BioMed X – Seeding Biomedical Innovations
Combining the best of two worlds – academia and industry – BioMed X aims to foster breakthrough medical innovation with a major impact on society.
BioMed X is an independent research institute located within the campus environment of the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Operating at the interface between academia and industry, the institute undertakes biomedical preclinical research projects in the fields of biomedicine, molecular biology, cell biology and diagnostics. All its research projects are sponsored by renowned partners and conducted by early-career scientists recruited from all over the world.
“Managing Director Dr Christian Tidona, who started the company in 2013, explains the institute’s core principles: “BioMed X is based on a completely new innovation model which bridges the gap between academic research and the pharma industry. The model is unique, and is the culmination of my passion and experience from the past 20 years.”
He jokingly adds that he has two hearts in his chest, those of a scientist and of an entrepreneur. While doing his PhD in Heidelberg in the later 1990s, he started his first company. Now the owner of BioMed X, he is proud to say that unlike most start-ups, the company was founded with no investors, no public money and no exit strategy.
“BioMed X is a long-term project. I have no intention of ever selling the business, I want to create something that will have an impact in 50 or maybe 100 years, something that grows for the benefit of society.”
The brightest minds
How does the model work? It all starts with selecting a major challenge within human disease biology as identified by researchers and pharma companies, one that has yet to be resolved. BioMed X then posts this challenge to the best universities and research institutions worldwide and invites young academic scientists to apply by submitting original project proposals to resolve the issue.
“We usually get about 150-200 project proposals, from which we select the 15 brightest individuals. We fly them to Heidelberg for a five-day boot camp, where they are formed into 5 competing groups to convert the academic ideas into what we call ‘truly brilliant’ projects. Crucially, these are not only experimental but also implementable approaches.”
The winning team then enters the next phase – local incubation. The winners, including their families, are moved to Heidelberg to live and work in the institute on the university campus for up to 5 years. During this period, the team receives very intense mentoring from industry (the pharma sponsor), academia (the local ecosystem) and BioMed X (head of research). At the end of the five-year project, the pharma partner receives the rights to apply the validated research results.
Selecting a handful of lucky winners from such a large pool of experts can’t be easy, but BioMed X applies a structured selection process. “The key criterion is originality and quality of the science. We want outstanding scientists who come up with very elegant experimental approaches, that would stimulate thinking outside the box,” says Dr Tidona.
“We get a very diverse set of backgrounds from molecular biology to mathematicians and electrical engineers, from any country and any nationality. It is very important for our model to have this outstanding cross-pollination of outstanding scientists looking at the problem from completely different perspectives. This is the secret of innovation.”
As all the projects are unique, it is difficult to highlight one as an example. Dr Tidona mentions a research collaboration project with Roche Diagnostics in the field of nanomaterial-based biosensors for near-patient testing. BioMed X successfully achieved the proof of principle for a new sensor platform allowing the analysis of several different parameters from blood samples with one single device. Following BioMed X’s strategy, the intellectual property (IP) and know-how have been transferred to Roche Diagnostics for further development.
Another difficult challenge has been addressed with Janssen, focused on rapid identification of autoantigens in autoimmune diseases. The team is seeking to develop a new platform technology that leads to the identification of antigens recognized by T-cells involved in autoimmune responses.
And more recently, in June this year, BioMed X initiated its eighth joint research programme with Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany. The new programme will explore the role of extrachromosomal DNA in cancer and will complement the research of two ongoing oncology programmes at BioMed X in the fields of DNA damage response and RNA splicing.
One cannot avoid asking about the most-debated medical topic of today – Covid-19. Has this been a challenge that has been also addressed by BioMed X?
Dr Tidona says: “Instead of focusing on the vaccines, we have started a worldwide effort to build a universal rapid antiviral response platform which will allow us to discover, develop, test and mass-manufacture new drugs against any viral pathogen in less than six months. All this currently takes 15-20 years. We need technologies that are much faster, to be able to better handle future pandemics. This is something that we want to develop in the near future.”
Growing to serve
Given the outstanding results, Dr Tidona may be rightly proud of his company’s achievements. “We started with a big promise – to bridge the gap between academic research and industry. For me, our greatest achievement is that of the 9 projects completed, 8 were acquired by respected pharma companies and have triggered a fully-fledged discovery programme. I’m very proud of this, as such a success rate in the field of innovation is quite rare.”
Given the company’s success, are there any challenges worth mentioning? “The biggest challenge is scaling the model up to other locations while maintaining the quality and the culture – a big success factor,” says Dr Tidona, who is now doing just that, building a similar hub in Israel, where the core values and culture are being instigated from scratch.
He emphasises that values and quality are more important than speed. “My desire is to create impact for human society. Talent is distributed evenly across the globe but the opportunity to develop that talent is not. With global mobility, we are now entering an age when every person of talent can choose where they want to pursue their goals. This needs to be kept in mind when creating the innovation hubs. You need the critical mass of talent to have an impact in innovation.”
With the expansion plans on the agenda, it looks like Dr Tidona is going to be busy for the rest of his life. “Busy is not the right word. I’m going to have fun for the rest of my life,” he affirms.
BioMed X Management Team (from left to right):
Dr. Thomas Rückle, Senior Vice President Research;
Dr. Christian Tidona, Founder & Managing Director &
Yvonne Stappenbeck, Vice President HR & Operations