Human talent is spread evenly across the globe. Opportunity is not. This has always been the case. But what has changed recently is the advent of global mobility. Today, almost every talent on this planet can freely choose where he or she wants to live and be creative. As a result, one question became more and more important for every organization that depends on innovation: How can I attract the top talents of the world? I call this development ‘the rise of the innovation honeypots.’
During my life as an entrepreneur, I have always tried to foster innovation at the interface between academia and industry. After a lot of research around regional development and cluster management, I realized that it is not enough to grow local innovation ecosystems organically. We are living in the age of Moore’s Law where everything grows exponentially. In order to create a world-class innovation honeypot, we need to actively identify the top talents of the world and physically relocate them and their families to a specific location. With this goal in mind, I have started the BioMed X Innovation Center on the campus of my alma mater, the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
BioMed X is based on a new innovation model combining global crowdsourcing with local incubation of the best talents and ideas in biomedical research. Our innovation process always starts with a partnership with a big pharmaceutical company. Together with our pharma partner we identify very tough pre-clinical research challenges which require completely new experimental approaches to be solved. Then we post these challenges on our crowdsourcing platform and invite early-career academic scientists at the world’s best universities and research institutions to apply by submitting a very original project proposal addressing the challenge. Usually, we receive between 200 and 500 applications from 60-80 different countries. Then we select the 15 brightest individuals and fly them in for a 5-day innovation boot camp in Heidelberg. There, we help them to associate in five interdisciplinary teams and convert their bright ideas into truly outstanding project proposals. On the last day of the boot camp, they present their proposals in front of the jury, which includes the senior management of our pharma partner. The winner of the boot camp wins a 2-5-year research fellowship at BioMed X in Heidelberg together with a research grant of 2-5 million euro. With this process, we identify the top research talents of the world and relocate them together with their families to Heidelberg.
But this is only half of the story. One thing is the creation of local density and diversity of talent, another is to create a local ecosystem which enables innovation. With BioMed X, we have decided to create an ecosystem which combines the best of two worlds, academia and industry. Besides a state-of-the-art research infrastructure, a talented scientist needs complete freedom of research to be truly creative, which is usually provided by good academic research institutions. However, what a talented scientist also needs to create commercial value is guidance by experienced mentors and a clear understanding what an industry partner needs in order to pick up a great idea and turn it into a successful product. In case of our partners, the pharmaceutical industry, these requirements are very high since conversion of our results into a new medicine or diagnostic will usually require an investment of many hundreds of millions, sometimes several billions of euro.
Since we started BioMed X in August 2013, we have identified and relocated over one hundred talented biomedical researchers and their families from over twenty countries to Heidelberg. Our students at BioMed X have successfully completed around fifty bachelor, master and PhD theses. Our research areas range from neurosciences, oncology, and immunology to respiratory diseases and new sensor technologies. As a first result, six out of seven completed projects were successfully transferred to our pharma partners, which are Merck, Boehringer Ingelheim, AbbVie, Roche and Johnson & Johnson. So, in a small way, we are starting to contribute to the development of Heidelberg to eventually become an innovation honeypot.
What is most important now is a sustainable growth strategy. BioMed X was started without any public funding or venture capital investment. Hence, its development is not driven by government grants or the creation of short-term shareholder value. We want to prove that it is possible to organically build an innovation center with a long-term development strategy and the aim to create impact for society. We are now exploring different approaches to scale our business model geographically and into other fields of research. We are convinced that our model to create a local environment which combines the best of the two worlds, academia and industry, and which is populated by the best early-career scientists from around the world might also be beneficial for other locations beyond Heidelberg and other industry sectors beyond pharma. In the end, everyone will benefit from the creation of new innovation honeypots, which in turn will create more opportunities for talents around the world.