Labs Get Down to Business

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Before Christophe Echeverri decided to spin his postdoctoral project into a biotech company called Cenix BioScience in 1999, he hesitated, fearing the switch from lab coat to business suit was a "move over to the dark side." Echeverri had been invited to turn the research he was doing at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory in Heidelberg into a commercial venture under the well-endowed wing of the Max Planck Institute, Germany's elite scientific research body. Echeverri didn't hesitate long, seeing the opportunity as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to prove that his theories actually worked. So when the new Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics opened in Dresden in January 2001, Echeverri and his team moved in. Now, from its new labs, Cenix is working with drugmakers like Bayer AG to develop medicines based on an understanding of the roles of specific genes.

The creation of Cenix was not only a big switch for Canadian-born Echeverri, who loved the world of pure science. It also marks a shift for the venerable Max Planck Institute, which in Dresden is charting a new course to make Germany a major player in biotech research and development. Cenix is steaming in the right direction. "We're part of the wave of development that happened when the government and investment community made the push into biotech," says Echeverri, 35, his dark eyes darting to his cell phone to check text messages. "This year we're going to make a profit, and a five-year-old German biotech company that's making a profit is rare."

It's also rare for a North American to go to Germany to start a high-tech business; usually, the traffic in entrepreneurs goes the other way. Cenix demonstrates how far Germany has come over the past few years as it tries to promote the creation of science-based businesses and stem an outflow of its best minds to the U.S. Max Planck had been a "large, slow-moving beast," says Echeverri, but when the idea for Cenix was born, it was Max Planck that acted as the midwife and pushed Echeverri into becoming an entrepreneur. "Cenix Bioscience would never have come into being were it not for the extraordinary assistance and support that both the company and I personally received from the Max Planck Institute," says Echeverri.

But the institute in Dresden — and others like it dotted around Germany — is starting to do things differently. Traditionally, German research universities are rigidly hierarchical. The head of the laboratory gets all the resources and, if there's a breakthrough, all the credit. The Dresden Max Planck Institute takes a more laissez-faire — in fact, a more American — approach. Its faculties are modeled after U.S. universities in which postdoctorate researchers have better access to funding, doing away with the top-down approach. The Dresden institute is also aggressively trying to attract researchers from outside Germany. "We are adapting the U.S. system to Europe," says Kai Simons, director of the institute. "The big advantage the U.S. has is that it gives resources to young minds at an early phase."

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