Incubator to Ensure Scientific Research Leads to Commercial Success

Science

Dr. Christoph Sensen

Hungary has all the human capital it needs to become a leading player in molecular medicine, insists Dr. Christoph Sensen, the German scientist (and Hungarian resident) charged with laying the foundations for the ecosystem to support such ambitious plans.

The Hungarian Center of Excellence for Molecular Medicine, H-CEMM for short, brings together the University of Szeged, Budapest’s Semmelweis University and the Szeged Biological Research Center. The National Research, Innovation and Development Office represents the government as project coordinator, and the Germany-based European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) also has input as an advanced scientific institution.

Sensen, a university professor and specialist in genome research and bioinformatics, has headed up H-CEMM since December, although he has been in the background for longer than that. He actually holds two titles. As director general, he oversees the scientific work of the organization, but he is also CEO of HCEMM Kft., the company that will put in place all the building blocks to allow the science to take place, and that is consuming most of his time and efforts right now.

A large chunk of the funding comes from a European Union Horizon 2020 program that aims to smooth out significant differences in terms of research and innovation among member states by creating centers of excellence that can run so-called “teaming projects.”

“The goal is to attach research groups within Hungary to international research organizations to facilitate the transfer of knowledge into Hungary, to identify end uses for that knowledge and to commercialize it,” Sensen tells the Budapest Business Journal in an exclusive interview. “This is a translational medicine project; we want to go from bench to bedside.”

The point of focus for the scientific research will be wide-spread ageing-related diseases, grouped into three so-called pillars: immuno-inflammatory diseases; metabolic and cardiovascular diseases; and genomic instability and cancer. All three are already areas of investigation in Hungary, meaning there is an “incubator environment” of excellent scientific research, infrastructure and education to build upon.

Since the pandemic, work has been ongoing in adding a fourth pillar, researching infectious diseases in old age, such as sepsis, fungal infections, COVID and the like. Sensen makes the point that, although a death certificate might record cancer as the cause of death, often it is a viral infection that is ultimately responsible. This pillar will be limited to the major causes of death and their side effects, so as to maximize returns.

“What we do not want to do here is to investigate rare diseases. We have finite resources and a limited workforce; we cannot work on every disease in the universe.”

Incubating Success

A critical bricks and mortar element of the ecosystem supporting all this research is finally underway. “We are building our own space in Szeged Science Park, at the so-called Incubator House. The University of Szeged is renovating the old officers’ mess of the former Russian Army barracks. Half of it will be occupied by the HCEMM Kft. headquarters, and we will also have our own laboratory space there.” Those are being designed so they could also be mobilized as emergency research centers should another pandemic come along.

Work finally began in December 2020, and is expected to take a year to complete. Once complete, the Incubator House will allow HCEMM to become fully functional.  Sensen, who most recently was a Professor at Graz University of Technology, but prior to that worked for 20 years in Canada in a number of scientific roles, started his career in 1992 at EMBL. His own research work meant he already knew and/or had worked with leading university scientists in Hungary. He is also married to a Hungarian, and became a Hungarian resident about 10 years ago.

“When they started looking for a new CEO and director general, I was not an unknown entity,” he says. That did not mean he came on board right away, however. He was initially interviewed, via Zoom, in March 2020. “I had as many questions as they did.” Austria was in a hard lockdown, but that period did give him time to thoroughly investigate what the challenges were, and whether he wanted to take them on. He says he spoke to at least 50 people before making his decision.

A brief two-minute chat at an event in Szeged with Minister László Palkovics, whose Ministry for Innovation and Technology is responsible for H-CEMM, was followed by a longer meeting in Budapest a few weeks later, during which Sensen presented his plans for the center.

“The minister made a commitment to me to support the further development of H-CEMM into a Hungarian flagship institute. And he did it.” In August 2020, the center received status as a National Laboratory for Translational Medicine.

State Funding

Was Sensen at all concerned about government involvement in the funding of H-CEMM? “If you look into scientific funding, there is not a single academic outfit anywhere that is not working in conjunction with their government, and not a single one working independently of government funding decisions. That’s true in Germany, in Canada it is absolutely so, in Austria the same thing. In Hungary, what I see is the government wants to spend more [on scientific research], it is generally increasing the level, looking at making the structures more efficient, and that is not an easy process, but it is a process that needs doing.”

Hungary can be very progressive, he says; broadband internet coverage is much better than in Austria, for example, and while it took him half an hour of form filling to become a Hungarian resident, the same process took his wife 15 months in Canada. But in other ways Hungary can be infuriatingly bureaucratic, especially when trying to get different sectors to work together.

Whatever else happens, Sensen says he will be retiring on April 30, 2025. Assuming he gets to that point, how will he judge whether his time at H-CEMM has been a success?

“What we need to build is something that is at least partially self-sustaining. You need the proper funding streams to maintain equipment and keep up to date. It will take 10-15 years to be fully self-sufficient. We will work with the EU and Hungary to get there, but at least the foundations have to be in place by the time I leave,” he says.

“If we get the right mechanisms in place now, we will have the ability to grow beyond national funding cycles. I see some good signs of that.”

Once up and running, he expects business will ask H-CEMM to tackle specific research projects equally as much as H-CEMM will take its research to business to commercialize it. Immediate plans include bringing in more university partners. Sensen is particularly impressed with the work being done at Pécs University, where they have already sequenced more than 1,000 COVID genomes from the Hungarian population. “In proportion, that is much more than Germany has been able to do,” he points out. That is the sort of work that needs to be highlighted. “We have to raise our international visibility so that everybody wants to come and work with us.”

If he could have one additional request, he says he would love a small airport in Szeged. “I even have a suggestion for that. It only needs to be able to take a helicopter shuttle service. Even if you are a researcher, it is not every day you get a ride in a helicopter,” he says with a laugh. “Well, you have to think out of the box if you want to get things done!”

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of  March 26, 2021.

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