#TogetherAgainstCOVID19 - Interview with BIO NRW

Read our interview with the regional biotech cluster BIO NRW in our #TogetherAgainstCOVID19 interview series.

Collaboration is essential to beating COVID-19 - how did the biotech ecosystem in North-Rhine Westphalia, Germany, come together to fight the novel coronavirus?

In times of the corona crisis everyone tries to contribute. This illustrates that in challenging times society and industry are closing ranks. Many companies got active to help and support by various means:

Several companies changed their production lines to provide very much needed disinfection agents, others expanded their production to meet the increasing demand of pharmaceutical agents, medicines but especially diagnostics. Donation of chemicals, medicines, equipment was seen widely as well as offering testing their employees on a voluntary basis. Other companies and also scientists immediately started the search for anti-viral treatments and the development of a SARS-COV-2 vaccine. Many collaborations were started in that context, inside Germany but also across borders.

The crisis also unveiled that the flexibility of start-ups is beneficial during the pandemic as they contribute to the search of a treatment/a vaccine by reacting quickly and for example adjusting their platform technologies for the discovery of new drugs against COVID-19.

Important impulses have been given by the state government aiming to support the industry to overcome the dropdown of business. Frequent direct communication and exchange among NRW’s biotech companies with the Ministry of Economy, Innovation, Digitalization and Energy NRW including Minister Prof. Pinkwart, BIO.NRW and other stakeholders and local/regional networks helped to fine-tune these supporting actions. During the shutdown phase weekly web-meetings with relevant players in NRW have been held.

Many biotech companies across Europe have responded quickly and show promising and highly innovative approaches in finding treatments against the virus. What role does biotechnology play in the fight against the virus?

Biotechnology is a key technology in the fight against the coronavirus. Like no other technology, biotechnology contributes to finding a treatment against COVID-19 and to developing a vaccine. It also provides all (rapid) diagnostic kits and tools. Society and politics are now much more aware of the importance of the biotechnology industry. It is essential that this industry receives support to ensure that biotech innovations are developed in Europe.

In these unprecedented times, research, industry, politics, and citizens are working together to beat COVID-19, with national biotech associations and clusters taking a key role at the intersection of these conversations. How does BIO.NRW support the ecosystem and collaboration between actors in the current situation?

BIO.NRW is at the interface between industry, science, and politics. Especially in times of restrictions caused by COVID-19 BIO.NRW was involved in identifying and communicating the needs of companies that are affected by the crisis. BIO.NRW established the online “BIO.NRW COVID-19 Information and Contact Platform”, which interconnects the various individual actors in North Rhine-Westphalia and beyond. The platform is used to find partners for new developments, to distribute the offers and demands of companies, and to inform about COVID-19-specific funding programs on the state and national level.

The crisis especially affects start-ups and small companies. Apart from the governmental aid private capital is essential for those companies. BIO.NRW supports the financing of start-ups by organizing several Business Angel events. During the corona crisis short-term access to finance can help small businesses survive.

The recovery plans across the EU are focussing on investing in green technologies and solutions. What role will biotech SMEs and Start-Ups play in reaching national and European strategic goals?

Biotech is the key donor technology for the implementation of a bioeconomy. Most biotech companies are SMEs, which are characterized by a high level of flexibility. Biotech processes are often more sustainable because they require less energy/resources than e.g. chemical processes. In addition, they offer the possibility to process bio-based resources, which allows the replacement of fossil-based resources. North Rhine-Westphalia is a highly innovative region where many start-ups develop technologies to make processes more sustainable.

The transformation to a sustainable economy is especially important for North Rhine-Westphalia. The state puts a special effort in building up a circular (bio-)economy, more than other regions in Germany as the state is home to the country’s largest energy industry and will undergo a dramatic structural change as it has been decided to terminate coal mining for energy production. In that context, NRW is a pioneering region that supports projects addressing a sustainable and bio-based economy.

What lessons can be learned for European biotechnology going forward?

We need to be more aware of the role of the biotech industry for our society. The current crisis demonstrates how important this industry segment is and that it contributes to fighting the virus. Thus, the relevance of the biotech industry should be acknowledged more after the COVID-19 crisis. R&D activities and especially subsequent transfer of technologies into marketable products needs to be supported consequently and at a higher level than before in order to enable faster developments. Therefore, better access to capital (public, VC, corporate, private etc.) is even more critical than before COVID-19 and needs to be developed in the EU. Furthermore, and beyond the pandemic, biotechnology plays a crucial role for finding solutions to the major challenges of our time. Biotech innovations contribute to discovering treatments for diseases apart from COVID-19, which is especially important for our continuously ageing societies. In finding solutions to stop climate change biotechnology can help to make processes more sustainable and to preserve resources. Many times, it was mentioned that after the corona crisis the economy should restart in a more sustainable way. Biotechnology can contribute to realize this sustainable restart.

Established 2008, BIO.NRW is the official biotechnology network of the federal German state North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). It catalyzes the sustainable development of the state’s biotech sector by building on NRW’s strengths in industrial and pharmaceutical biotechnology, and in enabling technologies. It activates cooperation between business, research, investors and policy makers.

Nils Schrader is heading the BIO.NRW office. He studied biotechnology at the Technical University Braunschweig. After PhD work in New York, USA and postdoc time at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology, Dortmund he joined BIO.NRW in 2009.

Katharina Gräfe studied biotechnology. After her PhD in biochemistry she joined the BIO.NRW team as science officer. She focuses on industrial biotechnology and bioeconomy.