Despite technological progress in basic medical research and steadily increasing knowledge on human diseases, the translation of research results into new therapies is still inefficient. Dr Christian Tidona, Founder and Managing Director of the BioMed X Innovation Centre tells us more about the challenges involved and results so far achieved.

Academia and industry agree that the transferability of medical research to human application is not given automatically. New approaches, especially in preclinical research, are needed to make results tangible, reproducible and finally applicable for the benefit of patients.

The BioMed X Innovation Centre, located at the biomedical innovation hub in Heidelberg, Germany, enables a completely new way to accelerate the pace of innovation at which biomedical challenges in preclinical research are tackled: The combination of active global crowdsourcing of the best research talents with local incubation at the university of Heidelberg campus in southern Germany.

“Our overall goal is it to foster an environment in which early-career scientists can work together in dedicated projects on tough preclinical challenges to help lay the groundwork for a new generation of therapies”, says Dr. Christian Tidona, Founder and Managing Director of the BioMed X Innovation Centre:

Since 2013, global players like Merck, Boehringer Ingelheim, AbbVie, Roche and Johnson & Johnson have been following BioMed X’s innovation model to solve two big problems at a time: The outsourcing of preclinical research in high-risk exploratory fields and the identification and recruiting of the world’s best academic research talent to develop completely new research approaches in these fields.

“Operating as an independent research institute, we close this gap and serve a large purpose in advancing translational medicine.” Dr. Tidona continues: “Working at the interface between academia and industry allows BioMed X to truly combine the best of both worlds: free, creative and curiosity-driven research with a solid validation of results, timelines and deliverables, as required by the pharma industry.”

Finding the needle in the haystack

Projects usually start with a partnership with a pharmaceutical company which is looking for fresh new ways to solve a preclinical research problem. “Traditionally, big pharma is facing the challenge to literally find the needle in the haystack! With BioMed X’s global crowdsourcing-platform, we are now able to identify and attract researchers at the world’s best universities and research institutions who are interested in making a real impact in research for the benefit of patients.” says Tidona. The crowdsourcing platform’s completely automated online process always starts at where talents can register and receive an email as soon as a call for application is published.

On a single call for application, BioMed X usually receives up to 500 project proposals from early-career scientists from 60-80 countries. The 15 most promising talents are then selected by an evaluation committee and invited to a five-day boot camp in Heidelberg. There they work in interdisciplinary teams supported by experienced mentors on the combination of their ideas into a truly original project proposal. On the final day of the boot camp, they pitch their proposal to a jury consisting of four to six senior managers of the pharma partner. Finally, the best of the best are picked and win a research grant of up to five million Euros together with a two to five-year research fellowship at the BioMed X Innovation Centre in Heidelberg.

“At BioMed X, we believe that progress and success in our work can only be achieved by a highly diverse community of like-minded outstanding scientists. Sharing ideas and helping each other is key. In other words, we are looking for real team players who are willing to generate sustainable impact and change the way in which patients are treated in the future.” states Dr. Tidona. “When building our teams, we mix top researchers with very different scientific and cultural backgrounds to leverage synergies and foster cross-pollination for the best possible results. Diversity in every aspect is our source for real innovation.”

The variety of BioMed X’s research projects currently ranges from neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, psychiatric diseases such as depression or schizophrenia up to chronic lung diseases, such as COPD or idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. The teams also aim to find completely new approaches to treat very complex diseases like cancer, or autoimmune diseases like multiple sclerosis, inflammatory bowel disease, systemic lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis. Further challenges are always in the pipeline.

In any case, BioMed X’ s track record so far is impressive: In the nearly seven years since its foundation in 2013, 14 research groups have been started, approximately 50 Bachelor, Master and PhD theses have successfully been completed and more than 100 research talents from over 30 countries  relocated to Heidelberg. Last but not least: Seven research projects have been finalised, of which six were transferred to the sponsoring pharma partner including all data, materials and intellectual property rights.

Heidelberg: Research outside the box

Apart from the two main drivers that make the BioMed X innovation model a success story –  local density of talent and local diversity of talent – the third important ingredient which enables the institute to operate at a constantly high-level performance is its outstanding location at the University of Heidelberg.

Heidelberg is the largest biomedical research hub in Europe, and home of famous institutes such as the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ) and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL).

The large technology park on the campus of the University of Heidelberg hosts around 100 small and medium-sized biotech companies, including BioMed X. Being on campus offers the BioMed X research teams access to state-of-the-art academic research infrastructure. There are more than 20 other local institutes focused on biomedical research with over 15.000 jobs and 16.000 students in life sciences and medicine. “It’s definitely another key to our success that our research teams receive guidance from experienced mentors from our pharma partners, as well as from experienced academic mentors from our local campus ecosystem in Heidelberg.” Christian Tidona adds.

It takes new business models to disrupt entire industries

Looking back at what has been reached so far and talking about the future of preclinical research in biomedicine, Tidona has a clear vision: “To be competitive on a global scale, we need to create strong local ‘Innovation Honeypots’ similar to that with BioMed X in Heidelberg. We need to attract and physically relocate the best of the best research talents to those locations to allow them to cross-leverage and cross-pollinate their ideas. The focus should be less on short-term shareholder value and more on long-term impact and sustainability.”

“In the past years, we at BioMed X have successfully completed the first steps on the way to become a major institute in Heidelberg. That’s why we are quite confident that our unique model can also scale globally.” Tidona concludes.