WIESBADEN, Germany ¿ More than 1,200 representatives, mostly from German biotechnology companies, research institutions, and administration, attended the 17th Annual Meeting of Biotechnologists in Wiesbaden, Germany, held by DECHEMA and Vereinigung Deutscher Biotechologieunternehmen (VBU [the Association of German Biotechnology Companies]) April 27 through 29. In her opening speech, which was met with considerable interest by media and industry, the German Research Minister Edelgard Bulmahn assured the conference that the new government was determined to continue raising the funding for biotechnology in Germany.

It was a double premiere: For the first time, a member of the German government opened a VBU conference, and for the first and long awaited time the German research minister explained the outline of her government¿s biotech policy for the next years.

In her one-hour keynote speech, Bulmahn said the BioRegio program developed by the former government had been a successful instrument to bring together players from research, industry, finance, and administration. ¿In many regions, innovative biotechnology networks have been established since then, and a founding wave of biotech companies has been initiated,¿ she said. ¿It is our aim to continue and to expand this concept.¿

The BioRegio program will be pursued until 2002, as planned by Bulmahn¿s predecessor, J|rgen R|ttgers. ¿However, since the start of the competition we have seen the emergence of many more regions with excellent quality,¿ Bulmahn said. ¿With an additional program called BioProfile, we will fund the bundling of competence and expertise within these regions.¿

To stop the brain drain from Germany and to encourage university students and researchers to entrepreneurship, additional programs will provide funding to apply for patents, to develop start-ups out of universities, and to help young scientists establish independent research groups. In the latter program, up to 50 groups of young scientists will be funded following a competition. Special attention will be paid to groups linking biotechnology with other areas, e. g. nanotechnology and information technology. ¿Besides, these programs will allow young scientists to manage their own research groups independently,¿ Bulmahn said.

The federal Technologiebeteiligungsgesellschaft, she added, would continue to provide loans within its co-investment program. Invested capital bears a fixed interest rate; on achieving success, companies must pay a profit-linked interest and an opt-out fee, but if the business goes bankrupt, both are waived.

Bulmahn announced that special attention would be given to genome research. Funding of human genome research is increased by DM10 million (US$5.4 million) to DM50 million this year, and will be raised to DM80 million by the year 2002. In the autumn, a special plant genome project will try to encourage activities of small and medium-sized companies in this field.

¿Together with participants of all relevant areas, I will try to develop a concise national strategy for genome research, because capacities are limited,¿ Bulmahn said. Each result and every development had to be examined carefully for commercial applications and patentability, she added.

Overall, the government will fund biotechnology with DM1 billion this year, Bulmahn said ¿ a raise of 10 percent, compared to 1998. This includes basic research grants, institutional funding and project funding in special programs.

However, the German biotechnology industry is not yet self-sustaining, and investments in technology-oriented companies are still too low in Germany, Bulmahn said. ¿We need more successful stories, we need clear visions and more strategic alliances,¿ she said. Industry must be ready to partner with German biotechnology companies, she added.

To improve the public acceptance of agricultural biotechnology, the German government will try to initiate a dialogue with public-interest groups. However, Bulmahn urged the industry to develop products that would provide customers with better quality, so that benefits of this technology could be felt more directly. ¿Besides, industry must be prepared to examine and to cancel certain procedures that give rise to concerns [such as] the introduction of markers with antibiotic resistance.¿

European law should regulate genome analysis, germ line gene therapy and the cloning of humans, Bulmahn said.

Industry representatives expressed surprise and even relief about the speech and signaled their support for the program. During the conference, more than 100 biotech companies offered presentations. n