Helmholtz - Focus on transfer and innovation drive

Laura Reich Diez

Community News

31 August 2021 marks the 200th anniversary of Hermann von Helmholtz's birth. To mark the anniversary this year, numerous activities of the Helmholtz Association are taking place under the motto "200 years of Helmholtz - Inspired by challenges". In an interview with 5-HT Digital Hub Chemistry & Health, Julian Alexandrakis, Transfer and Innovation Department of the Helmholtz Association, talks about Helmholtz as an institution, its innovation and funding programmes, and the success story of Osteolabs, a successful spin-off from Helmholtz Enterprise.

 Julian Alexandrakis, Transfer and Innovation Division of the Helmholtz Association (Credit: Helmholtz/David Ausserhofer)

The Helmholtz Association consists of 18 research centres spread throughout the Federal Republic of Germany and cooperating in six different research fields. The Helmholtz Association's mission is to pursue long-term research goals for the state and society. The Helmholtz Association contributes to solving major and pressing questions facing society, science and industry through scientific excellence in six research fields: Energy, Earth and Environment, Health, Key Technologies, Matter, and Aeronautics, Space and Transport.

"My task at Helmholtz is to promote transfer and innovation. In doing so, we support the research centres from our office, for example through funding programmes in the areas of validation or spin-offs," Alexandrakis tells us. The Helmholtz Association places particular emphasis on establishing and expanding a transfer culture within the community. This culture results from the complex interplay of values & norms, behavioural patterns, strategies and incentives that promote transfer. Through the dissemination of knowledge and the entrepreneurial exploitation of economically relevant results, Helmholtz scientists and researchers make an important contribution to Germany's innovative capacity.

"With internal funding programmes and event formats, we support the researchers and innovation and transfer managers at the Helmholtz Centres in examining research results for their transfer potential and, if promising, in bringing them into application. The programmes range from raising awareness of transfer issues to funding spin-off and validation projects," Alexandrakis explains the spectrum of funding programmes.

"Through entrepreneurship education, we are trying to give the centres the opportunity to sensitise their staff or researchers even more to the topic of start-ups and innovation and also to activate them. This does not mean that we want to proselytise each individual to become a founder out of his or her basic research. Nevertheless, we see potential within our community. We have a total of over 9,000 PhDs and a total of almost 43,000 employees, so the chances of a Steve Jobs being among them are not bad at all. That's why we also offer many workshops in this area. These workshops are basically about acquiring an entrepreneurial mindset and making first contact with the topic of founding a company. Entrepreneurship education is, so to speak, the starting point of the innovation and transfer pipeline, to first activate people and show them an alternative to the classic career path of a researcher. Those we are allowed to accompany further, we then accompany via the Helmholtz Enterprise Programme."

Helmholtz Enterprise

The Helmholtz Enterprise spin-off programme promotes the entrepreneurial activities and spin-off ideas of scientists in the Helmholtz Association who have the potential to prove successful on the market. Helmholtz Enterprise consists of two independent modules that can be applied for independently of each other. Since the establishment of Helmholtz Enterprise in 2005, 167 start-up projects have benefited from the initiative. Of these, more than 95 projects have been successfully founded, 83 percent of which are still active on the market today.

Field Study Fellowship - Testing the application potential of research

The Field Study Fellowship funds the centres or their institutes with a budget for personnel and material costs to find out customer needs through interviews and market research.

"In the Field Study Fellowship, you can try your hand. We finance the researcher's job for three months and provide them with a mentor. This is of course someone, and we are particularly proud of this, who has a lot of start-up experience and has already taken this step from academia into business. We pair the mentor with the fellow for 3 months. During this time, the Fellow can talk to many customers to test the market for the suitability of his or her idea. Of course, this strengthens one with regard to one's own technology and promotes the classic out-of-the-box thinking that is needed in start-ups. About 50% of these fellows apply for funding in our spin-off module with the long-term goal of a spin-off. Every year, we have 8-10 teams that we actively support in the spin-off process, both financially and institutionally. This ranges from networking with business partners, patent research, use of infrastructures and laboratories to coaching.

Spin-off programme - one year of planning security

The Spin-off Programme finances the establishment of start-up teams working at the Centre and the implementation of start-up projects. If necessary, the spin-off programme also finances team members found externally and can be used to expand the founding skills of the internal team, e.g. by participating in entrepreneurship training.

It takes a lot of courage, energy and commitment to turn an idea into a company. We support the researchers on their various paths to founding a well thought-out company.

- Julian Alexandrakis 


The selection of start-ups - drive for action

"We pay a lot of attention to the team, as so many people in start-up promotion or consulting do nowadays. You don't necessarily need an idea at the beginning, just the courage to try something out. If you don't have your own idea yet, we are happy to support you and help you see the potential in your own research. Many people come to us with a research background and naturally think "this could make the world a bit better", but how exactly to implement this basic research can sometimes be a bit difficult on your own. We especially want to support those who we see have an entrepreneurial mindset or simply a drive to turn their research into an innovation, i.e. into the market. When we see that, it naturally makes a direct impression on our tried and tested Helmholtz Enterprise Jury, which is also made up of great people with a lot of experience, both from business and science. Ultimately, a certain scalability of the idea also plays a key role. We have a lot of start-up projects that start in a niche and discover many other fields of application over time. We are happy to help with this step, to build this mental bridge into what other areas of application this can go. For example, the startup Osteolabs."

Deep-sea research leads to new diagnostic method for early detection of osteoporosis

The first spin-off, Osteolabs GmbH, from the GEOMAR research centre in Kiel was funded by the Helmholtz Validation Fund and Helmholtz Enterprise. With an initial focus on deep-sea and coral research, a new field of application soon opened up for the researchers: medicine. Through coral research, the researchers were able to develop a test that can be performed in the comfort of one's home for the early detection of osteoporosis. "The startup now operates internationally and has managed to give something back to society and actively solve the challenges of our time. Clearly a success story for us," says Alexandrakis.

Growth in start-up interest in the Covid-19 pandemic

"The corona pandemic has meant that we have been able to meet even more people interested in founding, many of whom have simply matured a bit, either mentally or personally. Accordingly, we have not seen a relapse, but rather an increase in interest in starting up. This was also the case at the Startup Days, for example."

Start-ups in the field of medicine

Start-ups in the field of life sciences and health usually require higher investments due to their longer development cycles. "Our Helmholtz Enterprise funding programme supports the founders over 14 months with 200,000 euros in development, the creation of prototypes and their business model. As a rule, the project must be supplemented by other funding in this area. With 200,000 euros, you can also do some things, but the development costs are usually even higher," says Alexandrakis.

200 Years of Helmholtz - A Role Model for Today's Challenges

"Helmholtz was not only a polymath, but also someone who was very interested in the field of transfer. Someone who invented a lot himself and then benefited the people who lived in his time. That is something that we also see in our work, simply to pass on the Helmholtz idea. The pandemic has shown us how important cooperation is. Because when many scientists work together in an interdisciplinary way, they can do great things and solve problems. That's why we have made it our mission to promote innovations that aim to solve major challenges."

The focus of the cooperation between the 5-HT Digital Hub Chemistry & Health and the Helmholtz Enterprise Programme is on networking the spin-offs with potential business partners and exchanging experiences in the form of joint events.


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