On the way with the 9 euro ticket. Part 5: Halle is a center of biochemistry and home to the university’s universities

In Germany, you can travel this summer for 9 euros per month with regional public transport. Innovation Origins takes the opportunity to visit a number of future projects. In this episode we travel to Halle an der Saale.

From the roof we have an excellent view of the Weinberg Campus Technology Park in Halle. Today, Bert-Morten Arnicke gives us a tour of one of the fastest growing knowledge parks in Germany, focusing on biochemistry, biotechnology and materials science.

The factory pipes of Buna and Leuna are clearly visible on the horizon, two towns that are part of what is also known as the “Chemiedreieck”. Halle and the entire region suffered greatly during the GDR years.

“If the wind was wrong, the whole city would be covered in a thick yellow stinking fog,” a woman told me earlier in the day on the train. This was not only due to the factories, but also to the many lignite mines in the region. “But I’m still alive,” she added. “And I had a pretty good childhood. For us, industrial estates and excavations were a playground.”

In Halle, the chemical industry is never far away.  Photo Maurits Kuypers
In Halle, the chemical industry is never far away. Photo Maurits Kuypers

The chemistry triangle still exists and now connects the cities of Halle, Merseburg and Bitterfeld. The factories are just not as dirty as they were in the GDR era. “The chemical industry established itself here early in the last century,” says Arnicke. In Leuna, for example, from 1916 synthetic ammonia was produced from nitrogen and hydrogen for the war industry by the BASF company. This was necessary because Germany could no longer import saltpeter from Chile for ammunition.

The war was lost, but the chemistry remained. The region on the border of the three states of Brandenburg, Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt was perfectly suited due to the huge reserves of lignite (for firing) and the presence of a number of rivers. Later, the region became a center for all kinds of plastics and refineries. Well-known companies today include Dow Chemical, TotalEnergies, BASF, Linde, AkzoNobel, Bayer, Degussa, Lanxess and Heraeus.

Next week more on the transformation of this region, where disused lignite mines are given new life and “solar valley” tries to get a fresh start.

The Russians

Conspicuous from the roof is also the large number of barrack-like buildings. “Some of these go back to the time of the Nazis,” explains Arnicke. “They were used as a training center for the military.” The buildings are very similar to Berlin’s famous Tempelhof Airport, and it’s no wonder because they share the same architect: Ernst Sagebiel. After the Second World War, the German army gave way to the Russian army, which had a large base in Halle with around 9,000 soldiers.

The Russian army used to hold meetings and exercises in this parking lot.  In the background the barracks.  Photo Maurits Kuypers
The Russian army used to hold meetings and exercises in this parking lot. In the background the barracks. Photo Maurits Kuypers

But in 1991 it was also “Closed”, and many buildings were left in a bad state. For the technology park, however, it was the start of something beautiful. “Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg (MLU) was already nearby and has taken more and more buildings into use over the years,” says Arnicke.

Halle was also already known in the GDR in plant breeding and microtechnology. Two institutes from that time were renamed the Leibniz Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie (IPB) and the Max-Planck Institut für Mikrostrukturphysik (MPI).

Fraunhofer, Leibniz, Helmholtz and Max-Planck

And it did not stop at the two knowledge institutes. Later it followed:

  • Fraunhofer Institute for Microstructures, Materials and Systems (IMWS)
  • Fraunhofer Center for Silicon Photovoltaics (CSP)
  • Fraunhofer Institute for Cell Therapy and Immunology (IZI)
  • Leibniz Institute for Agrarian Development in the Transformation Economy (IAMO)
  • Helmholtz Center for Environmental Research (UFZ)

Anyone who knows Germany a little knows that the presence of one Fraunhofer, Max-Planck, Helmholtz or Leibniz institute can already give the regional economy a huge boost. It doesn’t matter if you have as many as Halle.

The Fraunhofer Institute CSP researches solar cells here.  Photo Maurits Kuypers
The Fraunhofer Institute CSP researches solar cells here. Photo Maurits Kuypers

mRNA vaccines

We continue our way by bike through the park. Arnicke explains on a large construction site that the latest breakthrough for the research park is coming here. Wacker Biotech – a subsidiary of the Bavarian Wacker Chemie – is building a brand new factory and an R&D center for vaccines based on the so-called messenger RNA (mRNA).

It is a technique that has become widely known in the past two years due to Covid-19, but work is also being done on mRNA vaccines against, for example, cancer. According to Arnicke, Wacker can get started with each subsequent pandemic. The purchase of vaccines is more or less guaranteed by the German government.

“For us, it is a sign that we are entering the next phase with the technology park, where start-ups grow into global players.” The technology that Wacker will work with was developed by a local “Halisches” company that emerged from the university: Scil Proteins, which was acquired by Wacker in 2014.

Halle academic hospital.  Photo Maurits Kuypers
Halle academic hospital. Photo Maurits Kuypers

Startups

It’s not the only example of a successful startup, but it’s the biggest. Another promising company is Icon Genetics, which cultivates enzymes (proteins) in plants for medical use, including against Ebola. “At the moment there is a big trial going on with tobacco plants.” Arnicke points up. The lights are clearly visible from the road. Icon Genetics has been part of the Japanese Denko Group for a few years now.

Another development that Arnicke is proud of is the increasing interaction between knowledge institutions, companies and the university medical center in Halle. For example, work is being done on new treatments for dementia and cancer.

7,000 employees and 8,000 students

Around 7,000 people now work at the research centers and the around 100 companies on the 134-hectare technology park. In addition, the Universitätsklinikum employs almost 4,000 people and has more than 8,000 students.

One of the newest buildings on campus has been specially designed as a breeding ground for start-up companies. In any case, the building appears as new, it has been renovated and functions as an office and place for lectures and presentations for investors. In addition, young entrepreneurs are advised and assisted here.

Arnicke: “Since the start, around 300 companies have seen the light of day in the park”. They are not all equal. For example, we cycle past one of the oldest companies on campus, ECH Elektrochemie, which specializes in measuring equipment for laboratories. “A niche player but has been successful worldwide for years.”

The building for startups with an auditorium.  Photo Maurits Kuypers
The building for startups with an auditorium. Photo Maurits Kuypers

The researchers

In relation to startups and research, there are many exciting stories to tell, according to Arnicke. Professor Robert Paxton, for example, is researching the role of parasites in bee deaths; Karsten Mäder deals with the transport of medicine through the body; and the American Stuart Parkin is working on new experimental forms of data storage.

What could be better? According to one of the professors on the website, there are still too few meeting places on campus where colleagues can freely talk about what they are doing. It’s a shame, because these kinds of meetings can provide surprising new insights.

The entrance to the Weinberg Campus Technology Park. Photo Maurits Kuypers

Handel, Genscher and the Reformation

Fortunately, the old center of Halle offers plenty of space for meetings and relaxation. The campus is located on the outskirts of the city, next to the “Halle Neustadt”, a typical new residential area from the 1960s, very modern for the time, then dilapidated, and now gradually trendy again, because many buildings have been or are to be renovated. But the old town, by the river Saale, remains the preferred residential environment.

The old center of Halle has a lot to offer.  Photo Maurits Kuypers
The old center of Halle has a lot to offer. Photo Maurits Kuypers

It also has a lot to offer tourists with, for example, the birthplace of the composer Georg Friedrich Händel, the market square with the beautiful St. Mary’s Church and the Moritzburg Art Museum, where Cardinal Albrecht von Brandenburg resided at the beginning of the sixteenth century.

At the time, Albrecht was the most powerful ecclesiastical leader after the Pope within the Holy Roman Empire and the great opponent of Martin Luther, who lived a little longer in Wittenberg, the founder of the Reformation and Protestantism.

Also born in Halle was Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former foreign minister who played an important role in the demolition of the Berlin Wall.

The universities

Opposite Moritz Castle is probably the most prestigious knowledge institute in Germany. It is also called “university of universities”, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften Leopoldina (formerly Akademie der Naturforscher).

Founded in 1652, the Academy is the oldest surviving scientific society where the brightest minds from Germany and the rest of the world meet regularly (not all at once) to discuss major global issues and advise the government.

Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften Leopoldina. Photo Maurits Kuypers

According to a spokesman, the institute currently has 1,672 members. The idea is that the researchers contribute their knowledge and research data from various disciplines in order to arrive at optimal advice.

For example, the institute played an important role during the corona crisis. Other important themes are climate change, demography, the global food supply, genetics, digitalisation, the energy transition and world health.

Albert Einstein and Marie Curie

The scientists are not just junk. They are the most recognized researchers in their field. For example, since 1901, 184 Nobel Prize winners have been or are still members of the Leopoldina: 40 with a Nobel Prize in Physics, 67 for Chemistry, 76 for Medicine and two for Peace.

A well-known member from the Netherlands is Ben Feringa (Nobel Prize in Chemistry). He is one of the twelve Dutch members. Some prominent people from the past are: Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Niels Bohr, Ivan Pavlov and Max Planck.

Halle Neustadt, a typical new residential area from the 1960s, is becoming popular again, especially among students.  Photo Maurits Kuypers
Halle Neustadt, a typical new residential area from the 1960s, is becoming popular again, especially among students. Photo Maurits Kuypers

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