To spread the idea of GENAWIF and for letting our network grow, it is important to get in touch with all interested groups that we can work with, which are scientists, the private sector economy, the general public, and especially Politicians, since they offer the framework for all of us. Thus, to get to know each other, exchange ideas and reflect about GENAWIF, we invited Ulla Thönnissen, member of the parliament of the state of North Rhine Westphalia (NRW). Mrs. Thönnissen is not only a member of the Science Committee of NRW, but also of several non-profit associations, thus having experience in a lot of topics that are in common with GENAWIF’s aims (https://www.ulla-thoennissen.de/).
After we gave a very short presentation about GENAWIF, Mrs. Thönnissen was very interested in why we chose a non-profit organization as a framework for our activities instead of a Start-Up. That was our motivation to address this topic in this article because we wanted to share the key essence of that lively and interactive discussion.
When we had to decide about the legal form of GENAWIF as a framework for our activities, we had the choice between a non-profit organization and a small company as a classical Start-Up. The foundation of a small company would have led to a so called “kleines mittelständisches Unternehmen“ (KMU) which stands for “small medium sized company“. These details are important because formal regulations differ depending on the size of your company and on the annual turnover, and a KMU would be the smallest option, often with the advantage of less self-investment for grant applications.
However, money was not the only consideration. It might sound a little bit odd, but as a company, you are forced to choose your research according to immediate profitability so that your company is sustainable and grows. But allicin is yet not ready for application and still needs more research for that purpose. On the other hand, we had already seen a huge potential regarding the health- and agricultural sector, and we did not want to give up on that.
Additionally, the most efficient work is done for something you are passionate about, and in most cases not just for money. As a non-profit organization, we are able to apply for grants to support fundamental research with much less financial self-investment, but we often depend on other companies as a cooperation partner for grant applications. In the end, that is a big opportunity to get in touch with other people, and new ideas. In addition, the workload is shared and each partner can concentrate on their key abilities and expertise.
Regarding our background coming from a public university, one could say that we could have stayed with the University, and that a Start-Up might have been better because of the huge support Start-Ups often receive from universities. However, without a patent application at that time, chances for successful funding grants for Start-Up development were not really an option, and due to the “Wissenschaftszeitgesetz”, we would not have had enough time left without grant money to reach this requirement in time.
The “Wissenschaftszeitgesetz” is a German law regulating the time a scientist can be employed at the University, which is six years before and then six years after completing the PhD. You can circumvent this rule if you are successful in grant applications to pay your own salary, because employment via grant money does not count regarding the time limit given by the “Wissenschaftszeitgesetz“. Another possibility would be to get a permanent job at the university.
However, permanent employment at the University is quite rare, not only from our personal impressions but also according to statistics. Up to 98% of researchers in the public domain are temporarily employed, and that did not change from 2015 (https://de.statista.com/infografik/25278/wissenschaftlicher-nachwuchs-an-hochschulen-mit-befristeten-vertraegen/ up to 2022 (Bundesbericht Wissenschaftlicher Nachwuchs 2021, https://www.buwin.de/). Some years ago, the hashtag #ichbinhanna which translates to “I am hanna“ addressed this issue and brought it into the public awareness, exemplifying the situation of an imaginary scientist called Hanna. That initiative started an enormous wave of feedback by scientists who identified themselves with her plight (https://ichbinhanna.wordpress.com/).
These circumstances can be quite stressful for young scientists and do not offer an attractive perspective to settle down and start a family, for example. Highly qualified scientists therefore most often go in the private sector or move to another country. Additionally, scientists often end up in careers that have nothing to do with research anymore. However, to be fair, it must be stated that not all scientists can remain at the university because the system would overgrow and crash without new financial concepts.
To sum up, we could not have stayed at the University for much longer, and going into industry would have meant abandoning years of research started at the university, because there was no way to continue seriously with our ideas just with spare time after regular work without the required facilities. Additionally, if we were to work with companies in our role as employees of the University, a significant proportion of money for contract research would go into overhead costs. On the one hand that is justified, because laboratory and administrative infrastructure support of universities needs to be paid for, but the project costs would be much less for a smaller association with a smaller infrastructure, resulting in more money for research instead for maintenance costs.
With all this in mind, our vision with GENAWIF is not just self-sustainment. We want to be pioneers and an example to establish a third alternative for scientists besides public research and private economy. GENAWIF is a hybrid with advantages from both aspects, but of course also less options on its own without collaborations and support.
Besides talking about our daily work routine like networking and getting involved in public relations, we also talked with Mrs. Thönnissen in detail about our scientific background and the research from our time at the University that we want to continue (which is addressed in this article). We were glad to talk about new projects, like recycling opportunities for biological waste from agriculture, the development of new fertilizers or the protection of plants from pathogens with new protection strategies using natural products.
Due to their bio-economical potential, Mrs. Thönnissen mentioned that our projects and application-oriented research might fit with the aims of the Wirtschaftsstrukturprogramm (WSP) of the “Rheinisches Revier“ initiative (www.rheinisches-revier.de). This initiative addresses the structural change that has to follow due to the decision to quit brown coal (lignite) mining (German “Kohleausstiegsgesetz from August 2020) by funding innovations and ideas to create a climate-friendly regional economy (German “Strukturstärkungsgesetz Kohleregion“, also from August 2020). We want to thank Mrs. Thönnissen for her time and her input for how our young association could improve and grow!
Just a few days after the meeting with Mrs. Thönnissen, we had the opportunity to take part in the kick-off event from ZukunftBio.NRW (https://www.zukunftbio.nrw/) which took place in Düsseldorf NRW. During this event, we learned a lot about the legal framework and regulations regarding the WSP of the “Rheinisches Revier“ initiative.
Jan Borlinghaus, 13.07.2022