Detev Riesner

From roots in academic research, Riesner has emerged as an advisor and busines angel with an enormous impact on NRW's biotech scene.

By Joachim Pietzsch

Conformations of viroids is the title of the poster which still decorates Detlev Riesner's office, although it dates back to 1976 when he presented it at a conference in Hamburg. "Stanley Prusiner was interested, I have a photograph," Detlev Riesner recalls. For the two young scientists, their encounter was the beginning of a collaboration that continues until today. "He had just returned from New Guinea and stood there with his long mane, asking me whether we could rule out viroids as causative agents of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease." This was a serious hypothesis in the 1970s when Prusiner had embarked on searching for such an agent. Riesner specialized in viroids, the small single-stranded circular RNAs, collaborating with their codiscoverer Heinz Sänger. Together Riesner and Prusiner...

For a German professor of his generation it was exceptional to build a business based on academic research results. In 1984 academia and industry seemed separated by a wall when the then 43-year-old Riesner, together with his first three PhD students, founded Qiagen. "Big Industry had disappointed us," Riesner explains. "We had succeeded in purifying large amounts of viroid RNA and anticipated a rising need for such methods. Yet our partners in industry filed away our plans in their drawers. Fortunately, we had no exclusive deals with them."

Both moderate and determined, Riesner supported the business idea of his students Metin Colpan, Karsten Henco, and Jürgen Schumacher. "Their talents were well-matched: The far-sighted scientist Henco, the meticulous merchant Colpan and the solid decision-maker Schumacher." Not only did Riesner give them advice and time to refine their plan during their working hours, equipped with the authority of a German professor, he also opened the doors to investors and politicians. While he became a founding partner of his students' start-up, he was not tempted to become its business director. "My main position has been always been in academia."

Riesner's first field of studies was physics, however. He received his diploma in nuclear physics in Hannover, before focusing on biophysics for his doctorate. Under the supervision of the soon-to-be Nobel Laureate Manfred Eigen in Göttingen in 1966 he began to explore the thermodynamic properties of the three conformational transitions of alanine specific transfer RNA from yeast. Due to this work, Sänger engaged him as the "thermodynamics' specialist" for the structural elucidation of viroids. Their success earned him a call to Darmstadt, as an associate professor under Germany's gene technology pioneer Heinz Günter Gassen. In 1980, Riesner became a full professor of biophysics at the Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf.

For a German professor of his generation it was exceptional to build a business based on academic results.

Here, in North Rhine-Westphalia's serene yet stimulating capital, Riesner settled and he has stayed ever since. Drawing upon his even-tempered character and quick wit, inherited from his Pomeranian forefathers, Riesner developed a way of dealing with people which made him a motivator and mediator in many roles: as a creative scientist and research collaborator, a team builder and conflict solver, a political advisor and a business angel. The list of start-ups in whose birth he was involved is impressive: NewLab, Evotec, Coley Pharmaceuticals, Direvo and Evocatal, for example. "I've made mistakes, too," says Riesner. "Hence, I've learned to invest only in companies whose science background I know and can influence." His name alone seems to be priceless for a start-up. Once he has joined its advisory board, politicians prick their ears and investors are eager to share the risk.

"Today, the results of prion research merge with the search for treatments of Alzheimer's disease," Riesner says and emphasizes his university's intellectual property in this area. As an opinion leader in the field, Riesner's influence goes far beyond Düsseldorf's city limits. He is a board member of Lausanne-based AC Immune, and helped steer their development of a conformation-specific antibody against beta-amyloid plaques, a project that secured a $300 million deal with Genentech in 2006. Phase II trials with this antibody have recently been approved. For this accomplishment, AC Immune has been elected as "Technology Pioneer 2009" by the World Economic Forum—an award which matches well with the merits of its North Rhine-Westphalian board member.

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