Remaining curious about the future | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 20.07.2018
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Remaining curious about the future

In its 350th anniversary year, Merck announced a highly remunerative science award and invited renowned researchers to its conference. A realignment is essential because the corporation is weakening.

The cubist glass façade rises into the bright blue sky. Inside the postmodern conference centre: bright popular colors, rich sound and a hip ambience. The futuristic appearance is part of the desired image change, which the traditional Hessian Merck Group is working on intensely. Merck will no longer be merely a pharmaceutical manufacturer, but wants to be perceived as a scientific group that invests in ideas for the future. The DAX-listed group, which emerged from a pharmacy in Darmstadt, is celebrating its 350th birthday this year.

Merck-Wissenschafts-Konferenz Curious Future Insight in Darmstadt (DW/A. Freund)

Past meets future at Curious2018

Above all, the world's oldest pharmaceutical and chemical group is therefore celebrating itself in its anniversary year. Gaining much attention in the media, Merck has created a EUR 1 million science prize for groundbreaking research in the fields of health, nutrition and energy. Follow the anniversary, the new "Future Insight Prize" is to be awarded over the next 35 years. In terms of prize money, it is even higher than the prestigious Nobel Prize (around 870,000 euros)

Merck already has very specific ideas as to who will receive the prize: The company is looking for scientists who can make a substantial contribution to the development of a pandemic protection device that enables rapid protection against new pathogens.

And for the years to come, the prize sponsor has already defined very specific areas in which he hopes to find "visionary dream products". In 2020, new solutions against antimicrobial resistance, in 2021, pioneering developments for feeding the growing world population, and in 2022, significant innovations for fuel production through the conversion of carbon dioxide will be honoured.

Interdisciplinary exchange of ideas

The newly created prize will be awarded for the first time next year at the "Curious Future Insight" conference. To this year's inaugural event, Merck invited 35 renowned scientists from a wide variety of fields, including 5 Nobel Prize winners, to present their current research and, ideally, to discuss the future of science and technology on an interdisciplinary basis:

Merck-Wissenschafts-Konferenz Curious Future Insight in Darmstadt (DW/A. Freund)

Exchange of ideas on future issues

What progress has been made in medicine or chemistry? What will the health system of the future look like? What effect does digitization have on our daily lives? What changes will artificial intelligence, robotics or virtual realities bring?  What can stem cell research do?

For three days, the Nobel laureates biophysicist Joachim Frank (Chemistry 2017), nano-engineer Fraser Stoddart (Chemistry 2016), immunologist Bruce Beutler (Medicine 2011), virologist Harald zur Hausen (Medicine 2008) and supramolecular chemist Jean-Marie Lehn (Chemistry 1987) discussed these questions with their scientific colleagues, around 1000 conference participants and business representatives.

Rendezvous of top researchers

The top-class guest list also included world-famous names, such as the US genome research pioneer Craig Venter, who presented spectacular findings in the field of genome sequencing. If learning machines know and interpret the genetic code, they can reproduce a three-dimensional face based solely on genetics. Without knowing the appearance of a person, the machine uses the genetic code to accurately calculate the actual appearance of a person. 

Such impactful progress is fascinating or disturbing, a matter of opinion and an issue that was also discussed at the "Curious" conference. The same applied to the question of how far the correction of genetic defects can or may go. The audience's expectations towards CRISPR discoverer Emmanuelle Charpentier, who presented her ethically controversial "genome scissors" for the modification or repair of genome strands, were correspondingly high. 

Merck-Wissenschafts-Konferenz Curious Future Insight in Darmstadt (DW/A. Freund)

CRISPR discoverer Emmanuelle Charpentier

The expert audience was also enthusiastic about Yoshiyuki Sankai's exoskeletons. These are "robot suits" or mechanical trousers that enable stroke patients or elderly people to walk again. They make lifting easier, particularly in strenuous occupations, such as geriatric nursing. 

The broad range of topics at the conference was intended to emphasize the fact that Merck, with around 53,000 employees worldwide, no longer sees itself as a pharmaceutical group, even though this division traditionally generated the most sales.

But Merck's established pharmaceuticals are generating less and less revenues. Even with its lucrative cancer drugs Erbitux and the mutiple sclerosis drug Rebif, sales are declining in light of the large and in some cases more favorable competition. Just recently, Merck - like its competitors - had to cut prices by an average of 10 percent, following harsh criticism from U.S. President Donald Trump, concerning the pharmaceutical companies' pricing policies. The price for the hepatitis drug Zepatier was even cut by 60 percent. As a new scientific group, Merck therefore wants to open up novel business areas and is investing large sums into the research and development of new drugs.

Strategic realignment

To finance the planned change, Merck sold the licenses for its over-the-counter drugs to Procter&Gamble for EUR 3.4 billion. Recently, Merck had high hopes for its drug Avelumab, which is supposed to strengthen the body's immune system and destroy cancer cells. This cancer immunotherapy allowed Merck to launch a new drug in 2017, for the first time in nine years. But in decisive Phase III studies, the company's hopes were dashed - another major setback for the Darmstadt-based firm. Even the previously profitable business with liquid crystals for smartphone or tablet displays, has seen its prices constantly lowered as Chinese competitors have caught up considerably.

So new ideas and concepts are in demand, and curiosity is key. Because a strategic realignment in the direction of an innovative science group is urgently needed if the traditional Hessian company Merck wants to keep up with the sometimes superior pharmaceutical groups from the USA and Switzerland.

Of all things, the world's oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company is showing signs of weakness in its anniversary year. Slight declines in operating results are expected in 2018. In the financial year 2017, Merck generated sales of EUR 15.3 billion and a profit of EUR 2.61 billion.