Living Innovation at Merck Serono, by Ulrich Betz

Ulrich BetzDr. Ulrich Betz is Head of Innovation & Entrepreneurship Incubator’ at Merck Serono, and I met him at Barcelona Innovation Excellence conference 9th edition where he delivered a fantastic presentation on innovation at Merck Serono. I asked him a few questions about his innovation initiatives there.

1) You’re ‘Head of Innovation & Entrepreneurship Incubator’ at Merck Serono: can you tell us what is your mission statement? What are you trying to achieve?

Ulrich: Our role is to foster innovation and entrepreneurial thinking in the company, we strive to make our corporate slogan “Living Innovation” a reality. To inspire, identify, create, mature and enable innovative approaches to benefit Merck Serono’s global product and R&D portfolio, business processes, strategy, organizational set-up and culture utilizing internal and external expertise. I was able together with my team and external partners to design and roll-out a series of innovation initiatives that helped us to fulfill this mission.


2) Merck Serono initiated recently a great variety of open and participative innovation initiatives: Innospire Idea Competition, Innovation Boost 2015, Innovation Cup, Open Compound, Open Call for drug discovery, and Outcubation. Would you be so kind as to present each in one line, explaining the concept, who they target (internally/externally), and what is main expectation for each?


  • Innospire is Merck group’s global bottom-up innovation initiative. innospire involving all Merck employees globally crowd-sources innovative ideas for new business and matures them with interdisciplinary self-assembling teams and entrepreneurial team leaders. Key characteristics are:
    • Global & cross-divisional innovation;
    • Bottom-up – everybody can participate;
    • Self-assembling teams;
    • Generating new business: training & support are provided for business plan.
  • The main expectations are to foster Outside the box thinking, Entrepreneurial idea champions, and Personal development & visibility.
  • The most important feature is that it is all based on voluntary contributions, no management delegation, and essentially a survival of the fittest, so only those ideas survive that enthusiaze colleagues to work on them.
  • Innospire has won the Knowledge Management Bio IT World Best Practice Award in 2012 and the German Industry Innovation Award in 2015. Parteck SLC enhacing drug solubility is one example of success story and a product that reached the market.

Innospire Program awarded

  • Innovation Boost: from February 10th to 13th, 400 employees from Merck Serono, Allergopharma and Biosimilars joined forces online using modern social media to jointly discuss and brainstorm on making living innovation a reality. It was a 4-day massive parallel online event with global reach, and round-the-clock activity for collaborative innovation, discussion and ideation, including participation of top management.
  • The scope was: Merck HealthCare as a whole – what makes us special today and tomorrow? What are Merck HealthCare‘s competitive advantages? How can we build on these strengths further? Which new strengths should we develop to capture future opportunities?
  • Deliverables achieved were to get transparency on the current situation, get ideas for future growth, and get accustomed to modern social media to collaborate and achieve things together

innovation boost

  • Innovation Cup is where generations meet: it aims at bringing together young talent with retired Merck Serono veterans for ideation, and synergizing in a 1 week summer camp. It presents a great chance for graduate students and postdocs to learn about R&D in the pharmaceutical industry. All travel and accommodation are paid by Merck. Teams get a chance to advance their best idea to a project plan. It is globally open to top students in the areas of life science and business admin. A 20.000€ award gets to the winning team. The cup will reach its fifth edition in 2015, and it has won the German Idea Award for Best International Idea 2014 and the German Industry Innovation Award in 2015.

innovation cup

  • With the Merck Serono Open Innovation Portal, we are offering a series of collaboration opportunities to interested partners. Open Compound Sourcing is open innovation at the level of compound: potential partners are invited to submit compounds for inclusion in the Merck Serono screening library. Participation Agreement covers all interaction details. Merck Serono preferentially accepts lead-like compounds filling gaps in the chemical space of the current library. If a compound qualifies as a hit during a Merck Serono screening campaign, the partner will be further compensated, and contacted for a potential collaboration to jointly advance the drug discovery program;
  • Reversely, the Merck Serono Mini Library exposes a set of promising compounds: External parties obtain free of charge a microliter plate based set of ~80 promising Merck Serono compounds (“Mini Library”). The external party agrees to submit all data generated with this mini library to Merck Serono (MTA). Compounds are potent drug-like target modulators. In case a new therapeutic potential is uncovered, the partner benefits and receives milestone payments. IP is made available to the partner for therapeutic areas outside of Merck’s interest areas; other open innovation contests are the Open Antibody Sourcing, and the Open Call for The Future of Drug Discovery.

Merck OI Portal

  • Finally, Outcubation is an Innovative Concept at the Sweet Spot between outsourcing and incubation at the interface of academic and corporate research. Outcubation targets breakthrough innovation projects, hosting top young talent in a stimulating environment. The Outcubation Concept as a new open innovation approach was made a reality with BioMedX in Heidelberg, the concept was accepted for publication in Nature Biotechnology in January 2015.

Merck oi

3) What was ‘the reason why’ for Merck to open its organization to collaborative innovation with such a strong determination?

Ulrich: Merck has long been very open to partnerships, in fact both our current blockbusters Erbitux and Rebif go back to collaborative approaches. Innovation is very high on our agenda, we strongly believe that it is required for the benefit of patients. Merck Serono is spending more than one billion euros on drug discovery and development each year, and Merck is currently building a large new innovation center at the Darmstadt headquarters.

4) Outcubation, based on collaboration between young talent plus supervisors from academia and from Merck, has already generated 3 projects handled in Heidelberg (Cancer & Inflammation, Metabolism and Signaling in cancer, and Selective kinase inhibitors) : do you think these projects could have surfaced through the traditional internal innovation process?

Ulrich: The outcubation concept brings together a series of positive factors which enable breakthrough innovation that are hard to emulate in a closed shop mindset: young talent, the best of both worlds from academia and corporate research, a comprehensive infrastructure and the stimulating environment and exchange that a global innovation hub offers. All that combined with a clear ambition to deliver results benefiting  drug discovery.

 Merck KGaA - Erste Wissenschaftler für BioMed X Innovation Cent

5) Innospire, Innovation Boost, Innovation Cup seem focused on ideation. How do you optimize the propagation of the ideas within internal R&D, and how do you follow the transformation process from an idea to a project, and then to a product?

Ulrich: Execution and results determination are of utmost importance. We have set-up an innovation incubator with a ring-fenced budget, shielding the early innovation projects from direct competition with later stage pipeline projects, and providing seed-funding for idea implementation and proof of concept generation. Project progress is monitored by the cross-divisional Merck Innovation Steering Committee. When the projects have reached a certain stage of maturity, they are transferred to an existing business unit.

6) We see how vivid is innovation in your company, so… what is your next innovation challenge?

Ulrich: I am personally very interested in the question of what really determines if an organization/society is able to innovate. These days we are seeing an explosion of innovation literature, a plethora of innovation consultancy offers but if you look into the details it is all more or less always the same, there is not much innovation in how innovation is being done, so we need to innovate how to innovate. This goes even back to analyzing human history over the centuries and there is currently an interesting debate going on whether global innovation speed is increasing or slowing down – one thing we should never forget – real breakthrough innovation is based on science and technology, and humans need strong investments in long term blue sky research to keep this going.

Time For Innovation Showing Creative Development And Ingenuity



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