»Engineering – Life Sciences – Automation« (ELSA) cluster initiative
»Engineering – Life Sciences – Automation« (ELSA) cluster initiative
Many biotech products today are produced in small quantities – on a laboratory scale using time-consuming manual processes. However, as biotech products reach market maturity and demand for them increases, companies will also have to start thinking about developing new production methods. In future, automation solutions will play an increasingly important role in this sector, for example for cell cultures, implants with biotech coatings and molecular diagnostic chips. Demand for more efficient production technology is on the rise in the medtech sector, too.
The STERN BioRegion offers great potential for the development of efficient production processes for life sciences companies. The region enjoys an excellent reputation in the fields of automation technology and mechanical and systems engineering.Many of these companies originate in the automotive supplier industry and are interested in moving into additional areas of business with an eye to diversifying their sales markets. The region's up-and-coming biotech and medtech industry offers the perfect opportunity to open up a new market that is seeking innovative solutions and recording above-average growth. The region therefore has the chance to set standards in biotech and medtech production technology worldwide.
BioRegio STERN Management GmbH is promoting the development of such methods through its “Engineering – Life Sciences – Automation” (ELSA) cluster initiative. A series of cluster events are designed to trigger cross-industry cooperation projects and encourage the foundation of spin-offs in this new area of business. An accompanying study entitled “Biotech meets Autotech” will provide an insight into the current status of the cooperation and the potential offered by closer collaboration.
Automation for life sciences
Be they pipetting robots, high-throughput processes for screening biologically active substances or fermentation technologies for the production of active biopharmaceutical agents – semi-automated processes are already part and parcel of many bioscience research institutes and biotech companies today. Many medtech products are also made on semi-automated systems, but fully automated processes remain the exception rather than the rule. According to the German Engineering Federation (VDMA), fewer than 50 robots per 10,000 personnel are used in the medical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. compared to several hundred robots per 10,000 personnel in the automotive industry. Most products in the life sciences industry are still made by hand. This is all set to change radically in the future. Increasing unit quantities and the need for standardised production conditions in the biomedical sector will inevitably give rise to calls for new production methods. Therefore, the demand for automation solutions for the manufacture of biotech and medtech products will be equally high. In addition to speeding up production processes considerably, automation will also make it possible to define standard and transparent production conditions. This is crucial for the market approval of products, as this is usually the only way to ensure compliance with quality standards such as GMP guidelines or DIN and ISO standards.
Automation companies, mechanical and systems engineers and automotive suppliers make up a considerable part of the STERN BioRegion, with around 1,000 companies employing more than 200,000 staff. Many of them are among the most innovative companies in this sector and have the highest sales figures. They are accompanied in the STERN BioRegion by almost 100 highly innovative biotech companies and some 120 medtech enterprises, including global industry players and numerous SMEs with strong research and development capabilities.
In other words, the STERN BioRegion provides an unrivalled platform for successful cooperation between engineer-driven firms and companies in the life sciences industry. BioRegio STERN Management GmbH founded the “Engineering – Life Sciences – Automation” (ELSA) cluster initiative with the specific aim of driving forward this cooperation. There are plans to link the existing regional clusters as part of this initiative. Adopting a strategic approach, BioRegio STERN Management GmbH plans to work with the Mechatronics Cluster in Göppingen, the Medical Valley Hechingen competence network and Stuttgart's Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) to initiate and promote the creation of collaborative agreements between the sectors. Start-up financing for the ELSA cluster initiative is being provided by the Baden-Württemberg Ministry of Economic Affairs as part of the second competition for strengthening regional clusters in Baden-Württemberg.
Despite the huge potential, cooperation between engineers and life sciences experts also throws up a new set of challenges. Working with living cells and perishable materials, such as proteins, calls for the development of customised and highly innovative automation solutions. For organisms and living cells, it is not sufficient to perform production under cleanroom conditions and to protect the cultures against impurities. Climatic factors and additional chemical and physical conditions must meet precise requirements to ensure that the organisms are not subject to stress, thus causing them to die. Developing systems for operation in the very humid, warm and CO2-rich environment often required by cell and tissue cultures also poses specific problems and challenges for engineers. This situation is exacerbated by communication difficulties between engineers and bioscientists – they not only use different technical terminology, but also have contrasting ways of working. Engineers, for example, work to system or contract specifications, while bioscientists have to take a more flexible approach to research as they need to react to the latest results and findings.
Several workshops will be held as part of the ELSA project to investigate particular problem areas and break down communication barriers. A study will analyse the current status of cooperation between the participating industries and identify the requirements for successful cooperation and the obstacles that need to be overcome. The presentation of this study, alongside additional events such as roundtable discussions, matching events and lectures, will provide the representatives of both industries with opportunities to establish new contacts and initiate specific cooperation projects.
Die Clusterinitiative Engineering – Life Sciences – Automation (ELSA) wird unterstützt durch das Ministerium für Finanzen und Wirtschaft Baden-Württemberg aus Mitteln des Europäischen Fonds für regionale Entwicklung (RWB-EFRE). Mehr Informationen unter www.rwb-efre-baden-wuerttemberg.de.
Kathrin Ballesteros Katemann, Dr. rer. nat.
E ballesteros [at] bioregio-stern [dot] de
E schell [at] bioregio-stern [dot] de