Ulrich Mahr, in charge of spinout activities and portfolio management at Max Planck Innovation, talks to Thierry Heles about the successes and goals of the organisation.
Established in 1970, Max Planck Innovation was set up to act as the centre of technology transfer for 83 Max Planck Institutes, united under the non-profit association Max Planck Society.
Originally named Garching Instrumente, the tech transfer office was renamed Garching Innovation in 1993 before taking on its current name, Max Planck Innovation (MPI), in 2006.
Ulrich Mahr, acting managing director at MPI, explained the activities of MPI by underlining that operating centrally out of Munich represents certain challenges, as most of the institutes are spread throughout Germany, while five institutes and one research facility are located abroad.
Many of the institutes are “certainly not comparable in size to institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology”, according to Mahr, and there is a lot of travel required to keep in touch with directors and researchers.
While researchers are legally required to disclose inventions to MPI, Mahr pointed out that “at its core, Max Planck Institutes are about research and not so much the final product”. This means researchers often may not consider commercial applications for their discoveries and would not file a disclosure if it were not for MPI’s legwork.
Of course, Mahr added, MPI does receive calls from researchers, and there are processes in place for disclosures.
One disclosure that has led to a significant economic return for MPI is a technology named Flash, a technique that enables MRI scanners to speed up imaging a hundredfold and produces moving images. Invented in 1984 by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Flash, or fast low angel shot, is used in all modern-day MRI scanners and resulted in a €150m ($170m) return for MPI.
Another medical product is Sutent, which, Mahr suggested, “is as important commercially for us as it is for patients”. Based on research by Axel Ullrich, director of molecular biology at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, the treatment targets renal cell carcinoma and has become a standard for treatment of that particular cancer. Sutent is able to focus on several cancer targets at the same time.
The therapy has generated more than €1bn to date, resulting in a €100m windfall for MPI.
Mahr also mentioned RNA interference (RNAi) technology as a particular success story. Indeed, researchers Craig Mello and Andrew Fire were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2006 for the technology, which is able to shut down genes that cause harm.
Mello, working at University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Fire, working at Stanford University School of Medicine, had published their paper in 1998, and focused on RNAi in a tiny worm known as caenorhabditis elegans.
After Max Planck researcher Thomas Tuschl figured out how to use the technology in human cells, MPI helped create several clinical uses for RNAi, and has spun out biopharmaceutical firm Alnylam.
MPI has also registered a range of patents, including for research reagents which are now used in laboratories across the world.
However, Mahr estimated that the financial return from Tuschl’s research will be less significant as patents will expire around 2020. The drug candidates are still undergoing clinical trials at the moment and many are expected to last beyond that date – reducing the potential earnings from licensing.
While MPI has gained tens of millions from the technology, Mahr said “it is even more important for the research community and patients.”
Overall, Mahr revealed that inventions in the medical sector are generally the more lucrative ones, but added that “it is not true, certainly not in our case, that inventions in the medical sector outnumber those in other areas. In fact, there are slightly fewer compared to the physics, chemistry and engineering sectors.”
If a drug does enter the market, however, even if MPI “only holds a small stake, it tends to bring in a lot of money and that is specific to that sector,” though blockbuster drugs such as Sutent are still limited.
MPI currently generates €20m per year and has collected a total of more than €370m in proceeds to date, and the organisation has set up a range of initiatives to drive that return. Among them is the Lead Discovery Centre (LDC), set up in 2008, which collaborates with research institutes, universities and industry.
Mahr described the centre: “At Max Planck, we primarily encounter very early-stage discoveries, such as a new understanding of a disease, but to bring that to market we need something much closer to a final product.”
To solve that problem, the centre takes “preclinical discoveries to a pharmaceutical candidate, following industrial guidelines. It is a very difficult job, since researchers with a significant knowledge of biology or medicine are often not the same researchers who have a significant knowledge of chemistry, and vice-versa.”
LDC currently has a first drug candidate in clinical trials, following a licensing agreement with pharmaceutical firm Bayer.
Looking ahead, MPI expects to increase its earnings through spinout exits and strengthen its engagement to produce mature companies. The organisation also recently started taking stakes beyond those set out in the licensing agreement.
One such exit is SuppreMol, a biopharmaceutical company developing autoimmune treatments that was acquired by pharmaceutical firm Baxter for approximately €200m in March 2015.
Already, Mahr concluded, “Max Planck certainly has a high number of mergers and acquisitions deals in Germany. If you look at the top ten biggest acquisitions, three were linked to Max Planck Society, and that is a significant proportion. The same goes for IPOs, where some of our spinouts are heavy-hitters in Germany.”
Even though only one in a thousand disclosures make it to market and the odds may seem against tech transfer offices, Max Planck Innovation appears to have established a good pipeline. And with more than 5,600 researchers at the various institutes (out of a total of nearly 17,300 staff, and an increase over the previous year), there is no worry that the pipeline will dry up.
The interview with Ulrich Mahr was conducted in German. All quotes have been translated by Global University Venturing.