“Flexibility is our advantage”

26.04.2018 von Ines Godazgar in Featured, Science
The Weinberg Campus is a high-tech location. In the last 25 years around one billion euros has been invested in a site that is also the heart of the university’s scientific campus. The density of research institutes is high on the nearly 134-hectare site. This is accompanied by numerous successful companies that have often emerged from start-ups. Important drivers of the process are technology and founders’ centres. The first one opened in 1993 and the technology park was born. Professor Reinhard Neubert - a scientist, Prorector and entrepreneur - is one of the pioneers of this development. He talks with Ines Godazgar in an interview.
There from the start. Without Reinhard Neubert the Weinberg Campus would not have become what it is today.
There from the start. Without Reinhard Neubert the Weinberg Campus would not have become what it is today. (Foto: Michael Deutsch)

In the 1990s did you ever dream that something of this magnitude would evolve on the Weinberg Campus? 
Neubert: No, however before you tackle such a project you need a vision. Besides, right from the start you can leave nothing to chance. It was therefore only logical that the Rector’s Office, of which I was a member, made structural decisions at that time at MLU that have benefitted today’s structure. One was the decision to move all of the university’s scientific departments, which were distributed throughout the city, to the Weinberg Campus. This created effective networks that now greatly facilitate cooperation between the individual university departments and between the university and non-university research institutes. When developing the site, we didn’t lose sight of the fact that we wanted to strengthen the university’s profile. In other words, we focused on our core research areas. These remain – in the natural sciences –  the biosciences, above all protein and plant research, as well as material sciences. 

How did it all begin 25 years ago?
Even 25 years ago the site was not a blank canvas. Some university institutions were already located there, for example the pharmacy department where I worked, as well as the future Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry and the Max Plank Institute for Microstructure Physics, two former institutes of the GDR’s Academy of Sciences. We were able to take advantage of this sturdy foundation. Another positive factor was that the Rector’s Office at MLU had recognized right from the start that such a settlement would provide opportunities for the university. It was also beneficial that Wolfgang Lukas, a professor of engineering and a true mover and shaker with good connections, took on the role of coordinator of the first Technology and Founders’ Centre (TGZ). In addition, funding was made available right from the beginning. This support enabled the first TGZ building to be constructed which back then provided just 3,500 square meters of space. 

That marked the start of a tremendous amount of building work. 
Yes. Especially given the fact that, at some points, the site of the Weinberg Campus was expanded to encompass the former military barracks in Heide-Süd, which the natural science departments of the university gradually moved into. In 1998 the BioCentre also opened. Nowadays there are a total of eight founders’ centres throughout the entire site which are home to many small and medium-sized companies. Some are young entrepreneurs who graduated from MLU and took advantage of the excellent founders’ network when setting up their own start-ups. Others have come from different states. Now they have 27,000 square metres at their disposal. They all share the common dream of turning innovative ideas into reality and find perfect conditions here to do this. Our figures are also proof of this: since the beginning we have supported the foundation of more than 200 companies. Currently there are 100 companies active on the Weinberg Campus, from small start-ups to a global chemical company. A total of 5,500 people are employed here.  

Meanwhile a new generation is heading up the TGZ GmbH.  Are there new prospects?
In 2014, Wolfgang Lukas, the former long-time managing director, handed over operations to Ulf-Marten Schmieder. Schmieder is a product of MLU and no stranger to us. We worked for a long time together on start-ups and knowledge transfer. Schmieder had also worked on the campus since 2004 as the head of the Univations Institute, an affiliated institute of the university. Thanks to his dedication, the federal government made MLU one of ten founder universities. This has enabled him to systematically grow into his current role. He knows stakeholders both locally and in the state capital. These are ideal prerequisites. 

The proximity between university and non-university research institutes continues to be a positive aspect… 
It is a blessing! Many institutions work on similar projects. This provides ample opportunity for cooperation. One example: The Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research iDiv is a large research centre and is governed by the three Central German universities of Halle, Jena and Leipzig as well as the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research UFZ. It is represented on campus through several projects. Research is jointly conducted, in part, by working groups at MLU, the UFZ and the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry (IPB). There is a lot of synergy here.  
There is also collaboration between various working groups within MLU. A current example is the Protein Centre which was recently built on campus and is now regarded as a core element of protein research on the campus. Forty-five million euros in state and federal funding has been invested in the innovative building. Currently biochemists from MLU, as well as a working group from the pharmacy department and three working groups from the Faculty of Medicine are moving in. The short distances make scientific exchange easier since they are working on similar topics.

What sets the location apart from the rest?
We benefit from our flexibility. And we offer good service. Thanks to our well-functioning network, we are able to support young entrepreneurs from their initial idea to the founding of their own company. Moreover, we have large spaces at our disposal. Expansion was and remains an option on the Weinberg Campus. This is a decisive factor for further growth and sets us apart from similar locations where there is often little room for additional settlement. 

You know what you are talking about. You are, yourself, a founder of Skinomics GmbH. A model that you would recommend to other scientists?
Yes, of course. When university professors found companies themselves it enriches the location and creates high-quality jobs for our graduates. When you have been active in basic research for as long as I have, you know which direction the trends are moving, and which ideas are suitable for marketing. However, that, in and of itself, does not produce success. The transfer from research to final application is a long process which requires a lot of support. I profited by help from Univations when I started my company in 2008. I am happy to pass on my experience to today’s young entrepreneurs.  

The Weinberg Campus Association was founded in 2004. What does it actually do?
It was designed as a sort of superstructure. A trademark under which you can present yourself and pursue mutual goals. We started in 2004 with only eight members. Now there are around 100. A lot has already been achieved: we have been able to integrate the adjoining community of Heide-Süd into the campus. Guest housing has been built there which can be used by out-of-town scientists and visitors. Further developing the infrastructure is one of our top priorities. We have campaigned for a long time to expand Gimritzer Damm, the access road to the campus. We are very pleased that the city has now incorporated the construction of a round-about in their planning. In addition, we are continuing to push for increased family friendliness and improved quality of life on the campus.  

What are your hopes for the future?
Many local companies conduct basic research. This is enormously important, however it does not always lead directly to a practical application and is very cost-intensive. The necessary funding cannot be raised alone by the university or the participating companies. We would like to see more support from the state government. Not only financial, but also strategic.
 

The person:

Professor Reinhard Neubert was born on 21 July 1949 in Bärenstein in Saxony. He studied pharmacy at Martin Luther University in Halle. In 1992 he was appointed professor for drug dosage forms and biopharmaceutics, a post which he occupied until 2015. From 1996 to 2017 he was the chair (since 2017 deputy chair) of the affiliated Institute for Applied Dermatopharmacy (IADP). Between 2000 and 2006 he was also Prorector for research and junior scientists at MLU. Since the establishment of the technology park, Neubert has been committed to its development. He was a member of the advisory board of the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, a member of the institutional board of the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry, and is the holder of 29 patents.

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