Austria, a Model for Life Sciences and Scientists' Lives

by Philipp Steger

with expert contribution on
GEN-AU - The Austrian Genome Research Program by Maria Bürgermeister and Maria Fiala

"Look, scientists are also human beings," says Georg Wick, the president of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF), emphatically and continues, "The high quality of life in Austria is an added bonus for any scientist." As he is saying this, we are benefiting from an unexpected interlude of summer and sitting in an outdoor café in the vicinity of Vienna's Business University where Wick has just talked to business students about his organization's mission. Wick, a longtime resident of Innsbruck and professor at the University Institute for Pathophysiology there, gives an example of that particular quality of life: "Last Friday I spent at the lab, in the evening I attended a concert with the Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra and Anne-Sophie Mutter conducted by André Previn. Saturday morning I worked at the lab again, in the afternoon we went on a ski-tour, then to the Sauna and in the evening to the movies. Sunday morning it was the lab again, then cross-country skiing in Seefeld and the opera in the evening. And between all of that, there was enough time to read the scientific journals."

{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest} Tempting, indeed, but what about the quality of the research carried out in Innsbruck? "Innsbruck has come a long way and can show significant improvements in its scientific environment, especially when it comes to the life sciences and biomedical research," maintains Peter Kowalski. Kowalski ought to know: he has been in charge of the science & technology programs at the Ministry of Economic affairs for many years and has participated in Austria's science & technology policy scene since its inception.

Georg Wick, former head of the Innsbruck-based Institute for Biomedical Aging Research, argues that the integration of the Medical University in Innsbruck as a campus university in the middle of the city and in proximity to the clinic lends the biomedical research carried out there a cutting edge. "It is one of the Austrian strengths that there is very close cooperation and ongoing communication between basic and clinical research. This allows for a quick transfer of results from basic research into clinical applications. This is, by the way, a mutually reinforcing process, because the feedback from the clinical research is extremely valuable." One of the weaker points of Innsbruck in the past has been a lack of entrepreneurial activity in and around the university. Therefore, the Center for Academic Spin-offs Tyrol (CAST) has started to mobilize and stimulate technology transfer from the university into the business community. CAST accomplishes that especially in biotechnology by offering, in close cooperation with federal programs, a variety of specific support measures to start-ups.

[Photo: Georg Wick]

The strong showing of Innsbruck in the life sciences reflects a surge in interest in science & technology investments by the state of Tyrol in recent years, a sustained effort that is best exemplified by the work of the Tiroler Zukunftsstiftung, a public foundation heavily focused on science, economic innovation and technology.

Vienna, where it all began
The trends in Innsbruck are embedded in a federal trend that started in the mid 1980s in Vienna and centered on Boehringer-Ingelheim's decision to locate a top research institute, the Institute for Molecular Pathology (IMP) in Vienna. Politicians like the then deputy mayor of the city of Vienna, Hans Mayr, and scientists like Hans Tuppy, professor of biochemistry and former president of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, seized the opportunity inherent in the pharmaceutical company's willingness to choose Vienna as the site for its basic biomedical research center and thus created the cornerstone of what is now the Campus Vienna Biocenter. The Vienna Biocenter has become an internationally renowned agglomeration of outstanding research institutes in the fields of molecular biology and innovative start up companies, amongst them Intercell, a company dedicated to the development of vaccines to fight infectious diseases and cancer. The IMP, launched in 1988 under the directorship of Max Birnstiel and until 1993 partially owned by Genentech Inc., is still Austria's leading research institution when it comes to its ability to attract top scientists from all over the world.

[Photo: Vienna's IMP]

The early political and scientific groundwork was continued in the 1990s with the joint efforts of Brigitte Ederer, then City Council member for Finances, and Caspar Einem, then minister for transport and science. The two developed a formula that has served the development of similar clusters well: while the city of Vienna focuses on providing and financing the infrastructure, the federal government foots a large part of the long-term bill of running these institutes.

 One of the most promising outcomes of that approach is the new Institute of Molecular Biology (IMBA), an innovative joint venture between the Academy of Sciences, Boehringer-Ingelheim and IMP, with guaranteed annual federal funding of € 7.27 million. "By deciding to fund this joint venture between the academy and a private company we also supported the academy of sciences in its wish to open itself to the innovative structures we felt were part of the success of the IMP, especially in regards to the selection of scientists at that institute," explains Caspar Einem.
[Photo: Caspar Einem]

"Vienna is really a very good example of well-coordinated public and private initiatives," attests the FWF's Georg Wick who is often skeptical of politics' beneficial impact on the sciences. "It's a good example, because the politicians who were and are at work here understood that good science needs a lot of freedom. And they have created that freedom within a very stable external framework." These days, the daily work of building on this foundation is carried out mostly by the City of Vienna's Technology & Innovation agency, the Zentrum für Innovation & Technologie (ZIT).

As the nation's capital, Vienna has benefited enormously from the attention that the life sciences have received, but the example of Innsbruck shows that the other regions are quickly catching up. And they have to, because successful technology transfer happens locally: "Strong regional partners are key. This regional interaction works on the basis of what I would call 'coopetition', a balance of cooperation in some fields and competition in some other areas. Austria needs to establish itself as one comprehensive life sciences region in the Central European context," is how Sabine Herlitschka, until recently deputy director of the Bureau for International Research and Technology Cooperation (BIT), sums up her experience of working to foster the growth of biotech and life sciences initiatives in Austria.

Although Austrians will often lament the disadvantages of the country being so small, they have quite a knack when it comes to harnessing the inherent advantages. Nowhere is this more evident than in the successful coordination of a variety of national, regional and private initiatives aimed at creating and supporting a vibrant life sciences research community and enabling successful technology transfer. It is a handful of people, most of whom have known each other for years, who make that cooperation possible. One of them is Sonja Hammerschmid, who has worked for years at encouraging entrepreneurial activities amongst researchers in the life sciences.

As one of two people heading the department for technology and innovation at the Austria Wirtschaftsservice GmbH, Hammerschmid, who holds a PhD in biology, is responsible for a process that looks like this: scientists who have been successfully stimulated into thinking about commercializing their results are further encouraged with "pre-seed" financing to turn their results into a sort of prototype.  "That way, we hope to minimize the technological risk, because in that phase we evaluate the patentability, the viability of the business idea and the overall market situation. At the end of that process, the scientists usually have a sound business plan that enables them then to approach the various sources for seed financing," explains Hammerschmid. During that phase, Hammerschmid's office benefits again from a wide network of partners throughout Austria, like the above mentioned CAST in Innsbruck. In Hammerschmid's endeavors the BIT is an attractive partner for the regional players, because it provides access to EU and other international funding. Says Herlitschka: "We have been able to get substantial financial resources into Austria that way. The competition in the 5th Framework program of the European Union was particularly tough, so it's all the more satisfying to see that Austrian scientists were able to hold their own in the Life Science programs of the EU as well."

[Photo: Sonja Hammerschmid]



Hammerschmid regrets that there have been no IPO's among the many start-ups that she has fostered throughout her career, but thinks that this is due to the generally underdeveloped venture capital scene in Austria. She is optimistic as to the future, however: "The integration of the various funding and consulting entities into the Austria Wirtschaftsservice GmbH will provide us with the necessary tools to accompany scientists from the founding of their start-up to the IPO."

All of these technology transfer activities are based on the expectation that there will be medium-range economic payoff. Arnold Schmidt, the former president of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) and fervent believer in a bottom-up approach to science funding, would probably prefer to call this expectation faith: "Successful transfer of the results of basic research into commercial applications cannot really be planned. A closer look at the history of the sciences ought to sufficiently demonstrate that. There is a wealth of case studies that refute the widespread belief that the successful transfer and commercialization of basic research results can be planned. What needs to be done, however, is to foster those groups of researchers - in all disciplines - whose work is exceptionally good. This, in turn, will attract talent and there will be a natural distribution between people who will delve into the science and those who will be drawn to the more practical sides of that work. But we are talking about a multi-layered process, each step of which is out of the reach of planning."

Taking care of the science base
Schmidt's point inevitably leads to the question of the science base in the life sciences in Austria. Most of the funding responsible for a strong showing in the life sciences comes from federal resources. Asked for specific numbers, Markus Pasterk, the civil servant responsible for Biotechnology and the Life Sciences at the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture (BMBWK), acknowledges that exact numbers are hard to come by. This is mostly due to the vagueness of the term "life sciences": "There is, for instance, no consensus on which parts of medical research are to be subsumed under the life sciences," Pasterk points out.

The Austrian Science Fund (FWF) is a key player in maintaining a healthy science base. Georg Wick, its current president, sees the primary role of the FWF in "identifying the best researchers based on a peer review process and without any outside interference. In that way the projects supported by the FWF will automatically reflect those areas that are currently of interest to Austrian researchers."

A breakdown of FWF funding by discipline demonstrates that the life sciences are experiencing an all-time high: in 2003, close to € 58 million, that is 58% of FWF funding, went into the natural sciences including biology (see related graphic).

Besides the traditional grant giving activity that is best compared to the work of the National Science Foundation in the U.S., Wick points out that the Impulse Program "Scientists for the Economy", which funds scientists to work for two years on a research project within a small or medium enterprise, has so far been placing mostly PhDs with a background in the life sciences.

The FWF's success in ensuring a high-quality science base is evidenced, for instance, by the choice of a former FWF funded Special Research Program in Biocatalysis as one of the much coveted Kplus competence centers-- the Kplus Research Center for Applied Biocatalysis at the Technical University in Graz. At the center - like all Kplus centers a partially federally funded joint venture of both university and non-university research institutes and both large and medium size businesses - scientists work at figuring out ways to harness the natural role of biocatalysts (enzymes) in the biochemical processes of living cells for the ecologically sustainable industrial production of chemicals. The existence of two Kplus centers in Austria that deal with biotechnology, Graz's Center for Applied Biocatalysis and the center for BioMolecular Therapeutics in Vienna, attests to the natural strength of the relevant science base in Austria.

The Austrian Genome Research Program (GEN-AU), the science ministry's flagship program for the life sciences, is yet another piece of the overall puzzle. While the program's focus lies on medical biotechnology, it also provides funding for agricultural and animal genomics. The program, launched in 2001, will spend about € 100 million over nine years; the lion's share of the money will go to university-based research teams. The research grants are complemented by an array of accompanying measures, such as international fellowship awards and specialized summer schools for high-school students. The societal, economic and legal aspects of genome research are the focus of a sub-program that goes by the acronym of ELSA. (For detailed information see related article.)

Opinions as to whether the recent reform of the university system, in a sense the ultimate foundation of the science base, will end up being beneficial for the life sciences and biotechnology in Austria vary. Markus Pasterk - his ministry spearheaded the reform - expects that the creation of specific medical universities, made possible by the reform, will create very strong institutions, which will again benefit the life sciences. Peter Kowalski from the ministry of economic affairs is more cautious: "The newly-gained freedom comes at the price of confusion and possibly chaos during the transition." He says that is to be expected during any such drastic changes, but that it is important to be aware of it.

Current and future challenges

Maintaining a high quality science base is crucial and must be at the heart of any strategy dealing with future challenges: "There really is no centralized strategy for the development of biotechnology or the life sciences in Austria," concedes Pasterk, but adds that the National Research and Innovation Plan puts significant emphasis on biotechnology.

Indeed, this strategy paper for reshaping the framework for R&D in Austria, prepared by the Council for Research and Technology Development, explicitly names biotechnology as one of a handful of fields where major investments will be made in the future. The council has also identified some of the areas it perceives as being particularly well-developed in Austria: medical biotechnology and molecular medicine (in particular oncology, immunology, allergology, hematology, dermatology); phytomics; genomics and proteomics; medical technologies; and applied microbiology. "The Council for Research and Technology Development plans to develop a centralized strategy," promises Günter Bonn, the council's vice president.

Bioinformatics, a field that is in a way the prerequisite for making sense of the enormous data produced by the life sciences, has been noticeably underrepresented in Austria. That is until Vienna's Science & Technology Fund (WWTF) stepped into the fray. The WWTF, a small and innovative grant giving private foundation, overseen by the City of Vienna, made waves already in 2003 when it published a highly competitive call for life sciences projects and awarded € 5.67 million - the WWTF's annual budget is € 7 million - to ten winning projects. The foundation thinks about doing another call in 2005. In March of this year, the WWTF surprised the public with what is unusual by Austrian standards: an open call to Viennese university and non-university institutions to compete for a group leader position in bioinformatics.  The foundation will provide € 1.5 million over four to five years for this first of several calls within its "Vienna Science Chair" initiative, expecting the applying institutions to make substantial contributions of their own. Explains Michael Stampfer, WWTF's managing director: "We felt that there was a lack of research groups focusing on bioinformatics in Vienna, and we hope that this initiative will close what we perceive as a dangerous gap in the otherwise excellent framework for life sciences in Vienna." [Photo: M. Stampfer, B. Görg and Vienna's mayor M. Häupl)

It's worth noting that the WWTF's most ambitious project tackles the issue of attracting talented researchers to Austria. "The EU's 6th framework program allots significant financial resources towards the mobility of researchers. I think that we can benefit from these resources especially in our attempts at attracting top researchers in the life sciences to Austria," suggests Herlitschka from the BIT, the organisation that also manages "brain power austria", a new federal intiative aimed at recruiting international scientific talent to Vienna.

At the end of our conversation after a tour d'horizon of what still needs to be improved in Austria, Georg Wick, perhaps in a more conciliatory mood from the unexpected onset of summer around us, concedes: "Basically conditions for research in a number of areas are very good in Austria. Politicians just need to have more trust that investing in basic research will pay off in the long run."

Online Resources
Austrian Genome Research Program (GEN-AU):
ELSA program
Austria Wirtschaftsservice GmbH
Life Science Austria (LISA) ,
LISA Vienna Region
Austrian Council for Research and Technology Development
The National Research and Innovation Plan
Austrian Science Fund (Wissenschaftsfonds) (FWF)
Bio of the FWF's president G. Wick
Institute for Biomedical Aging Research
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
BioMolecular Therapeutics
brain power austria
Breakdown of FWF funding by discipline:
Bureau for International Research and Technology Cooperation (BIT)
Campus Vienna Biocenter
Institute of Molecular Biology (IMP)
Research Institute of Molecular Biology (IMBA)
Genentech Inc.
Center for Academic Spin-offs Tyrol (CAST)
Federal Ministry for Education, Science and Culture
Kplus Program
Technologie Impulse Gesellschaft m.b.H.
Tiroler Zukunftsstiftung
Research Center for Applied Biocatalysis
Vienna Science and Technology Fund
Call for group leader of bioinformatics
List of the winning projects of the 2003 Life Sciences Call:
Zentrum für Innovation & Technologie (ZIT){/access}