Science is at the heart of everything we do at Merck. It drives the discoveries we make and the technologies we create – from advancing genome editing technologies and discovering unique ways to treat the most challenging diseases to enabling the intelligence of devices. As a leading science and technology company we draw on our unique expertise in Healthcare, Life Science and Electronics to develop breakthroughs that enrich people’s lives. To this end, we are constantly on the lookout for groundbreaking developments and trends – not only inside our company, but also through opening ourselves to the global startup ecosystem and broader world-wide science community.
Our approach to technology paves the way for discovering and scaling up the most exciting technologies. The majority of our innovations come from within our Healthcare, Life Science and Electronics business sectors, with approximately 7,800 scientists and researchers collaborating for our company. Complementary to our business sectors, we also create and foster an innovation ecosystem bolstering our overall innovative power across emerging tech areas.
We have a number of different initiatives that work closely together to provide opportunities for small, innovative start-up companies and academics to join forces with Merck, to jointly advance human progress in Healthcare, Life Sciences or Electronics. In this white paper, we describe three of Merck’s key initiatives to engage with the brightest minds: the Innovation Center; the Future Insight Initiative; and the M Ventures corporate venture fund. All functions work closely together by continuously mapping the external innovation research and development (R&D) environment. In partnership with Nature Research, Merck has established The Spinoff Prize to reward and celebrate the most innovative university entrepreneurs and their companies. The prize is a testament to our mission to advance human progress and connect scientists across the world. At our company, we are curious minds dedicated to human progress. Enabling the world-wide science community is key to us.
In 2018, at the occasion of its 350th anniversary, Merck established the 1 million Euro Future Insight Prize that will be awarded annually for 35 years to honour and enable groundbreaking science in the areas of health, nutrition and energy, particularly in areas of highest need for humanity. It belongs to the outstanding success of this award that the topic for the first instalment was “Pandemic Preparedness” selected in 2017 and officially announced during the Curious2018 – Future Insight Conference, years before the devastating COVID-19 pandemic broke out. The prize in 2019 was awarded to the teams of Pardis Sabeti and of James Crowe. In 2020, the prize was awarded in the field of antimicrobial resistance and given to Stephan A. Sieber. This year, 2021, will witness a new edition of this highly renowned and globally impactful award, which will be in the field of food – for ground-breaking science to help secure the nutrition of a growing world population. The prize will be awarded during an online event – the 2021 Future Insight Days that will take place from July 12 – 14. The event will feature the announcement of the winner of the 1 million Euro 2021 Merck Future Insight Prize, a lecture from the previous awardee Stephan A. Sieber, the final pitches and selection of the winner of The Spinoff Prize, the announcement of the Johann Anton Merck award winner in oncology – autoimmunity and, finally, a panel discussion organized by Merck and Nature on innovation in the food sector with key leading experts in the field. Participants will be able to enjoy an online exhibition plus many opportunities to touch base with leading researchers and innovators globally. Participation to the event is free. Sign-up now at http://curiousfutureinsight.org. The big scientific flagship conference Curious – Future Insight will, after its success in 2018, take place again in 2022 – submission of abstracts can be made at http://curious2022.com. Becoming a strategic partner and co-sponsor of the event is still possible for leading innovator organizations. For more information, please send an e-mail to email@example.com.
The ultimate goal is to form a connection of like-minded scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators from all over the world. The slogan of the global movement is: United by science – science for a better tomorrow (#unitedbyscience). Everybody is also cordially invited to sign and support the Make Science Not War declaration, a global call to invest more resources in the advancement of science and technology at http://makesciencenotwar.org. In the frame of this movement for a bright future, the Merck Innovation Cup brings together some of the brightest students and postdocs from all over the world in a one week summer camp, where students can work with experienced professionals to develop breakthrough innovations and have the opportunity to win €20,000 with their team. The best ideas will be implemented at Merck and top performers could be offered a permanent position in the company. http://innovationcup.merckgroup.com.
In January 2021, Merck went live with a new round of its research grants programme. Applications for grants of up to €500,000 per year for three years are accepted in the areas of oncology, autoimmune disease, immunosenescence, drug discovery technologies, real-time testing and sensors, nanoparticles for nucleic acid delivery, digital innovation, bioelectronics, sustainability, media recycling for cultured meat and organoids. Applications can be made until August 31 2021 at http://researchgrants.merckgroup.com or http://researchgrants.emdgroup.com.
Finally, Merck is hosting a series of science competitions in which scientists from across the world compete to solve a key challenge. Of particular importance is the Merck Compound Challenge to find the most efficient synthetic route of a given small molecule under time pressure. http://compoundchallenge.merckgroup.com and http://compoundchallenge.emdgroup.com.
M Ventures is the strategic, corporate venture capital arm of Merck. Its mandate is to invest in innovative technologies and products that have the potential to significantly impact the company’s core business areas. Since its inception in 2009, M Ventures has established itself as a major corporate venture fund focusing on investments in the fields of biopharma, life science tools and technologies, semi-conductor and display technologies, and deep-tech and sustainability. Always on the look-out for cutting-edge technologies, M Ventures invests in approximately ten new companies per year, and range from early-stage deals to later stage investments.
Currently, M Ventures manages a €400 million evergreen fund, with nearly 50 active portfolio companies and is one of the most active corporate technology venture capital investors globally. The fund is widely regarded as an expert partner for investments and generates deals globally. It operates out of four locations with headquarters in Amsterdam (The Netherlands), and has offices in Darmstadt (Germany), Boston (United States) and Tel Aviv (Israel). The activities of the fund can be broadly split into four dimensions; direct (seed) investments in syndicated deals, company creation, spinoff programmes from Merck and supporting early-stage innovation through our incubator in Israel and the M Ventures Seed Fund in China.
The majority of the current M Ventures portfolio are either seed investments through syndicated deals, or investments in companies (co-)created by M Ventures. Given the mandate of the fund, investments in start-ups are always in fields strategically relevant to Merck. With the focus on early/seed stage investing, M Ventures is able to support companies with both capital and insights, to help them develop and grow. The focus on young companies also enables a wider view on external innovation and allows companies to strike relationships with key investors and entrepreneurs that could eventually lead to the adoption of their technologies by Merck. M Ventures has always worked on a mixed strategic and financial mandate. It makes investments in technologies and products that could be relevant to Merck over time, without rights or options for Merck, but with a focus on building strong relationships based on value-added investor behaviour. At the same time, M Ventures believes strongly that the only way to successfully make strategic investments is by investing in companies that also generate a financial return. The latter forms the basis for our evergreen mandate, which allows M Ventures to maximize returns and generate economic value over a long period of time by continuing to invest capital. The deployment of ‘patient capital’ means that M Ventures can be focused on investing in true break-through innovation and early-stage game-changing technologies and make a difference as an investor.
Through our Innovation Center at our headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany, and our Innovation Hubs in the Silicon Valley, United States, and in China, we are discovering new ideas and technologies that fall between our business sectors or beyond our company’s current scope and will have a positive impact on human progress. Innovation fields we are looking into include bioelectronics, artificial intelligence-enabled health solutions and clean meat (also known as cultured meat).
The quality of life of millions of patients is severely impacted by diseases for which existing treatment options either have significant side effects or do not achieve satisfying therapeutic outcomes. Bioelectronic medical devices promise to become a paradigm shift. By selectively stimulating distinct nerves they will enable targeted treatment or prevention of diseases with high unmet medical needs. In addition to neurostimulation, bioelectronic devices have the potential to also monitor the disease condition. Combining nerve signals with other accessible physiological datasets will create a holistic understanding for disease conditions and allow personalized treatment regimes in the future.
Artificial intelligence-enabled health solutions
Our first innovation field targeted specifically to China focuses on artificial intelligence (AI)-enabled health solutions. It includes AI-related products and services that impact the medical and healthcare industries across their value chains, for example by increasing efficiency or improving the customer experience. In collaboration with Huchuang Union, we are developing a system that leverages AI image analysis technology in the field of assisted reproduction. The aim is to observe embryos with AI technology and generate reports automatically, supporting couples with convenient and efficient assisted reproduction solutions to fulfil their dream of parenthood.
A growing population, climate change and the threat of antibiotic-resistant and zoonotic diseases are examples of reasons that demonstrate the need for sustainable, pathogen-free and transparently produced animal protein. Clean meat, also referred to as cultured meat, refers to the production of genuine meat and seafood grown in vitro using stem cells taken from animals, to generate an animal protein source that is ethically produced and environmentally sustainable.
Many start-ups are already working towards making the commercialization of cultured meat a reality. However, the field is still in its early stages and scaling up the production process and reducing costs are key challenges. As a leading supplier to the biopharma industry and through our expertise in areas such as cell culture media and bioprocessing technologies, we aim to accelerate the emerging industry of cell-based meat and become a technology enabler, from R&D to the efficient scale-up of production.
One of the major cost drivers for the cultured meat field is cell culture media, which is currently estimated to account for 55% to 95% of the product’s marginal costs. To produce cultured meat at scale, the cost of media needs to be cheaper, suitable for efficient growth and differentiation of specific cell types, and free from any animal-derived material (such as feotal bovine serum). We are addressing these challenges and aim to design and commercialize animal origin-free media formulations to enable the efficient production of various cultured seafood, avian and mammalian species.
Merck has a strong focus and commitment to advancing science and technology. Scientific exploration and responsible entrepreneurship have been key to Merck’s technological and scientific advances, and have played a strong part in how it has thrived since it was founded in 1668 and will continue do so in the future. A key aspect of Merck’s company vision is curiosity, a strong focus on external innovation, and a wish to partner and join forces with the brightest academics and start-up companies – reach out now to be a part of it.