Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany
Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany

From basic research to implementation: A practical perspective on the interface between basic research and industry

Speech by Karl-Ludwig Kley,
Chairman of the Executive Board
on the occasion of a gala event hosted by the Weizmann Institute of Science and the German-Israeli Economic Association
Frankfurt, October 17, 2013
– Abridged version –
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I’m delighted to be here and to share the stage with Daniel Zajfman. Daniel, thank you for your remarks earlier. You gave those people who do not know the Weizmann Institute a wonderful introduction to this very special institution. And you reminded the rest of us why working with the Weizmann Institute is such a good idea.
Not that I – or EMD for that matter – needed any reminding. Our cooperation began in 1979, when we formed Interlab, our first legal entity in Israel. Such a close collaboration between academia and industry was virtually unheard of at the time. But it yielded highly successful results, namely Rebif for the treatment of multiple sclerosis. Since its development, Rebif has improved the lives of millions of patients around the world. And it is still EMD’s most important pharmaceutical product, with sales of 1.9 billion US dollars in 2012.
Out-licensing led to products against rheumatoid arthritis or psoriasis, for example Humira, Enbrel and Remicade. And EMD’s second biggest pharmaceutical product – the cancer drug Erbitux – was also licensed from the Weizmann Institute. Without our cooperation, these products might not have been developed at all, leaving patients without cutting-edge treatment options.
But the close bond between EMD and the Weizmann Institute is not just based on past successes. We are investing in the future as well. Currently, we are collaborating in neurology, oncology and immunology, with a focus on personalized medicine. In total, four labs are being funded by us this year. For example, Professor Yarden is searching for a patient-tailored immunotherapy for ovarian cancer. Professor Futerman is investigating the role of sphingolipids in neuro-degeneration. 
It’s the novel approaches and out-of-the-box thinking that make cooperating with the Weizmann Institute both an enriching experience – and a bit of an adventure across the frontiers of human knowledge. Professor Zajfman has already explained the philosophy of his institute and their unique innovation management system. Let me assure you from our experience: He was not exaggerating. At the Weizmann Institute, you might have a theoretical mathematician offering input on a systems biology project. These sorts of interfaces open up entirely new avenues of research and make our cooperation particularly enriching.
You might be tempted to think that this is the natural way that things are done between industry and academia. Or that such cooperation is always easy. Neither is correct. A successful cooperation of strong equals, such as our partnership with the Weizmann Institute, is unusual, even today. Because – as much as we might like to think otherwise – research in academia is quite different to R&D in industry.
Fundamentally, researchers in both academia and industry need curiosity and a desire to discover. But on a practical level, there are fundamental differences. Academia is a space, where research can be conducted for the pursuit of new knowledge, where phenomena can be investigated that have no practical application – or no practical application yet. Academic research also has the advantage that, in the pursuit of new knowledge, a failure rate is acceptable that would sink any industrial enterprise.
Research in industry, on the other hand, is – by its nature – focused on the market. Research needs to have practical results. Our researchers need to continually ask themselves: “What is the benefit to the patient?” It’s great when a molecule is interesting – but how can it improve the lives of patients? Because companies are focused on marketable products, they are often closer to the end-user than academic research institutions can be. 
Academia and the private sector clearly have different research cultures, different mentalities, and sometimes different expectations. But it is precisely these differences that make cooperation interesting and productive. 
The key to making it work is mutual respect, a strong commitment – and a certain amount of courage. Almost any research involves an element of risk. The risk of failure, the risk of undesirable results, the risk of answering one question only to be confronted with ten others. And the risk of pushing the boundaries of what society considers desirable or ethically acceptable. Dealing with these risks requires honesty, commitment – and yes, courage.
Throughout its history, the Weizmann Institute has shown that it has the courage to tackle ambitious projects and to delve into unknown areas of knowledge. Take the development of Copaxone. Where others would have given up, the Weizmann Institute invested almost 30 years of R&D. Courage is also one of the values that EMD aims to live and do business by. So EMD and the Weizmann Institute are both dedicated to pushing ahead our research with that quantum of courage that is needed for success.
But we both, sadly, operate in a world where courage is often in short supply. Science is advancing by leaps and bounds, but our knowledge culture and our social attitudes are not keeping pace. 
Take the regulatory and bureaucratic burden on pharma research today. The pharmaceutical industry is one of the most heavily regulated industries of all. Of course, a certain amount of this is necessary to guarantee quality and create trust. But at the moment, just taking a tissue sample from a lab animal requires hours of paperwork. Taken in isolation, every one of these regulations, forms, or approval processes might seem sensible. Taken together, this red tape has become an impediment to new knowledge and innovation. How much faster could innovation happen without the regulatory over-burden?
In 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first space satellite. It was the age of the space race and the Soviets got there first. A journalist asked the NASA’s chief rocket scientist, Wernher von Braun: “How was this possible?” The reply: “Well, to conquer space, we have to solve two problems – gravity and paperwork. We could have dealt with the gravity…” 
The mountains of paperwork have one gotten higher since then. And they are almost certainly higher in pharma than in space research. 
While coping with bureaucracy, we also struggle with the fact that scientific research is increasingly trivialized or distorted in society's perception. As science becomes more and more specialized, only a small part of the population comes into direct contact with research. But in democratic societies, the public has an important role to play in shaping the legal framework for such research. It's therefore in everyone's best interest to keep the public informed of scientific advances. 
The most crucial role in this falls to the media. The media can create awareness – or sow fear. They can inform about current debates and breakthroughs – or present half-truths as facts. Nano-technology is a prime example. It's no surprise that the public is wary of nano-technology when they see a headline stating “Nanoparticles used in paint could kill, research suggests”. You might try to explain that the workers who fell ill in that particular paint factory were handling toxic paint without any safety precautions. This paint happened to contain nanoparticles. But once the mental association of nanotechnology and danger is made, it’s difficult to undo. The result is public suspicion of scientific research, especially in the private sector, and opposition to a science that could be hugely beneficial. 
For us, as academic institutions and companies involved in cutting edge research, this means that we have to become better at communicating our efforts and our findings. And we have to keep persuading journalists to portray science faithfully instead of trivializing and sensationalizing. We have to be aware of how we are perceived.
This awareness must extend to a third aspect of the social framework: Politics. Political attitudes have an impact on the general perception of science. Unfortunately, science also occasionally finds itself instrumentalized for political gains. Sometimes, partial truths, labeled as "scientific knowledge" are used to reach certain political goals.
Take the declared aim of limiting the rise of global temperatures to two degrees Celsius. Two degrees – a neat and tidy goal, easy to communicate and to remember. And supposedly backed by science! But the reality is far more complex. The question of how much climate change is too much is a value judgment. And it is far from certain that two degrees would actually prevent the most dangerous climate effects. In this case, politics have instrumentalized science. This does science no favors. Once it becomes a tool in political discussion, the honesty and impartiality of research is corrupted. 
Bureaucracy, the trivialization of research in popular perception, and the misuse of science for political aims. All of these are worrying in their own right. Underlying all of it is the trend toward a no-risk culture. Especially here in Germany, there is growing fear within the middle-class of any development that might negatively impact the comfortable world people have built for themselves. Society would prefer us to proceed with research only if we could guarantee that there is no risk of any kind whatsoever involved. 
Honestly, if that had been the attitude in Spain in the 15th century, Christopher Columbus would not even have been allowed to board his ship. And Columbus wanted to sail to China. That endeavor failed spectacularly. Instead, he discovered a new continent. Today, science is the way to cross new frontiers. Science can discover entire worlds of new knowledge. But for society that means: Please let us sail into the unknown through research. 
Sometimes, experiments fail. Sometimes, like Columbus, something else is discovered instead. The public has to know that only a tolerance of mistakes and the acceptance of a certain amount of risk make innovation possible. My appeal to society and politics is therefore: have a little faith. Let science sail. If we discover a new continent, we will even bring back gold for you – or at least some potatoes.
Ladies and gentlemen,
In the end, it comes down to courage – or a lack thereof. Both the Weizmann Institute and EMD have been independently successful because we took risks, because we had the courage to innovate. And together, we produced very successful breakthroughs that continue to improve the lives of millions of patients.
Society increasingly lacks that courage. Science is less and less understood, but increasingly trivialized in social perception. To minimize perceived risks, science is smothered in bureaucracy. That is not the way to innovation.
The French author André Gide pointed out: “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore”. The Weizmann Institute and EMD have that courage. We have faith in the positive power of science. We will continue to discover new oceans – now and in the future.

Karl-Ludwig Kley - Chairman of the Executive Board
Karl-Ludwig Kley - Chairman of the Executive Board


Publication of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.
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