Before Christophe Echeverri decided to spin off 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 élite 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 and set up shop. Now, from its new labs in a nearby technology park, 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 come to Germany to start a high-tech business; usually, the traffic in entrepreneurs goes the other way. The spin-off of 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. Cenix had the backing of Germany's leading biotech centers, the federal government and several venture capitalists. But just a few years ago, the company's founders would have met a wall of debilitating bureaucracy at the Max Planck Institute, a severe lack of federal funding and no venture capital for an unproved technology. "Max Planck is a large, slow-moving beast," says Echeverri. "To get them to embrace this kind of change is tough. Thankfully, we weren't the first ones to [be spun off]. Europe and Germany are still a decade behind the U.S. in these things."
But the Max Planck 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 American universities in which postdoctorate researchers play a greater role and 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 and the man who lured Echeverri over to the dark side. "The big advantage the U.S. has is that it gives resources to young minds at an early phase."
What Simons calls the "Dresden model" has certainly worked for Cenix. The company's team of 26 scientists uses a technique called gene silencing, a procedure that selectively disables (or silences) individual genes. Once a specific gene in a mouse, for example has been silenced, researchers can determine that gene's function by the effect its silence has on the rest of the organism. It's kind of like isolating the role a single flute plays in a symphony by eliminating all the flautist's notes from the score. Pharmaceutical firms can use the information gleaned from gene silencing to design more effective drugs. The funding and freedom Echeverri and his two collaborators, Anthony Hyman and Pierre Gönczy, enjoyed in Dresden allowed them to come up with kits that quickly and efficiently silence a broad spectrum of genes. Cenix is now working with Bayer to screen some 6,000 genes identified by Bayer as potential targets for drug development. Echeverri confesses that Dresden at first seemed like a long shot in his quest to create a world-class biotech company with an international research culture. The city was still "a bit backward," he says, and locals hardly spoke English. But Max Planck and the federal and state governments were pulling hard to make it work. When Cenix arrived in Dresden in 2001, it had 11 employees. By the end of that year it had more than doubled that number and boasted scientists from eight countries. "It has been easy to attract essentially any nationality here, with perhaps two exceptions who seem to have the strongest prejudices against the former East: west Germans and Americans." Old biases die hard, but in Dresden something new has been born.