How to bring innovative ideas to real world applications – Merck Serono Innovation Cup 2015

A diverse crowd gathered for the Innovation Cup 2015 (© Merck)

The pharmaceutical industry is known as a tough business. Pharmaceutical companies have to bring new candidate drugs through the long preclinical and clinical development phases – a process, which is both expensive and prone to failure at any of the different steps of testing or even after its final registration and clinical application. Altogether, the whole development phase takes about twelve years. In order to survive in this hard-bitten business, pharmaceutical companies invest a lot in promoting innovation. For example, Roche spends $ 10 billion on Research and Development (R&D), Novartis $ 9 billion, Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer $ 8.4 billion, and Merck & Co. $ 7.2 billion. Another important aspect is the recruitment of young, talented scientists. Merck Serono invites postdocs and graduate students from life science and business administration from all over the world to its Merck Serono Innovation Cup. Through the Cup, Merck both fosters innovation and brings together excellent young scientists.

As a third year PhD student, I already have a pretty good idea of what academic life in science is like and was curious about the pharmaceutical industry. To get a better idea of this, and to experience the international and interdisciplinary atmosphere and teamwork the Innovation Cup promised, I applied and was very happy to be selected as one of the thirty participants. At the end of June, I was able to spend one intense and inspiring week at the Lufthansa Training Center near Frankfurt where the Cup took place.

But what was the Merck Serono Innovation Cup actually about and what can future participants expect from this event?


An international atmosphere and interdisciplinary teamwork

The participants were assigned to a topic and team to work out an innovative concept and a convincing business plan for a project on either electronic health, emerging markets, bioengineering, oncology or autoimmunity. The team members were from diverse backgrounds with different home universities, nationalities and scientific backgrounds. Meeting and talking with other PhD students or Postdocs from basically all over the world (including places like New Zealand, US, UK, China, Israel or Uganda) was very inspiring. We had the chance to meet a lot of different amazing people (some were already running startups, had worked in consulting with McKinsey or Bain or had started their own research group directly after their PhD).


Develop a business plan to bring academic results to real world applications

Our starting point was to develop and agree on an idea for our project proposal. To evaluate all of our ideas we considered relevant questions like the novelty of the approach, the strategic fit and their potential in business (competitive advantage, market potential or intellectual property). Finally, to create a convincing business plan we focused on the scientific rationale and technical feasibility of our project and designed a detailed project roadmap. Several project proposals from the previous years were actually started by Merck and are now in the R&D process, and these former Cup team members now work as consultants for Merck.


Professional coaching and insights into pharmaceutical industry

The week was a mixture of group work and lectures (© Merck)

Within our teams, we were advised by experienced consultants, such as Christian Tidona from BioMed X and Vincent Hennemand from the Martin Trust Center for Entrepreneurship at the MIT. They shared their fascinating expertise on how business works or how to gain competitive advantage. Via Merck’s Data & Knowledge Department, we had access to several secondary data sources (e.g. Business Monitors, Decision Resources, Evaluate Pharma or IMS Market Prognosis). In addition to our group work, we attended lectures on Venture Capital, growing markets or drug development and discovery processes.



The Innovation Cup was a unique chance to get in contact with amazing people from other universities and countries. For Merck, itself, the event was also intended for recruiting, of course, and served to both build up a talent pool and inform us about career options in their company. Thus, the Innovation Cup was a real possibility to get in touch with industry.


Apply and become part of an innovative atmosphere

Altogether, the Innovation Cup was a cool experience, with intense group work and the chance to meet inspiring people. So, if you are also a fan of working in a team and enjoy developing ideas and strategies together with others, you should definitely apply for next year’s Cup.

It is also worth mentioning that Novartis also offers a similar event with their BioCamp initiative. I wouldn´t be surprised if other pharmaceutical companies do create similar initiatives in the coming years, as these events are a great opportunity for both the companies and the participants.


Author: Klara Höning