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Curious 2018: An interview with Dr. Ulrich Betz

Curious 2018 was this year’s global flagship conference on Future Insight and the role of Science and Technology in addressing some of world’s biggest problems. The conference will be repeated in the coming years.

More than 1,300 participants came to this independent science conference, sponsored by German-based Merck on the occasion of its 350th birthday. There were far too many highlights to cover, some of them have been pointed out in my recent posts – See HEREHERE and HERE.

I took the chance to have an interview with Dr. Ulrich Betz, the initiator and conference lead of the Curious 2018 conference. He is VP Innovation at Merck and the global lead of the science & technology work stream of Merck’s 350th anniversary. He also heads the Merck Biopharma Innovation & Entrepreneurship Incubator which is responsible for global innovation management across the value chain.


Dr. Ulrich Betz, VP Innovation, Head of Department Innovation Incubator

From your view, what was the most important highlight from this global flagship conference on Future Insight?

Firstly, the outstanding speakers panel we could welcome, with more than 30 top speakers from all over the world, including five Nobel laureates and presenters like Craig Venter or Emmanuelle Charpentier. Then the great feedback we also got from the community of scientists and technologists, around 1,300 attendees. The conference brought key people together to jointly advance science and technology further, and to generate a positive image of the future. You know, many outlooks tend to become more and more gloomy and it is important to maintain a bright, positive, utopian view of the future.

So, for me personally, initiating and running a conference that brings together the best and brightest scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs, was highly fulfilling – and that this message radiated into the world makes me proud. It was also great that our German federal minister of Education and Research Anja Karliczek sent greeting comments acknowledging the conference.

Another clear highlight was the roll-out of the Future Insight Prize . Merck is sponsoring the Future Insight Prize to stimulate innovative solutions to solve some of humanities greatest problems and to realize the dreams for a better tomorrow in the areas of health, nutrition and energy. The Future Insight Prize will put the vision for ambitious dream products of global importance for humankind into the world and will trigger curiosity and creativity worldwide on how to make this vision a reality. We intend to give out up to EUR 1,000,000 annually for the next 35 years to incentivize people whose work has enabled significant progress towards making this vision a reality via discovering new ground-breaking science or via development of enabling technologies.

A third highlight for me is the Darmstadt Science Declaration . This is a global call to action to devote more resources to the advancement of science & technology. This will enable humanity to solve the challenges of today and to realize the dreams of a better tomorrow. Everybody is cordially invited to sign this declaration Ultimately, we want more than 1 million people signing the declaration showing that science is a force for good which enables us to solve many of mankind’s most pressing challenges.

I guess a number of our readers are wondering why Merck was setting up this huge conference. Could you please give us a glimpse on the story behind the story?

Firstly, Merck, a leading player in science & technology  is also the world’s oldest chemical and pharmaceutical company has certainly gained more visibility in the Science and Technology community. Secondly, it will help in that the world’s best and brightest in certain fields are pointed towards Merck.

For us, the event was not so much about creating immediate revenues or filling the pipeline. We strongly believe in innovation networks and ecosystems. We believe that in today’s complex and fast-paced world many breakthroughs will come from networks. And, as I said already, more and more these networks will be cross-disciplinary. So, we are sending a strong signal to the world that Merck can be the initiator and connector.

Additionally, if you dive deeper into our business, you will find that the headline topics of the conference are covering our current businesses. We are connecting the best and brightest from outside of Merck with our top talent. We also get a good insight into the trajectories of newly emerging breakthrough areas and who the rising stars are.

Some of the developments will influence our current businesses and we are accelerating science and technology in these are areas with research grants that might be up to 10 Million Euros, as you can see at 350 Open Innovation .

If we are looking to the headline topics of the conference: Which of these are of special interest to you?

All of them are very important, of course. But I’d like to pick one because something will happen – the only question is when it will happen and how well are we prepared.

I am talking about Pandemic Preparedness. In our globalized world, with a huge volume of international travel and with its overcrowded cities which will continue to grow there is the big danger that at some point of time in some corner of the world a new pandemic threat will break out.

It takes years to develop vaccines or antiviral substances – so if we are not prepared this pandemic will have covered the world. And the microbes will have won the evolutionary race against humankind, as our CEO said in his introductory speech.

Humankind has only a chance if it is prepared. And so, it is great to see that in this year’s Merck Innovation Cup two teams came up with great ideas on pandemic preparedness, one about fighting new pandemic threats via CRISPR approaches and one about a clever surveillance system.

What do you think is the legacy of this flagship conference?

Of course, I cannot judge on the legacy. Time and the outside world are making this call.

Contributing to a more optimistic view on the future might be one part of the equation. The other part might be an increased trust into cross-disciplinary work and the power of the exponential curves.

You know, on purpose we designed the conference to be cross-disciplinary. It was a highlight for many participants to see what could emerge when you think beyond the walls of your scientific discipline. Take the role of Artificial Intelligence in discovering new High Performance Materials or in Drug Discovery as an example.

Which also entails the power of the exponential curves. Many of the technologies that were on the conference agenda have reached their plateau of productivity, e.g. Genomics, AI and Robotics. And we all know: If they just double their productivity every year (which is a conservative estimate) then in 10 years’ time they will be 1,000 times more powerful than they are today.

How do these activities you mentioned add value to the innovation management at Merck?

They certainly strengthen our Sensing, Scouting and Screening processes. But of course, they are not enough by themselves and need to be supported by other activities as well.

One example is the Merck Innovation Cup which I already mentioned. This year – on the 350th birthday of our company – it was three times as large as normally. We had three times working on the fields ‘Bright Future’ and ‘New ways of working together’. They were addressing questions like ‘How does the optimal innovator organization look like?’ or ‘What are new approaches to Open Innovation?’ The new application phase will start in November 1st (http://innovationcup.merckgroup.com).

How does Merck – apart from events like Curious 2018 – strengthen its Future Insight capabilities?

All our Business Units are engaged in Future Insight. Let me take one example from Health Care.

There, we are doing regularly so-called ‘Game Changer workshops’. In these workshops we are casting a wide net to scout for potential game-changing technologies. We run these workshops with internal as well as external experts and they are well-prepared. We are bringing in our scouting results, findings from screening key conferences.

The goal of the workshops is to identify weak signals that are worth to be traced, to be put on the radar screen, if you will. So, we want to find out what the next CRISPR is before everybody is talking about it.

This is well-connected with the very fuzzy part of the fuzzy front-end. Once we identified a weak signal, we will initiate some probes, e.g. technology studies, to find out if this is something we should look at more closely and if so, into which direction we should point our attention to.

Where do you see the biggest challenges in transitioning Future Insights to the innovation process?

Ensuring commitment and long-term funding is key to me. At Merck we are in the fortunate position that it is predominantly family-owned and the family has this long-term view.

It is clear in our shareholder community and in the Top Management that no matter how good your current business and how skilled you are in optimizing – there will come a day when it is gone. Companies must reinvent themselves – and Merck has this in its DNA, otherwise we would not have existed for 350 years.