Biotech is booming. But the giant multinational corporations aren't doing all the growing; most of the next decade's innovations are expected to come from small start-up companies. Young scientists should take note. If you are looking for work in biotech, think small.
The majority of German biotech companies employ fewer than 50 people, a trend that is very likely to persist. "The market will diversify even more in the near future," Rüdiger Marquard, director of DECHEMA's Biotech Information Office, tells Next Wave. On one side, the "global players" will probably expand their outsourcing of specific R&D projects. On the other side, the human genome project will allow for highly individualized therapy concepts by raising the number of known targets from the current 500 to more than 10,000 in the next years, Marquard explains: "This opens a huge field of activities for spin-offs and start-ups."
"It's a good time for start-ups," agrees Gerhard Wolff, who founded the Berlin-based Theragen AG last year. The science ministry's biotech budget increased this year by 10% to 1 billion DM. Biotech research is funded via several programs. The BioFuture program, for example, supports independent basic research of excellent young scientists. And the 100-million-DM BioChance competition finances high-risk applied research projects that can help start-ups get established.
"For a successful start-up, you need first of all three things: an exceptional idea and a strong will, but also a natural sense for business," Wolff tells Next Wave. A good location helps, too. The so-called "bioregions," for example, are a good place to start. The combination of scientists' networks and established enterprises, universities, regional investors, and a supportive license and patent policy make the bioregions a fertile ground for start-ups. "The local research campus with its university clinics is essential for us," says Wolff, whose company is in one of the bioregions.
And even if you don't want to start a company of your own, you might find a happy home in someone else's start-up. Many of the start-ups are rapidly expanding and are constantly searching for highly motivated staff. "We plan to employ 30 new colleagues during this year," says Walter Schubert, MelTec founder and a docent at Magdeburg University. "We look for highly flexible scientists, since biotech develops in very 'short loops.' "
"Working in a start-up is surely challenging but also highly rewarding," says Bernd Müller-Röber, one of the PlantTec corporation's founders. "Right from the beginning, you'll have considerable responsibility, simply because start-up structures are much less hierarchical than established enterprises." "Working in a start-up also gives me the chance to bring in and develop many different skills," agrees Uwe Setzer, a neurobiologist at MelTec. "At university, I liked following classes in botany and informatics. This broader background turns out to be quite helpful for handling the varied tasks [I encounter] in a start-up environment."