#21 The Entrepreneurial Scientist
With Christian Tidona
This episode is hosted by Adrian Rubstein, an Innovation Manager at Merck Group LATAM.
Adrian was also a guest on episode #2, so go check it out if you haven’t.
Christian Tidona is a biotech entrepreneur, business angel, and founder of the BioMed X Institute in Heidelberg, Germany. He studied molecular biology and received his doctoral degree from the University of Heidelberg. Throughout his entire professional life, his focus was always to foster innovation at the interface between academia and industry. Christian is co-founder of the Health Axis Europe alliance between the European health innovation clusters in Leuven, Maastricht, Copenhagen, and Heidelberg. He is chairman of the Weizmann Young European Network (WYEN) and a member of the International Board of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Christian is married and the father of two children.
[01:12] BioMed X origin story
[03:58] Bootstrapping & Legacy
[07:39] An entrepreneurial Bootcamp for promising scientists
[12:26] What it takes to find a cure for COVID-19platform?
[27:49] How is The Kitchen similar/different to the Innovator-in-Residence program at human at work?
Adrian Rubstein (00:48):
Hi Christian, and welcome to The School of Innovation. You have such an interesting and impressive record. Scientist, BioTech entrepreneur, businessman, and a founder of BioMed X. Right. So can you please share with our listeners, what is BioMed X? Why did you start it and why in Heidelberg, Germany?
Christian Tidona (01:12):
Okay. So I I’m, I have two hearts in my chest, one of the scientists and one of an entrepreneur. And when I finished my PhD in in 1999 in Heidelberg I already started my first company and have been starting companies ever since. But what I didn’t like about, or what, what we were trying to do with all those startups is basically copy the Silicon Valley success story, which is basically taking the idea building value around it and then selling as fast as possible at the very high price. And I always wanted to build something which is more sustainable, as you might know, in, in, in Germany. Most of these established companies are very old family owned companies, such as Mac, for example, company that is 350 years old and still owned by the same family.
Christian Tidona (02:11):
And and this inspired me to to strive for something different and build something which, which has a longterm perspective and creates impact. And this is why I started biomedics Institute in 2013. So roughly seven years ago and the basic idea is of biomedics to combine the best of the two worlds, academia and industry. As as you know, it’s very difficult to translate research results from academia into something which then is picked up by industry and creates value and becomes a very successful product. And this is basically because academia is quite good at turning money into knowledge and the industry is quite good in turning knowledge into money. And this sounds like it’s the same language, but it’s spoken backwards. And this is why it’s very difficult to bridge this gap. And with biomedics, we combine the best of these two worlds on one hand, the academic side creativity, free thought ideas curiosity driven research. And on the other hand industry, which is the know how to how to engineer a solid have a solid product engineering with milestones and timelines and data sets that are highly reproducible. And we combine with our model, we combine both of those worlds in one Institute
Adrian Rubstein (03:38):
Sounds amazing and also complicated, right. But you know, just to, you know, develop products or doing research
Christian Tidona (03:48):
Basic research because a lot of money, right. And how did you start it? You do have like a founding from an university or something like that, or, yeah, good question. Actually, it always starts with being in the right place at the right time, time. And you know, starting something, something like biomedics with a longterm perspective, one thing was clear. I could not use venture capital because venture capital, most of the time has a short term investment perspectives or all focused on an exit. And after a short period of time, I wanted to build something on the long term, something that grows organically. So venture capital was not an option. Second public money was not an option because also family money, usually a public funding is limited to a project phase. And then once the money ends, the project ends usually. So I needed to find a way to start it without venture capital and public funding.
Christian Tidona (04:46):
And this was possible because of a very close collaboration with the company already made Mac. I was together with Lee bets, the head of innovation at Mac I developed in 2011, something it’s called the Mac innovation cup. We have just run this last week for the, for the 10th year. And and this Mac innovation cup is based on the global crowdsourcing approach. And then on the local bootcamp to develop new ideas of, of bright young scientists from around the world. And we picked this up and and that I’m a mom, which is based on this idea of global crowdsourcing, but has a second component, which is local incubation. So while the Mack innovation cup ends at the end of the bootcamp with a cash prize, a biomedics Institute, then it has a third phase, which is local incubation.
Christian Tidona (05:43):
So we move the winners of our bootcamp that had the best idea and the best project proposal physically to our Institute together with his or her family, we organized visa jobs for their spouses, kindergarten spots, houses, whatever they need. And then they live and work for up to five years at my Institute on the campus of the university of Heidelberg. And this was possible because of at the time, the the support, the insight Mack, the global head of, of discovery research. [inaudible] I basically talked with them after we had this first successful innovation cup and said why don’t we keep the talents. We identify in this, in this process for a while and let them do the experiments. And he liked this approach and said, if you can come up with a sustainable business model, I’m going to sponsor the first three projects.
Christian Tidona (06:37):
And, you know, this is, this is a quite substantial amount of money. Each project is on average 4 million euros. And, and then I came up with this business plan and based on the first three projects, I could basically start without venture capital without public money. And this concept has been profitable for a minute one. So we have been growing steadily and we don’t need any external money. Well, that’s, that’s amazing that you could get like money from doing innovation, right. Just started with a help at the beginning. And right now the machine is already moving. And I wanted to return to one term that you use that is crowdsourcing model, right? And since this is an open crowdsourcing model, right, you get the best people from all around the war, right. And I will wait to, to better understand how, how do you maintain the sufficient discipline and the efficiency, the operation efficiency, just bringing all the guys together to just one place to do science.
Christian Tidona (07:39):
So many of what we doing in this crowdsourcing and then the bootcamp is very similar to what we do in the military. I did my military service in Germany. And then also I have lots of friends in Israel who did the military service, and then basically started companies with people they’ve met during this military time, because this is a time where you get to know people very intensely and, and you learn how to trust people. And this is exactly what we’re doing with this boot camp. Basically you have, you have to imagine in this global crowdsourcing, when we put out calls for application worldwide at the best universities and research institutions we receive between 200 and 600 project proposals from all around the world, 60, 70, sometimes 80 countries. And then we select the 15 brightest talents and invite them for this five day boot camp to Heidelberg.
Christian Tidona (08:32):
We fly them in, they see each other for the first time. And on the first day we have an exercise is called my life. My work, my passions, this is everybody presents in front of everybody about their life, their work, and their passions, and everybody takes notes. And at the end of the day, we ask everyone to rank everybody else with who they would like to collaborate during the bootcamp. And then I’ve developed a cluster analysis algorithm, which basically optimizes ritzy protocol likes if you will, and determines the optimal group composition for food, five compete, competing groups. And then on the next day, we tell them that in which groups they are, and then in those groups separately, they, we help them to develop these really outstanding project proposals. And we actually don’t let them sleep four, four, four nights. It’s very important because in the end, what we need in this environment is people who have completely embraced the idea of growing by helping others.
Christian Tidona (09:30):
And if you have a successful young scientist, usually talk publications at very young age, you are you, most of the time, you have a very big ego. And do you, you know, you have learned how to navigate for yourself this this academic system. But what we want is people who are not just brilliant scientists, but people who grow by helping others, meaning people who share their ideas people who who help others and in a normal assessment center even if you can pretend being a nice person, basically in two days, no problem, but in a, in a four nights without sleep, if you are a jerk, it will come out. And that’s the people we then don’t don’t invite to become members of paramedics. And then of course, you know, at the end of this process, we really end up with the brightest and also the most the people with the best teamwork capabilities.
Christian Tidona (10:27):
And so far, our group leaders, we have started 14 groups. None of these group leaders have left has left, has left biomedics. So we had to let go because he or she did not embrace our core values. Well, that’s a, that’s a quite interesting metallurgy that your UTA never heard about it. And I went to you know, some of our listeners, they’re not from the former life science field. So I would like to ask you if the model that you just showed about, if you know, another, the same model could be applied to another industry, or if you ever encounter someone that used the same methodologies. Yeah. So, so far there is to my knowledge worldwide, no no Institute or no incubator that has the similar methodology combining this global crowdsourcing with local incubation of the best talents of the world.
Christian Tidona (11:24):
But of course I put a lot of effort in in the last seven years to make this model completely scalable. So something that can be translated into other geographies, maybe starting a biomedics in Israel or in the United States translating it into other technology fields, maybe not on technology maybe information technology, material sciences. So at the moment I’m working with different university campuses and potential partners worldwide on scaling the model, which now at in Heidelberg has reached critical mass it’s around 60, 60 different researchers from more than 25 countries. And and try to scale it globally. And you know, we can’t avoid the elephant in the room, right. We are talking about COVID-19 and I know that you are working on a couple of things to try to measure the condemning and try to solve it.
Christian Tidona (12:21):
Can you mention a little bit about what biomedics is working right now? Yeah. So when this pandemic started, and as I told you at the beginning, I’m a biologist. So I saw this coming already in January, and this is also why at biomedics, we did not have a single day off of real downtime because we we changed our our daily work very early. We changed the infrastructure in a way that social distancing and hygiene as possible. And but at the same time I got the idea that especially with our model that brings together the brightest scientists from from around the world, this might be a good approach to prepare for the next pandemic threat at the moment, as you might know the main problem of this pandemic is that all our technologies that are used to develop a new vaccine or a new therapy against a new virus is just taking too long to react very quickly to such a pandemic threat, as you saw within less than six months half the world was shut down.
Christian Tidona (13:29):
And and there is a huge, huge impact. And what we would need is completely new technologies that don’t take, you know, five years or 10 years to develop a new therapeutic or a new vaccine, but which would resolve it with high confidence in less than six months in in a new therapeutic approach, which can be tested in very quickly in humans and then be applied to a large population. And this means all our processes in drug development need to need to be, you know, we need to go back to the drawing board, and this is why we started what we call the rapid antiviral response platform. And this is actually a set of eight different typical biomedics projects, biomedics groups, if you will. Each of them with a five year lifespan and a 5 million euros in budget,
Adrian Rubstein (14:28):
Which then would focus
Christian Tidona (14:32):
On one aspect, very specific aspect of the, the development of new antivirals. And I split up as a virologist enough. What’s quite obvious is when you look at at the top biology labs in the world most of them are completely focused in specialized on one or two different virus species, but what we need to react to fund them. It because you never know what what virus is coming. We need platforms, which actually look at the same time at all known animal and human pathogenic viruses. And and so I’ve divided this problem up into eight different so-called targets within the virus and its host cell. And each of these modules would then concentrate in the complete breadth on the complete breadth of, of known animal and human pathogenic viruses and develop platforms that allow this very fast reactions. Well, for
Adrian Rubstein (15:27):
What I’m hearing, you’re saying that you can, you know, for COVID-19 we took a couple of weeks to really understand which virus was so we’re using this platform. You could, you could shorten this period anatomic identification
Christian Tidona (15:40):
And also for the potential treatment in shorter time, right? That’s the, that’s the task we would put out in the, in the eight calls that are running parallel. That’s the beauty of our model. We can basically formulate a problem. And in this case is coming up with an idea for a platform that allows to come up or to produce, identify and produce a, in this case 10,000 doses of a new antiviral drug within less than six months. And and then we do the crowdsourcing approach and look for really brilliant novel ideas. And I think if, if there is a model that can come up with something, which is because it’s extremely difficult to develop those technologies, but if there is a model that that can do it, I think ours are, is pretty close to what you need to, to approach this.
Christian Tidona (16:26):
That’s, that’s amazing to hear. And finally you know, you’ve managed to successfully combine science, which is typically not that glamorous, you know, with that entrepreneurship, which is typically very sexy, right? And I would like to make fit. There is any advice that you can give to young scientists who like to you know, build their own companies. So try to go in that pathway. That’s a very good question. There is what we are trying to, to, to teach our, our, we call them fellows at biomedics is that they should, they should try as early as possible in the Korea, try to find out what kind of people they are. And there is in this research field, there’s three types of people and anything in between. So first type of course, academic career, you become a professor, right? That’s a typical academic, then you’re, you’re, you wouldn’t be the academic type.
Christian Tidona (17:26):
Second type is the industry type going into a big company, become an employee of a big company and then use this infrastructure of the big company. But and then the third one is you are an entrepreneur, you start your own, you start your own company. And there’s these three major types I think of personalities. And there is, you know, certain traits that direct you towards one of these fields or fields in between. And as a as I mentioned, that biomedics, we at this interface between academia and in this industry, if you look at the three different directions, like a Venn diagram, so yeah, three circles with intersections. We at this intersection between the circle of academia and the, this circle of industry entrepreneurship is requires a completely different traits because as an entrepreneur, of course, you have ownership of what you’re doing, but most of the time you don’t have the freedom you have in academia, for example, to do to do curiosity driven research. You’re very much focused on basically multiplying the money of your investors and and you need to fully obey to this and you need to feel happy in this environment. And so I would not recommend anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable in this situation to become an entrepreneur. You will be super unhappy.
Adrian Rubstein (18:50):
Yeah. So, so I would like to thank you for this advice, right. I think that if every young scientist will, would like to, to, to understand which is the best personality that they have. And just before the wrap up if any of our listeners want to learn more about you or biomedics, what will be the, the best ways? Yes.
Christian Tidona (19:13):
So easiest way is go to our website, which is bio, bio.mx,
Adrian Rubstein (19:18):
And a, and M
Christian Tidona (19:19):
There’s lots, there’s all contact details of all major people, get in touch with our group leaders, for example, and ask them how they came to biomedics and, and, and what drives them. You can contact me directly. My contact details are there as well. Of course, I’m on LinkedIn and on Twitter. And I’m very happy to connect with young scientists and aspiring entrepreneurs around the world. And of course, and, you know, what’s, what’s, what’s most important, important in, in, in the life of a, of a young scientist, no matter in which of those three directions you go, you need mentors that help you to avoid making the same mistakes all over again. And and I had mentors too, throughout every single stage of my, of my professional life. And this is where I I love to give back. I’ve quite a few mentees helping them. So if you’re interested in getting in touch my contact details are public.
Adrian Rubstein (20:16):
I’ll put this information in the show notes and Christian, it’s been a pleasure having you on the show. Thank you very much for taking this time to talk with us.
Christian Tidona (20:24):
Likewise. Thanks a lot.