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Interview. Boehringer Ingelheim's current 700 million Euro investment in the Vienna Region is only one instance of the potent development of life sciences at this location, indicating the promising future seen by international companies in this sector.
In this issue of Vienna Region Talk, Dr. Eva Maria Binder, Chief Research Officer and Director of Executive Board of ERBER Group, Michaela Fritz, Vice Rector for Research and Innovation at the MedUni Vienna, and Inge Homolka of Boehringer Ingelheim discuss the development of the life sciences sector.
- Do you feel that the majority of Austrians are familiar with the term "life sciences"?
Inge Homolka: I think that many people have a vague idea, but probably do not know a precise definition.
Eva Maria Binder: A small survey in my personal, non-scientific periphery shows that only a few people are familiar with the term. Once you explain it to them, they understand it and find it relevant. It would be important to increasingly educate the general public so that they become familiar with this sector.
- Which developments in life sciences in the Vienna region are especially impressive?
Inge Homolka: Vienna really pushes the life sciences sector. Boehringer Ingelheim is currently investing 700 million Euros in the expansion of biopharmaceutical production at the Meidling site, thus creating 500 new jobs.
Michaela Fritz: Compared to other international locations, Austria is a little late to the party. This is not necessarily a downside, since you can learn from the mistakes of others and will not repeat their errors. My observation shows that there is a lot of activity, especially in the Vienna Region, and it is impressive, for example, that they managed to bring BIO Europe, one of the most important life sciences conferences, back to Vienna. This increases the international visibility of the region.
Eva Maria Binder: The strongest progress was made in the areas of training and location development. This attracts international employees. We're witnessing this at our research center in Tulln. We have employees from approximately 20 countries. The number of applications is rising. Tulln is one of the world's hot spots in the area of Mycotoxin research and Agro-Biotech because we have been doing solid research for over 25 years.
- What kind of environment does a flourishing life sciences community need?
Inge Homolka:The prerequisite is to create a pro-business, pro-investment and pro-innovation political and social environment in Austria, also to positively influence future investment decisions. Furthermore, life sciences need to be promoted in Austria as an engine for the creation of value, employment and innovation. It would be necessary to create stability of the law and longtime planning dependability to compensate for Austria's location disadvantages. Additionally, the pharmaceutical sector is highly competitive, so a permanent change or tightening of the current frame conditions would have to be avoided in order to produce investments in Austria as well.
Eva Maria Binder: We capitalize on the critical mass created in the Vienna Region – a cluster with BOKU Vienna, the AIT, the University of Applied Sciences Wiener Neustadt (FHWN), and therefore an environment which produces mutual stimulation. Good training is crucial for a sustainable life sciences environment, and the expanded Vienna Region, including St. Pölten and Krems, is well-positioned in this regard as well.
Michaela Fritz: You need well-trained doctors as well as scientists, access to patients for the translation, and the right research infrastructure. Here, the Vienna Region offers a unique habitat. We have excellent foundation institutes and universities, but also access to patients, e.g. MedUni Vienna via the Vienna General Hospital, and short distances. Still, there is room for improvement. We need a critical mass of life sciences companies and start-ups. In terms of salary levels, we cannot compete with all countries. We're currently compensating for this withour quality of life – which is not enough in the long run.
- Does the network between institutions, companies and the life sciences sector work optimally?
Eva Maria Binder: It works well in Vienna and Lower Austria. This is mainly thanks to the contribution of the COMET Competence Centers, first and foremost the acib (Austrian Center of Industrial Biotechnology), which many large Austrian companies are involved in. For many projects, we collaborate with Viennese institutions such as Vetmeduni Vienna or BOKU Vienna. We also have Christian Doppler Laboratories for the close cooperation of economy and research. Such laboratories used to focus more on areas such as material sciences and are now much more open to our special field.
Inge Homolka: On the whole, the cooperation works well. The fact that there are research institutions such as the IMP, the Research Center for Molecular Medicine, the Institute of Science and Technology Austria (IST Austria), universities, hospitals and smaller biotech companies allows for a multitude of collaborations. With a large number of different actors, however, always comes room for improvement. It would be desirable, for example, to create a Transnational Research Center (TRC) which could coordinate projects across Austria up to the proof of concept and execute them as a service production, and to create platforms to increase the cooperation of all the different partners.
Michaela Fritz: From the perspective of MedUni Vienna, we are well-connected and cooperate with many organizations. In the Vienna Region, this includes practically all academic institutions, and we have all kinds of collaborations with companies, from smaller research projects to large strategic liaisons. The basis for cooperation is that the right experts find each other and develop new ideas together. In this regard, there is always room for improvement.
- How satisfied are you with the subsidies for companies and projects in the life sciences sector?
Inge Homolka: The increase of research grants is an attractive incentive for pharmaceutical research companies. It would be important to have funding guidelines which are binding to all companies and institutions. It should be clear from the beginning what constitutes innovation and what will be funded for how long. These guidelines should apply to all institutions and agencies as well.
Eva Maria Binder: Our company has had good experiences with the FFG, withstandard, basic and headquarter funding as well as with bridge projects. As mentioned before, we notice a growing interest in the life sciences sector through the interest of the Christian Doppler Laboratories. Generally, I notice that the mindset and the subsidy environment have developed very positively.
Michaela Fritz: Yes, seen from an international perspective, the options for subsidies are good in terms of the cooperation of science and economy, not only by the FFG, but also for start-up funding by the AWS. But the funding of basic sciences is incredibly underfunded, especially in comparison to countries such as Switzerland.
- Is it getting more difficult to compete in an increasingly contested market, or does the globalization open up new possibilities?
Inge Homolka: The increasingly faster-changing market opens up many opportunities, but also brings along challenges.
Eva Maria Binder: Looking at what is happening in life sciences in South East Asia or in the US, Europe is under the threat of getting a competitive disadvantage if we do not open up to new technologies. For example, Europe still acts very conservatively in terms of GMOs (genetically modified organisms).
Michaela Fritz: Before we dream about being one of the top nations, we need to strive to keep our level. Life sciences are a global competition. There is no sense in asking whether the Vienna Region is better than Graz, Munich or Brno. Instead, we need to create a critical mass and excellence through cooperation in order to be an international player.
Interview by medienkomplizen/Christian Scherl
Photos and credits: Eva Maria Binder: ERBER Group, Michaela Fritz: MedUNi Wien-Felicitas Matern, Inge Homolka: Boehringer Ingelheim