Focus on Berlin

If you ask Detlev Ganten whether he would like to see Berlin develop into a global life science center in coming years, he will say "no."

Mar 28, 2005
Ned Stafford(nstafford@the-scientist.com)
<p/>

If you ask Detlev Ganten whether he would like to see Berlin develop into a global life science center in coming years, he will say "no." And then Ganten, the head of Berlin's Charite University Medical Center, will pause a few moments before continuing. "No. We do not want to be a life sciences center. We want to be the life sciences center internationally."

He can't be serious, can he, wanting Berlin to overtake biotech and life science leaders such as San Diego, Boston, and Cambridge-London-Oxford? "Oh, yes," says Ganten, who until last year was scientific director at Berlin's Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine. "I'm serious."

A brash statement from a soft-spoken and highly respected life scientist. But he is not alone. Other life scientists, as well as business people and politicians, believe just as firmly that Berlin has the right stuff to become a global life science center. And their brashness is, in many ways, simply a reflection of Berlin in the first decade of the new millennium. After the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989, money poured in, turning the city into a massive construction project. In 2000, the federal government moved from sleepy, quaint little Bonn on the western edge of Germany to loud, electric, throbbing Berlin, home to around 3.4 million people and smack-dab on the historic dividing line between Western and Eastern Europe.

No longer do others rule a divided, post-war Berlin: The once-mighty Soviet empire controlled the eastern half, and the United States, United Kingdom, and France administered the western half. Berlin is now its own boss, one of 16 German states, and is working hard to reclaim its centuries-old role as the crossroads of Europe.

Ganten says: "Berlin was, still is, a city in complete turmoil." He stops, reconsiders his choice of words. "Well, maybe not turmoil. But everything here is changing so fast." Having made a business trip to Paris the day before, he notes that "Paris is a wonderful science city. But Paris has a major disadvantage [when compared to] Berlin in that Paris has never been disturbed. There is a continuity in Paris institutions and organizations that Berlin has not had. And that is an advantage for us." In other words, change shakes up the status quo, sparks creativity, and encourages ambition. Change is good.

FERTILE GROUND FOR LIFE SCIENCES

<p>Berlin/Brandenburg Research Institutions</p>

Ganten is one of Berlin's top, and most eloquent, cheerleaders. But many other Berlin boosters also like to boast that Berlin already is particularly strong in biomedical fields such as genomics and molecular biology, tissue engineering, and bioinformatics. Berlin, they say, is fertile ground on which to grow a global life science and biotech center.

Hans-Gerhard Husung, Berlin's state secretary for science and research, says that development of the life sciences is a "strategic priority" for Berlin. He gladly recites a list of the many life science seeds already planted in Berlin. These include Berlin's three universities: Free University Berlin, Humboldt University, and Technical University Berlin. Ganten's Charite is the largest university medical center in Europe with 15,000 employees, 3,500 beds, and an annual budget of €1 billion. Charite resulted from the merging of the US-founded Benjamin Franklin Medical Center at the Free University in the former West Berlin, and Charite, part of Humboldt University in the former East Berlin.

Husung continues with his list, naming a network of internationally recognized life science institutes, such as the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics, and the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology. Berlin also is home to the Robert Koch Institute (Germany's version of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the Federal Research Ministry, Federal Health Ministry, and life science-related trade organizations such as the German Association of Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies.

In the private sector, he adds, more than 100 biotech firms and four biotech parks are based in Berlin. But Husung is not yet ready to come up for air. "Let's not forget Brandenburg," he advises, referring to the former East German state of Brandenburg, which during the Cold War surrounded the democratic island of West Berlin. "Berlin and Brandenburg are now partners," Husung says. "In many ways, especially in life sciences, we are actually one region."

Brandenburg, with a population 2.6 million and a land area that is heavily agricultural and 37% forest, is particularly strong in plant biotechnology. In addition to the University of Potsdam, institutes include the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology, the Leibniz Institute for Agricultural Engineering Bornim, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering. In addition, Brandenburg is home to more than 50 biotech firms and three biotech parks.

If Berlin/Brandenburg numbers are combined, the grand total is 32 universities and life science institutions, around 160 biotech firms, and seven biotech parks. "That is a very long list of institutions and scientific enterprises," Husung says. "We are already a leading life sciences center in Europe." Husung concedes that Berlin still lags behind Boston and Cambridge. "But I think as far as potential is concerned, Berlin is in a good position to catch up."

When pressed for negatives, life science promoters will admit that Berlin needs more venture capital money. Kai Uwe Bindseil, director of BioTOP Berlin-Brandenburg, an organization funded by Berlin and Brandenburg to develop life science business and research in the region, laments: "We have a VC [venture capital] problem in all of Germany."

Compounding the problem is that Frankfurt, not Berlin, is Germany's financial capital. Frankfurt, the second largest financial center in Europe behind London, is home to Germany's big banks and is the German address for Wall Street investment banks such as Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch, and Morgan Stanley. Bindseil says current German tax law does not encourage private investment in venture capital funds. However, new initiatives to improve the situation have been proposed. "There will be an improvement on the venture capital side."

HELP WANTED: FOREIGN SCIENTISTS, FIRMS

Berlin has the advantage of being not only the capital city of the European Union's most populous nation, but also of an economic giant. Germany has the world's third largest economy, behind the United States and Japan. And with the recent eastward expansion of the European Union from 15 to 25 nations, Germany is at the heart of a booming economic region of 455 million people with an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of $12 trillion, compared to the US population of 293 million people and a GDP equivalent to $11.7 trillion.

Ganten, and other promoters say that, despite already fertile growing ground, Berlin still needs additional fertilizer in the form of quality foreign scientists and life science firms. Husung, Berlin's state secretary, says that Berlin has not done a bad job in attracting foreign scientists. For example, of the approximately 300 scientists at the Max Delbrück Center, 147 are from other nations, including 23 from China, 18 from India, seven from Austria, and six each from France, the United Kingdom, Poland, and Russia. Husung's message to life scientists around the world: "Berlin wants you. We want you here."

Andreas Pachten, senior manager for life sciences at the ZAB-Brandenburg Economic Development Board in Potsdam, says that some areas of Brandenburg have been labeled Target-One investment areas. This means that new small and medium businesses can recoup 50% of investment costs through grants and tax allowances, and large businesses can recoup 35%. "Producing companies [is] our main target," he says. "But we also are interested in attracting startups that still have a lot of R&D to do."

A US biotech company with an FDA-approved product has been in talks with Brandenburg about opening up a production facility, which would have 80 to 100 employees. "I am 99% certain they will come," Pachten says.

British scientist Richard Trethewey is an example of the potential Berlin holds for scientists and of the symbiotic relationship between Berlin's life science institutes and business. After receiving his PhD in plant sciences from Cambridge University in 1993, Trethewey moved to Berlin on an EU-financed Marie Curie scholarship. In 1996, he moved to the newly founded Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Potsdam. In 1997 he and a few Max Planck colleagues developed a business proposal for a functional genomics company specializing in metabolic profiling. BASF Plant Science liked the idea and contributed €25 million to form a joint venture. In 1998, Trethewey, just shy of 30 years old, became scientific director of Metanomics, a position he still holds at the company, which now has a staff of 90 scientists, engineers, and technical personnel.

Trethewey is not yet ready to pronounce Berlin a global life science center. "It would be ridiculous to compare Berlin to the very top places like Silicon Valley and Cambridge. That's certainly not the case." But like others, he says Berlin possesses the right ingredients for future greatness. "There is a huge potential to develop the intellectual culture," he says. "I've been here since 1994 and I've watched it happen, and I think this trend will continue unbroken."

PLAYGROUND FOR YOUNG AND OLD

Berlin's boosters know that even the most serious life scientists like to have a good time now and then. When promoting Berlin, they are careful not to focus only on the city's life science infrastructure. They also tout Berlin's quality of life, billing the city as a cosmopolitan metropolis on the same level as London, Paris, and top US cities.

Bindseil is not shy about citing Berlin's advantages over other cities. "We have a good mix between scientific and personal life," he says. "It's easy to attract foreign talent, especially from Europe." He will tell you of Berlin's fine restaurants, cool cafes, 265 cinemas, 174 museums, and 150 theaters. Berlin has a wild street life, a vibrant bar scene, and plenty of pounding rock'n'roll. "For young scientists, it is one of the most attractive cities in Europe."

So is he saying older scientists should stay away from Berlin? "No, no, no, no," Bindseil protests. Berlin has plenty to offer scientists who are not into barhopping or eardrum-smashing techno beats. Berlin has eight symphonic orchestras and three opera houses, quiet residential areas in the suburbs, and plenty of parks and nature areas for recreation, hiking, or quiet contemplation, and – if you are so inclined as are many Germans – for lounging naked on the grass in the summer sun.

"We also have a lot of golf courses for the guys from the USA," Bindseil says. Unlike Boston, which "has already happened," Berlin is happening now, and is the place to be for life scientists, Bindseil exclaims. "I would prefer to live in Berlin rather than Boston. Berlin is a much more open-minded city than Boston." However, he does admit to a certain affection for one US life science powerhouse: "San Francisco would be a much more interesting city for me to live than Boston."

ENGLISH SPOKEN HERE

Without exception, everyone interviewed for this article insists that scientists do not need to speak German to live in Berlin. In the city, most people, including sales clerks, waiters, supermarket cashiers, and police officers, speak at least simple English. And with English being the lingua franca of global science, nearly all German scientists speak fluent English.

Martin Vingron, director at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Berlin, says that "the language over lunch is determined by whether or not an English speaker is present. If yes, then we speak English." The strong US influence in the decades after World War II was a key factor in promoting widespread use of English. Vingron believes it also gave Berlin a bit of American flavor, a different feel from other German cities. "Berlin is less German than other cities."

At universities in other parts of Germany, open and lively discussion and freedom to pose ideas, or to criticize those already posed, is not encouraged like it is in the United States, Vingron says. But he senses more openness at the Free University Berlin and Humboldt University. "The Free University was founded by the Americans after the war," he explains. "Humboldt University in East Berlin was the elite university of the entire socialist system. I don't like to put people down (in other places), but I feel more of an openness here in Berlin than other German cities."

Berlin Gives Biotechs a Boost

Both the state of Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg are eager to attract new companies and talented individuals. Three regional organizations, with Web sites in English, are especially helpful for life scientists or life science companies outside Germany that are considering a move to Berlin or Brandenburg.

Business-minded inquiries should be made to either the Berlin Business Development Corporation (BBDC) or the ZAB-Brandenburg Economic Development Board in Potsdam. Heinz Kierchhoff, the BBDC's director of business development, says, "We talk to biotech companies all over the world and we try to convince them to come to Berlin." The BBDC also offers help to foreign firms in finding local matches for business partnerships or joint ventures.

Although the prime goal of the BBDC is to attract business to Berlin, Kierchhoff says the BBDC also will field telephone calls from foreign scientists interested in relocating to Berlin. If a scientist's qualifications match the needs of any firms setting up new operations in Berlin, the BBDC would refer the scientist to the appropriate company.

Scientists seeking institutional or business positions can contact BioTOP Berlin-Brandenburg, a central clearing house for biotechnology in the region. Christina Puhan, a BioTOP public relations manager, says, "We want to help scientists find jobs." The BioTOP Web site has online job listings, but she recommends that interested scientists also telephone BioTOP to discuss their qualifications.

Like Charite's Ganten, Vingron is a passionate Berlin life science booster. Last year, after being awarded the Max Planck Research Prize for International Cooperation, which carries a cash award of €750,000 to be spent over a period of five years, Vingron said he would use the money to help turn Berlin into an international "center of intellectual creativity" in bioinformatics.

"Few people realize it, but Berlin is a very beautiful place," Vingron says. "It's very green, has a lot of culture, and good food. It has many people from many different backgrounds. It has a lot of things that make a city a good place to live." Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Christopher Kaufman, a molecular biologist from Minnesota, says that "Berlin is not a pretty city, but I like it." He moved to Berlin in 2000 as a postdoctoral fellow at the Max Delbrück Center.

Kaufmann offers an observation often heard from Americans who have spent time in Germany: "My feeling is that Germans tend to be less open, a little more closed than Americans." His last day at the center is April 30, and he has applied for positions in the United States. "I am sad to be leaving; I will miss Berlin. But on the other hand, I am looking forward to going back home."

Laurence Jobron, a French scientist who did her postdoctoral work at the University of Edmonton in Canada, took a job in Berlin in 1999 even though she did not speak German. Much to the dismay of her colleagues at Jerini, a drug discovery and development company, the carbohydrate chemist still has not become fluent in German. In excellent and charmingly French-accented English, Jobron says, "The fact that I do not speak German well is not a problem. Everyone here speaks a bit of English."

Jobron says she probably would not have accepted a job in any other German city. "I had a feeling Berlin might be different." And after more than five years of working and living in Berlin, she believes she was right. "I know I am going to sound like a commercial for Berlin, but it is a wonderful city. The quality of life is good. No trouble to find an apartment. You can be outside in the country in 30 to 45 minutes. It's a multicultural city. For me, it's a nice life here."

But what about that humble city on the Seine River back in her home country? "Yes, I like Paris, if I don't have to work there. Paris is good for vacation. I think for living and working, Berlin is better."

BERLIN, HOME TO GIANTS

<p>Select Biotech Companies</p>

Charite's Ganten thinks big – with one eye turned back toward history and the other eye fixed straight ahead into the future. He proudly describes Berlin's glorious past in the life sciences, how Charite was founded in 1710 and Humboldt University a century later in 1810. In the hundred years that followed, Berlin was home to pioneering life scientists such as Rudolf Virchow, Robert Koch, Paul Ehrlich, and Hermann von Helmholtz.

"These were giants of modern biology and medicine," he says. "By 1910, Berlin was the center of life sciences. The world came to Berlin." Then came World War I and then the rise of the Nazi party in the 1930s. After the horrors of World War II, Berlin became a divided city. But now, with Berlin once again whole, Ganten is optimistic for 2010, when Charite will celebrate its 300th anniversary.

"We want Berlin by 2010 to once again be the global center of life sciences," Ganten says. "This is an ambitious goal. I don't know if we can achieve it, but we have to set high goals."