This is the second part of an interview we had the chance to do with Prof. Ernst Hafen. The first part centers around how Citizen Science can shape drug discovery and his initiative midata.coop. Listen to the podcast here.
- The birth of the Bio-Technopark Schlieren shows that if innovative entrepreneurs come together with great scientists, magic can happen.
- Big bottleneck in translating science from academia into startups is matching business-minded entrepreneurs with scientists and their discoveries
- The future of medicine is personal. The better we can measure and monitor the phenotype, the earlier we can catch diseases and the better we can treat patients.
Ernst Hafen is a molecular geneticist and currently the Deputy head of Institute for Molecular Systems Biology at ETH Zurich. He also serves as the president of the Bio-Technopark Schlieren. Before that he served as the president of ETH Zurich from 2005 to 2006 (he left this position because his ideas collided with many of the existing professors. source)
The Bio-Technopark in Schlieren, Switzerland is a 55’000 m2 large complex that hosts over 40 companies. There is a mix of young start-ups and global companies as well as university clinics, institutes, and research groups.
How did the Bio-Technopark Schlieren come about?
The most interesting part of the story is that it was launched by a biotech-naive entrepreneur, which had very little understanding of (and regard for) classical timescales in biotech. The story started with the redevelopment of an old industrial site from the Schweizerische Wagons- und Aufzügefabrik AG, which went bust in 1984. The construction entrepreneur Leo Krummenacher saw an opportunity to turn the empty buildings into a bustling business & innovation center. First, ETH Scientists came and established new labs there and later, biotech startups and established pharma companies joined to get access to great lab equipment at affordable rates and benefit from sharing knowhow and network to industry and investors. Krummenacher, knowing very little about pharma and biotech, and maybe because of this naivity, was considerably quicker to accommodate the needs of the life science entrepreneurs than any classical research institute could. Being free from administrative overhead that comes with big companies and educational institutes, they for example built a cyclotron, a huge and expensive scientific instrument. Besides the device itself, they also needed to increase the thickness of the concrete walls to 2.5 meters walls. Everything was finished within 6 months, a feat that normally takes years. Now world-class scientists do great science at the Bio-Technopark.
The full story with all the facts & dates can be found here.
What are the biggest bottlenecks in translating science from ETH to biotech companies?
Don’t do everything yourself
We have too many business plan competitions. Everyone thinks that if they do an entrepreneurship course they are now an entrepreneur. It’s almost too easy to get money & support these days.
The science our students have is usually excellent. But the scientists don’t typically have the business skills and it is hard to learn them in a university course. The best way to learn is to learn by doing or directly from peers.
Connecting business people with scientists
A better approach would be: The scientists stay focused on generating the right preclinical data and refining the science.
The business mind can use his industry and investor contacts to transform a research operation into a commercial business that can raise money and start attracting world-class talent.
There are people inside and outside of Switzerland who have successfully sold a company or two and would be more than excited to be associated with ETH and help scientists commercialize their inventions.
What are you most excited about the future in biology and healthcare?
Functional Testing & Personalized Medicine
Personalized medicine is not only about the genome. The genome you inherited from your mother and father stays fixed. But your current state is influenced by tons of different factors, so it is critical to better understand your phenotype [which are your observable traits, combining genetic code and all the environmental influences over time] and how the various factors influence it.
“It’s all about the phenotype”
Molecular phenotyping allows us to understand how perturbations such as stress or therapeutics modulate pathway activities in a cellular system in vitro. Coupled with digital sensors and digital health applications who can measure the health state of patients on an ongoing basis, this is going revolutionize how we diagnose and treat people.
As a part of that, Mass Spectrometry allows us to make a picture of all the proteins in your cell. You can compare a diseased cell with a sick cell as an early marker.
On the other hand, an assistant professor here at ETH is developing new technology we call chemotyping. You take a blood sample, split into many different wells. You treat each of these wells with a different compound. Automated microscopes take pictures of the cells, and then using computer vision, you analyze which cells are getting healthy and which aren’t. The amount of information that can be extracted by pictures alone without expensive tests is impressive. Physicians can use this to find out which cancer drug works best for you. Here is an example of a company doing this kind of functional testing is YC-backed Notable Labs.
Pay for Performance
Together with this trend, we are, also seeing companies like Novartis switching their business models to only charge patients if their lives are actually improved.
Prevention and health prevention
The better we understand and monitor the phenotype, the earlier we can catch diseases and keep people healthy. With more precise screening techniques and enhanced digital sensors, people like my 90 year old parents can stay in their home likely for the rest of their lives. This is a much more dignified way to live and die.
There are so many challenges in drug discovery. We are a group of entrepreneurs and scientists who want to improve things. Our first measure is to educate ourselves and the community on what the biggest bottlenecks and their underlying reasons are. This leads us to discover exciting new opportunities. Bio2040 wants to be the leading place for or entrepreneurs & academics to meet, exchange ideas and launch new ventures.
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