Bodo Brückner has been working on the interface of science and entrepreneurship ever since he left academia, first as a freelancer, then on strategic planning of education and healthcare for EIT Health and now as a Life Science Start-up Accelerator. In this article, he describes the different positions he has had and gives insights into bio-entrepreneurship.
After studying biology at the University of Heidelberg, I obtained my PhD at the Center for Molecular Biology (ZMBH) in Heidelberg, followed by postdoc positions in Spain and at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg. I specialized in epigenetics, and, among others, conducted research in collaboration with different companies such as Bayer HealthCare or Beiersdorf. I really liked to work in research, and especially in applied translational work, which has a direct influence on patients.
I enjoyed research and the environment at the university and the German Cancer Research Center, however, I knew at some point that I wouldn’t become a professor. I started to look around for other opportunities. Since I had been doing a lot of statistical analysis for my research, I decided to become a freelance consultant for statistical analysis.
As a freelancer, you must take care of everything yourself. While in many companies you have one person who is responsible only for statistics, another only for writing the reports, etc., I had to do that all myself.
I believe that every person has a unique set of skills and talents, and the challenge is to find an opportunity that allows you to use these talents altogether. I am not the most brilliant informatician nor the most brilliant report writer. However, my asset was to bring the different tasks together and carry them out in a way that helped my clients.
After three years as freelancer, I started to miss the contact with people and direct communication. I started as innovation and project manager at BioRN, a cluster management company in the Rhine-Neckar-Region (South Germany) . At BioRN we e.g. supported small companies in getting funds European funding programs and organized regular events like the BioRN Lounge or the BioRN Annual Conference. From there I switched to EIT Health as Entrepreneurship Manager, where I was responsible for the development and implementation of new services in entrepreneurship education. EIT Health, one of the largest healthcare initiatives in the world. EIT Health airms to deliver solutions to enable European citizens to live longer, healthier lives by promoting innovation.
My work at EIT Health also involved a lot of travelling to meet partners all over Europe, and to discuss strategies and initiatives for education programmes. At some point I also took over the co-lead for digital engagement and developing massive open online courses (MOOCs). This meant to identify which of the partners had expertise in what, and to see if they had something that we could offer as MOOC. It also involved responsibility for the budget.
In 2017 I became Coordinator at the Life Science Accelerator Baden-Wuerttemberg. We are five partners in three cities (Heidelberg, Mannheim, Tuebingen), aiming to motivate and inspire people at all stages for biotech, med-tech and digital health. Our colleagues in Tuebingen organize e.g. courses for students during the semester, or more extensive courses of three months during the semester break in summer. I am, together with my colleague, responsible for our startup booster.
At the Startup Booster programme we help people with great ideas to turn them into a business. The major challenge for startups in very early stages is to find funding and investors. In addition, entrepreneurs need to make sure to validate their customers correctly and thoroughly. Finally, entering and penetrating the market is always both exciting and difficult.
We have three rounds of applications per year, and we allow only teams which already possess IP or a prototype of their product (pre-seed or seed phase). We train them and provide support, so that they can pitch in front of investors after 12 months. At our last Demo-Day we had 10 teams pitching in front of 20 investors from the US and Germany.
My colleague and I also (re-)present the programme on conferences and set up collaborations. Since we want to build a community for young entrepreneurs and foster the startup scene, we also connect young entrepreneurs with mentors. In addition, we organise 20-25 workshops per year on pitching, regulatory issues, clinical trials, patents, and more . I also give workshops about pitching and business models myself.
What I enjoy about this role is that it is very varied and always interesting. The people I meet are extraordinary, and I spend my days learning about new, cool ideas from cool people. In addition to that I also like to become active myself, e.g. by giving courses and making people laugh.
Entrepreneurship can be defined as the identification, evaluation and exploitation of opportunities. Let me explain that a little bit in more detail. If you want to be successful, you must be curious in order to identify opportunities. You don’t necessarily have to come up with the idea yourself, maybe somebody else approaches you with an interesting asset. Once you have identified a good opportunity, you must evaluate it. The idea of evaluation should be easy for scientists, because they know how to validate scientific hypotheses correctly. However, only if you know how to apply knowledge in a way that solves problems or satisfies customers´ needs, will you be a successful entrepreneur. Many scientists have no idea about entrepreneurship because it´s not part of the regular curriculum.
As an entrepreneur, you must search for the smart people, otherwise you would have to do it yourself. You must be able to admit where your limits are, and what other people can do better than you. The best entrepreneur is in my opinion the person that is able to set up the best team. Only top teams can do great work and implement a project idea quickly.
No team needs five people that are all good at the same thing. It’s just like in soccer: You need people for the defense, the rough work, but you need also people for the fine work, who score the goals. Only through by combining different strengths can teams thrive and create a real team spirit. This harmony of good teams also creates resilience: If you are going through tough times (and you will always have these periods, trust me), a good team is much stronger and will weather these periods much better than a lonely fighter.
I believe that the application of scientific results broadens the own horizon and opens new career opportunities to scientists that are otherwise closed. I also see scientists in the responsibility to give something back to the world; and using scientific knowledge to develop products and services to help sick people is one way of doing that.
Some people come and ask me how they are supposed to learn about this. They say they are not educated they don’t know where to start. The answer is so simple: The internet is full of amazing stuff, knowledge, online learning platforms like Khan Academy and online courses! Many big universities offer incredibly good content and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) on all kind of topics, ranging from Entrepreneurship, Marketing, Venture Capital and much more. There are so many opportunities out there, just use them! When I switched from freelancing to my position at BioRN, I also used these channels to educate myself further.
You can also look out for workshops or courses in your surroundings. In Heidelberg, a former colleague of mine and I started teaching the Biotech Entrepreneurship Training Program (BETP) since 2013 . We teach mostly young Master and PhD life science students the basics of biotech entrepreneurship in five lectures. These basics include:
> business models,
> different sources of capital and funding,
> the how and why of venture capital,
> the relevance and types of intellectual property,
> pitching and presenting ideas,
> team issues.
All participants get a scientific research publication and do as if they had written the paper and owned the intellectual property. They then work out a business model in teams of 2-4 based on the research results. After the last lecture we have two to three pitch presentation rounds where these teams present their simulated technology business in front of a jury (including Christian Tidona from BioMedX) and their peers.
Many universities have similar programmes. The possibilities are there, all you have to do is grab them.
If I could only give one advise it would be the following: Be curious and never stop learning. Stay motivated to discover and acquire new knowledge constantly. Sometimes some knowledge doesn’t seem to be “useful” in that moment but finally pays off in unexpected settings. Therefore, learning something new is never a waste of time.
Furthermore, if you dedicate your time to something because you are curious and interested, your motivation will also be a different one than if you have the pressure to learn something. If you only start learning the moment you need certain knowledge or skills, it is often too late to become really good at it at the last minute.
As an example, I was always interested in math and people asked me why I had so many books lying around as a biologist. Out of pure interest and curiosity, I also started programming in R at some point. Both was later, when I started as a freelancer, valuable knowledge which I wouldn’t have been able to acquire in a short period of time.
At the moment, since I haven’t been doing a lot of statistical analysis lately, I am doing a MOOC “Refresher statistics” from the University of Amsterdam. This course really takes you through everything from A to Z in 6-8 weeks. It’s a tough course if you haven’t done any statistics before, but since I wanted to re-activate my knowledge, it was quite fun. Instead of watching TV in the evening, I use one hour or so to check if my brain cells are still working the way they should. And maybe I can use it again at some point.
Take the advice seriously, stay curious and never stop learning! If you are a young professional working in BioBusiness in the Dutch or Flemish Life Sciences & Health sector, the Talent Accelerator Programme for BioBusiness is for you. Designed for junior BioBusiness professionals working in the Dutch or Flemish Life Sciences & Health sector, the intensive eight-month trajectory will accelerate your learning curve and help you to develop yourself further. Visit http://www.bdplifesciences.com/Talent-Accelerator-Programme for more information.