Food for Thought: Germany Lags Behind in Biotech

These days, everybody has his own opinion about the quality and prospects of the German biotechnology industry. It even seems to be difficult to determine if biotech funding in Germany has increased, remained stable – or dramatically decreased, as recently published by the German industry organization BIO Deutschland.

If you look at key intangibles, such as the extent of media coverage on the biotech sector and the attractiveness of German biotech companies for investment banks, it is obvious that German biotech is not on the rise.

An article by Roland Benedikter and James Giordano published by German newspaper Die Welt suggests a bleak scenario if Germany is not willing to accelerate and intensify its biotech efforts. According to the authors, biotechnology is not only the most important success factor in future economic development – it will also change the global power balance: “the one who controls the chips also controls the game”. Asia and the Far East are quickly catching up in the biotech space, while the U.S. and other European countries continue to heavily invest into the sector. Therefore, Germany might gradually evolve from an export-oriented country to an import-oriented one – unless there will be a fundamental change of mind in the German government and society.

Almost two decades ago, the German biotech industry started out with the clear goal to narrow the gap to the U.S., where biotechnological markets and ventures were (and still are) much more mature. Since then, the German biotech sector has successfully produced a number of promising companies, innovations and products. However, the most attractive and advanced companies and technologies have been acquired by foreign, mostly U.S.-based, companies. Amgen´s take-over of Micromet, an oncology company with academic roots at the University of Munich, is the most recent example.

Therefore, lack of innovation is clearly not the problem. And lack of funding is only the symptom of an underlying German (and partly European) biotech phenomenon – wide-spread risk aversion combined with limited availability of true executive leadership qualities. Moreover, the public sentiment towards biotechnological innovation remains skeptical or even hostile and is mirrored by a “we don’t need this”-attitude of politicians and even Germany’s healthcare system, in which IQWiG, a decision body responsible for drug reimbursement, does its best to belittle innovative medicines.

It may not surprise you that an often-heard German term, “technologiefeindlich” (i.e. a negative attitude towards technological innovation), lacks any English equivalents.