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Curious Future Insight 2022: An interview with Dr Ulrich Betz

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Merck, headquartered in Darmstadt, Germany, has a long and prestigious history of facilitating collaborations across the sciences and industry. Though the company can boast of an illustrious past, it defines itself not by its historic achievements, but by its ongoing desire to face the challenges of our collective future. It was with the vital principles of collaboration, participation, and knowledge-sharing in mind that Merck founded the first Curious Conference back in 2018. The event was universally acclaimed, with attendees praising its atmosphere of optimistic and intelligent co-operation. In the run-up to the next Curious Future Insight™ Conference – Curious 2022 – Research Features was privileged to interview Dr Ulrich Betz, Vice President of Innovation at Merck.

The Curious Conference is a multi-faceted event with a varied and holistic approach to scientific innovation. Its motto – ‘Science for a Better Tomorrow’ – encapsulates its conviction that science, when utilised intelligently and compassionately, can bring about a healthier planet. After the pandemic led to the last conference being held entirely online, Curious 2022 promises to be bigger, brighter, and more diverse than ever. Tickets for the 2022 event are now available, but there are numerous other channels through which researchers in both academia and industry can get involved with the conference. There is also the opportunity to submit an abstract and get selected to present. Abstract submissions are already open.

The Future Insight™ Prize, which is now accepting nominations for 2022, will continue to foster and reward researchers who are committed to realising the scientific dreams of tomorrow. The topic of the Future Insight™ Prize 2022 is CO2 Conversion. The dream product generates a high-energy-density fuel from renewable energy, water, and atmospheric carbon dioxide with an overall negative carbon dioxide balance.

2018’s Curious Future Insight™ Conference, a universally acclaimed event.

The Science Declaration is a call to all nations, societies, and organisations to devote more resources to the advancement of science and technology. So, everyone is encouraged to sign the Science Declaration, which proudly declares that we should Make Science Not War.

Dr Ulrich Betz is keen to stress the collaborative and participatory nature of the Conference. He recognises that true innovation arises from fruitful interdisciplinary discussions. Research Features caught up with him about the various aspects of next year’s Conference, and about the broader relationship between science and the future.

“The goal of the Science Declaration – which we launched at the Curious Conference – is to unite humanity under the banner of science.”

When did you decide to coordinate the first Curious Conference?

The conference was initiated on the occasion of Merck’s 350th anniversary. Besides the various festivities, we wanted to bring a unique event to the science and technology community, inviting external organisations, societies, academia, and individuals to join us for this great landmark in our company’s history. We recognised the importance of science, innovation, and having a vision for the future. I had the honour of being nominated as Head of the Science and Technology Workstream for the anniversary and it quickly became clear that rather than looking into the past, we wanted to look forward and invest in the future, to ensure that the company has another 350 bright years in front of it. We made sure that we identified key technological gamechangers as well as top scientists, technology pioneers and innovators. That’s where the idea for the flagship science conference emerged – we are still very proud of the legacy of this first event.

People networking at Curious 2018.

1300 people on site, six Nobel Laureates, 70 speakers in total and excellent feedback, such as: ‘The best conference I have ever attended in my life’; ‘the Woodstock of Science and Technology’; ‘Last time I felt this inspired was after the Curious 2018 Conference’. It really made an impression on people, and I must say, for my part, I enjoyed it a lot too. It was an incredible atmosphere there, vibrating with energy and hope that the future of science and technology will be bright, a force for good. We can solve problems for a peaceful world together; we can jointly uncover the secrets of the universe and create great things that will make this planet a more habitable one.

So that’s where it started. We wanted to repeat the conference two years later, but then the pandemic meant we had to postpone. We did online events, and the next conference in 2022 will allow onsite participation.

We were particularly proud that the first topic selected in 2017 was ‘pandemic preparedness’ – announced in 2018 and given out in 2019. In 2021 we gave out the prize for innovations in food, to secure the nutrition of a growing world population. Next year it will be given out in the area of climate change – technology to reverse its effects. People can now make proposals for this.

The Future Insight™ Prize is based on the so-called ‘Dream Product’ concept. What is a Dream Product? It is something that would be great if only it could exist, but it can’t be realised with the state of science and technology as it is today. Previously, we developed a vision of a ‘pandemic protector’, of a ‘food generator’, or a ‘fuel generator’, and at a recent event we established an online ‘dream board’, where people could input all the dreams they have, and we collected some amazing ideas. We have a collection of wonderfully inspiring visions. Just to give you an example: if a tooth needs to be removed, then you put some growth factor in and the patient regrows a tooth at the same location. Or intelligent soil, which allows one to grow crops in any climate, providing everything the crop needs to grow.

The Future Insight™ Prize.

What are you most looking forward to for Curious 2022?

We are certainly looking forward to hopefully having an in-person event again! We are already growing this into a consortium, in support of science and technology. We already have many organisations joining, and the next event will be even broader, with many external companies joining and providing further insight on science and technology. We want this to grow even into a global movement, and Merck as the world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company is happy to spearhead it. We are very open to having partners at eye-level with us, if somebody wanted to come in and become an event partner/sponsor by forming the conference. We are looking forward to gaining more Platinum, Gold and Silver sponsors. You can send your brightest employees in so they get inspired, and come back to the company with fresh new ideas and strengthened networks all over the world. This is what we are looking for.

We are also looking forward to the ‘Make Science Not War’ declaration gaining more traction and hope that this action, in support of boosting science and technology in a peaceful world, is supported by more people.

At the same time, thinking about this topic personally for many years now, I am aware that science is not able to give all the answers. For example, science stays silent on the most important question in life: why do we live and what should we do? You can’t research the answer to that question. Science has certain limits: it cannot tell you what is ethical and what isn’t. This answer needs to come from somewhere else. I think science is a double-edged sword, and it can be used for good and bad alike. So, one needs to support it with a strong ethical concept, to make sure science is used for the overall benefit of humanity. I personally underline this with five core principles: truth (science), love (ethics), courage (entrepreneurship), liberty and spirituality.

Tell us more about this year’s Future Insight™ Prize?

This year we gave it out in the area of food, for new innovative technologies to secure the nutrition of a growing world population. At the moment, it is far from clear whether it will always be possible to secure this: there is climate change, and a growing population, and there are already food prices going up all over the world. This is a real problem.

Crowds at Curious 2018.

To select the winner, we use quite a complex process. It starts with the announcement of next year’s topic at the award ceremony of the current year. Then everybody around the world is invited to submit proposals – people can do that now for the 2022 topic of the Future Insight™ Prize. In parallel, we are doing a scouting activity to create a long list of potential recipients. For example, we look at who is making the most impactful publications. We look at patents that are being submitted in a certain area, as well as keynote speakers at relevant conferences. All of this is put together in a longlist. We had over 200 potential candidates.

These were prioritised into a top 40, which are sent to the Future Insight™ Prize jury. The jury is composed of independent scientists from all over the world, including Nobel Laureates. This jury then votes for the first time. The top ten are selected, who are then invited to apply for the prize, by sending in detailed applications. The jury is provided with these applications, and votes a second time.

“Fostering and identifying talent is the most important thing, and the Innovation Cup helps us identify new talents.”

The prize, importantly, is a research grant. It is provided to an institution and must be used to continue working on the problem with the intention that their work helps to make the vision of the proposed Dream Product a reality. That is why the Future Insight™ Prize, in contrast to the Nobel Prize, is not given to someone for their life’s work, but is given to entities who have shown already that they can contribute, and the expectations are high that they have better things to give in the future. The money should help them to make further progress.

In 2019 you awarded Pardis Sabeti at the Broad Institute Inc, Boston, and James Crowe at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, the Future Insight™ Prize for their research in the field of Pandemic Preparedness. I’d be very interested to know how your research grant is supporting their work. What are they currently working on?

We are in close contact with them and they have been doing amazing work. Pardis Sabeti, with the help of the prize, made advancements in the area of diagnostics and CRISPR-Cas in Africa. James Crowe has been one of the first people to come up with a monoclonal antibody to neutralise SARS-CoV-2.

The Merck Innovation Cup participants.

Partnerships between biopharma and engineering are crucial to reach these goals. What are the challenges of cross-disciplinary work?

Innovative research projects very often require working between disciplines – artificial intelligence, drug discovery, machine learning – it’s always going to be cross-disciplinary. You might need medics, chemists, biologists, pharmacologists and so on. Also, increasingly, we are working within the Open Innovation paradigm, working with academic scientists, and bringing them together with corporate scientists.

There aren’t too many challenges, and we have solved a lot of them. I published in Nature Biotechnology a new way of bringing the players together – it is called Outcubation. It’s a new way of orchestrating academic and corporate players. Outcubation is at the interface between academic and industrial research – it’s somewhere between incubation and outsourcing. It is based on the concept that a group of young innovative scientists are placed at a biotech company – they have two supervisors, one from academia, one from a pharma company, so they are getting the best of both worlds. They have all the infrastructure they need to move forward. We pioneered this and the company BioMed X GmbH (Heidelberg, Germany) was founded based on the Outcubation paradigm. Other pharma companies are using this paradigm now too.

What’s the goal of the Science Declaration?

The goal of the Science Declaration – which we launched at the Curious Conference – is to unite humanity under the banner of science and, particularly, to ensure that the resources that are required are available to solve humanity’s biggest problems. In the 70s and 80s, we were hearing the most wonderful stories about how the world would be in the year 2000 – and it did not materialise. These were not just the stories of science fiction authors; these were serious predictions. It is a big disappointment, if you are honest, though the progress has been fantastic, of course, in computing and the internet. The purpose of the Science Declaration is to collect support and to make sure resources are going into important science.

The Innovation Cup supports the younger generation of graduate students. What are the 2021 topics for the Innovation Cup?

This is my absolute favourite project. It’s the most amazing experience and, as always, the future lies in the hands of the next generation. Fostering and identifying talent is the most important thing, and the Innovation Cup helps us identify new talents; it stimulates new and innovative ideas, but it also brings generations together. You can’t just have young people, you also need experienced people; with people working together you can achieve the most amazing things. In terms of ‘Make Science Not War’ we have people from all over the world coming together, from Europe, Asia, Africa, South America, from the States – and they have never seen each other before. Within a few minutes, people start to work together and to brainstorm, to come up with new ideas for problem solving. It shows how much we humans are programmed to collaborate and work together. Rather than battling each other, why not focus our energy on exploring together the secrets of the universe, or fighting disease?


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