with Siemens to finance patent applications in the EU, the USA, Japan and Israel.

But GI and Frahm are tough. Despite the superiority. Everyone knows that there is a lot at stake. How much becomes clear when the courts finally come to their verdict in 1993: The companies have to pay license fees - retrospectively. By then, the Max Planck Society had invested almost 1.5 million euros in the legal dispute. They pay off, because the judge's verdict brought the Max Planck Society an income of around 155 million euros by 2006, by far the largest amount in the history of GI or Max Planck Innovation. The patent has now expired. However, the technology is still the basis of every new magnetic resonance tomograph today.

"Flash is not only financially the most important technology transfer in the history of Max Planck Innovation", says Jörn Erselius, managing director of the Max Planck subsidiary. "The patent dispute has also earned us enormous international recognition." In the eyes of many industrial companies, Max Planck Innovation is now a competent authority with assertiveness. This is important for future inventions from the Max Planck Society's laboratories. After all, an idea from basic research usually needs risk-taking investors to help turn it into a mature product. You have to strive for that.

But Erselius and his employees also have to advertise their work in-house - to convince the researchers of the importance of technology transfer. This is not an easy task, "because many people measure the value of their work not with patents or licenses, but with publications in renowned magazines," says Erselius.

But something is happening: “Up until the 1990s, technology transfer largely led a shadowy existence in the Max Planck Society. Meanwhile, many think differently, ”says the managing director. Examples like Flash may have contributed to this. “Ultimately, nothing has changed in the goal of noble, free basic research - we just try to make it clear that you can also do other things on the side.” Bringing inventions to man, for example.

Max Planck Innovation supports scientists in transferring knowledge

Max Planck Innovation does this together with the researchers in two ways: through license agreements or by spinning off a company. The team has around 30 employees - biologists and physicists, lawyers, business economists and a chemist. "On the one hand, our scientists understand the language of researchers, but are also trained in patent law and patent and license management," says Erselius, himself a biologist with an additional MBA degree. And one more quality is crucial: you have to be able to sell. Because anyone who sits down at the table with the heads of development of large companies should convince and present the invention appropriately.

The employees of Max Planck Innovation relieve the scientists of a crucial part of the external contacts: They conduct contract negotiations, take care of licenses, enforce patent rights or support the development of business plans when it comes to setting up a company.

Ever since the collapse of the Neuer Markt in 2001, venture capitalists had become very cautious. Erselius: “One-product companies only have a chance today in exceptional cases. Rather, you have to make it clear that the new technology can be used widely, that there are prospects for new, different products if one fails. ”The business plan must take this into account. But even if this condition is met: In the meantime, after a slight interim recovery, the latest financial crisis has brought further cuts, so that even the existence of young, existing companies, for example in the biotech sector, is threatened.

Support in setting up a company is all the more important. In this way, Max Planck Innovation also helps to put together the right founding team. After all, a young company can only convince investors if, in addition to first-class researchers, there is also capable management on board to run the business. “You just need competence on both sides. We try to bring both together, ”says Jörn Erselius.

Sunitinib - an example of successful knowledge transfer

Concentrating on research yourself and leaving the business to reliable partners - that's how Axel Ullrich always kept it. “I am definitely not called to be an entrepreneur. I prefer to pass that on to people who can do it and at the same time understand my work, ”says the director at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Martinsried near Munich. Nonetheless, the biochemist and developer of cancer drugs is probably one of the most enterprising scientists in the Max Planck Society. In around 40 years of research, he has founded four companies and registered 60 patents.