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Curious Future Insight Conference and the Future Insight Prize: Merck’s Fight for a Better Tomorrow

Ulrich Betz, VP Innovation, Head of Department Innovation Incubator, Merck KGaA

Interviewed by Louise Rogers  Content and Editorial Assistant, European Medical Group

At the Curious2018 – Future Insight Conference, as part of Merck’s 350th anniversary, Stefan Oschmann, CEO, Merck, announced the Future Insight Prize. The prize sets out to stimulate and motivate innovative ideas and to strive for ambitious dream products, which will help solve some of humanity’s most pressing challenges within the areas of health, nutrition, and energy. With Merck awarding up to €1,000,000 each year for the next 35 years, the initiative is sure to spark creativity and innovation, ensuring significant scientific advancements. We spoke to Ulrich Betz, VP Innovation, Merck, and Future Insight Prize Inventor and Manager, about his dreams for a better tomorrow.

 

Q: Why is human curiosity one of the most important traits in the pursuit for human progress?

A: Curiosity is very important for all scientific discoveries – very often phenomena aren’t known or initially make no sense; following through with them is a journey into the unknown. Think about electricity – no one knew at first what it would mean when you rub a piece of amber against a piece of cloth that it suddenly attracts other objects. It was curiosity of peculiarity that lead to such major discoveries. Curiosity alone isn’t enough, however. You also need a vision: a vision for how your findings can be applied to the greater good of humanity, and then you need commitment to make the vision a reality. So, curiosity, vision, and commitment, in my opinion, are required, and these are the foundations of the Future Insight Prize: have a stimulating vision, of a dream product that, if it existed, would engage people all over and trigger their thinking, curiosity, and creativity, on how the idea can become a reality in the years to come.

 

Q: How were the four future insight prize areas 2019–2022 decided upon: Pandemic Protection, 2019; Multi Drug Resistance, 2020; Food Generator, 2021; CO2 Conversion, 2022?

A: We decided on three major areas: health, nutrition, and energy; and we included credible surveys that suggested what the key areas of need and technology breakthroughs were. We also considered an area in which a prize can make a difference, where there is not as much funding as there should be – pandemic protection is a great example of this. And then there is the emergence of the new highly contagious Virus X, as the World Health Organization have labelled it; we are in need of the technology to quickly create a vaccine or drug that will combat this viral infection, but because there is no disease yet, there is no market, and so the question is who should fund this? It’s similar to multi-drug-resistant bacteria, whereby many companies stopped working on antibiotics and now a crisis has developed. We chose nutrition because we need to ensure there is enough for our growing population – it is clear that we need new and better technologies. CO2 reduction is an obvious area: reversing the effects of climate change and creating sustainable ways of generating energy.

 

Q: With so many forward thinking, innovative ideas, what defines an award winner?

A: The Future Insights Prize is not an idea competition – we choose winners based on their standing scientific achievements and those who are already heavily published in scientific literature. My team and I scout the landscape for individuals researching within certain areas and then we invite the finalists, who are chosen on their significant scientific achievements, to submit an application. The winner is essentially decided on an individual’s achievements and their potential and capability to carry the idea forward and to contribute to laying the required scientific and technological basis to making the dream product vision a reality.

 

Q: Your jury members come from a diverse array of backgrounds. How do you think their different professions and experience will play into choosing the award winner?

A: We believe this is a key strength in deciding the Future Insight Prize winner; it ensures that the prize is not only selected by experts in that certain area, but by people who have a broad general understanding of science. Very often, key innovative insights or breakthroughs come from people who haven’t been in that field. This will also help ensure that the person who wins has the highest chance to substantially contribute in the future.

 

Q: An attendee of Curious2018 – Future Insight Conference described the event as ‘the Woodstock of science’. What have you got planned for Curious2020 – Future Insight Conference to meet or exceed these standards?

A: Our speaker recruitment is going very well so far – we already have 12 Nobel Laureates scheduled to speak, whose reputation in the scientific community is phenomenal. We are also adding new topics to Curious 2020: energy, mobility, and nutrition, and we want to help in the transition from top academic research into applied research and technology that is touching the lives of people. In addition, we will be including additional innovative concepts, workshops and brainstorming sessions, which will hopefully lead to many great conversations.
We also have high ambitions for the Darmstadt Science Declaration: Make Science Not War. The declaration was announced at Curious2018 – Future Insight Conference and is a global call to action to all nations, societies, and organisations to invest more resources into the advancement of science and technology, to solve the pressing issues of humanity and enable the dreams of a better tomorrow. It has already been signed by 12 Nobel Laureates and we want our message to spread throughout the world and for people to see that science can be used for good and to create peace. We need to solve the problems of humanity at the root of the cause – not go into conflict with each other; we need technologies to feed people and to enable a healthier life full of achievements. Exploring the mysteries of the world together just makes so much sense and is so much more powerful and impactful than conflict.

 

Q: The book ‘Curious2018 – Future Insights in Science and Technology’ is soon to be published. Could you tell us a bit more about it and the contributions you have made?

A: It’s about how the Curious Future Insights project came about. Keynote speakers are writing chapters on their advancements in science and technology. I have also added a few chapters, one of them on ethics: how we can apply science and technology for the greater good, because science remains silent on the most important question in life: for what purpose do we live and what should we do? You can’t research the purpose of life: you have to find it somewhere else. This guidance, along with a set of core values, are eternal principals that are not touched by innovation but stay the same for all time. In this chapter I delineate five important principles. The first is truth: find out what the truth is and speak nothing but the truth. The next is love: we must love our fellow humans as much as we love ourselves and understand that the wellbeing of others is not less important than our own wellbeing. The third is courage: we need to find the strength to do the right thing and move it forward with energy. The fourth is liberty: don’t force anyone to do what you think is right – let everybody be happy with their own views, and that includes people who do not accept the first three principles. And then finally there is principle number five – spirituality: you must be inspired to find your mission in life and act on it, there is more to this universe than matter and energy. I was actually on holiday after the 350th anniversary activities, when I came up with these five principles; Merck’s 350th Anniversary got me thinking: ‘What is everything we do about and why do we do what we do?’