Jürgen Eckhardt, head of Leaps by Bayer

Q. Bayer has had a long-term commitment to help drive progress and contribute to a world in which diseases are not only treated but effectively prevented or cured, and in which enough food is produced while respecting our planet’s natural resources. Can you tell us about Leaps by Bayer specifically and how it is contributing to these efforts?

A. Leaps by Bayer was launched six years ago with the ambition of supporting breakthrough innovation that has the potential to address some of humanity’s biggest challenges. Since we’ve started, Leaps has invested more than $1.5 billion in ventures that tackle fundamental breakthroughs and shift core paradigms in our industries. Our strategic investments leverage Bayer’s 150 years of expertise in human health and agriculture to enable unprecedented collaboration and speed. Together, we aim to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Focusing on medium to large equity investments over a minimum of three to five years, Leaps is able to provide significant early-stage funding, allowing companies to focus on long-term delivery of potentially disruptive technologies.

Q. When it comes to supporting the EU in its objectives set out in the Green New Deal and Fit for 55, what are some examples of companies working with Leaps that hold the most potential and why? And what are some of the most promising technologies you are seeing that can help us to reach these ambitious goals?

A. For Europe, we see a huge opportunity in the Green Deal as a roadmap for a transition towards more productive and more sustainable food production. To get there, innovation is the main driver. In my view, the investments made by Leaps hold the potential to contribute significantly to the EU’s sustainability objectives. JoynBio for example is one of the companies Leaps co-founded with Ginkgo Bioworks that is active in the field of nitrogen fixation. JoynBio’s first product will be an engineered microbe that enables cereal crops like corn, wheat and rice to convert nitrogen from the air into a form they can use to grow. This will significantly reduce the industry’s reliance on traditional chemical fertilizer and subsequently reduce greenhouse gases produced by agriculture, which constitute 3 percent of total global emissions.

Q. How can impact investing help to supercharge private-sector progress towards finding solutions to some of the greatest challenges facing humanity?

A. Our impact investment approach aims to conquer ten huge challenges – or Leaps as we call them –  facing humanity. One of the greatest challenges we are facing is that agriculture, a sector that is significantly hit by climate change, has to feed a growing world population. At the same time, the sector can contribute to tackling the climate crisis, as in Europe alone, greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture amount to 10 percent of the total emissions. Next-generation technologies are needed to produce better crops and create more sustainable solutions for the diverse needs of our growing population, without sacrificing our planet’s health. We believe impact investments in this area have the potential to help accelerate the transition to a more sustainable type of agriculture that at the same time is more productive.   

Q. What is needed for governments, specifically the EU, to harness the potential posed by such innovation? And how can governments and the private sector work better together to synchronize their efforts?

A. In line with its ambitions under the EU Green Deal, the EU should further boost innovation and incentivize the uptake of sustainable technologies through adequate regulatory frameworks, so that it remains competitive on the global market. Gaining a competitive edge with sustainable technologies could become an incentive for other countries to follow the EU Green Deal’s blueprint. Smart regulation of new technologies and business models such as the Biorevolution, combining biotechnology and artificial intelligence is essential, especially in the research of highly regulated life sciences areas.  

Q. Do you see differences in the approach to fostering innovation across different regions of the world?

A. If you look at the latest EU innovation scoreboard, it has revealed that compared to global competitors, in addition to South Korea being the most innovative country, Canada, Australia, the U.S. and Japan have a performance lead over the EU. Recent research confirms that particularly in key areas, such as genomics, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, Europe is being outpaced by the U.S. and China and is losing its edge as a competitive innovation powerhouse. When comparing the different approaches to fostering innovation across the world, you see that it is often encouraged through appropriate intellectual property laws and by supporting a business environment that is conducive to innovation. Another important element is, of course, the funding of early-stage innovation. In addition to the smart regulatory approach, these are certainly areas in which Europe can learn from others.

Q. In your day to day at the forefront of green innovation, do the companies you work with give you hope for the future and optimism about global attempts to reach the sustainability goals as set out in the SDGs?

A. Absolutely, I am hopeful. In my view, innovation has been a key factor in the history of mankind to overcome challenges our ancestors have been faced with. This is why we today, for example, have an average life expectancy globally of 72 years, compared to 52 years in 1960. Looking at the great potential of our projects and also the speed of innovation, in general, I’m confident that we will manage to strike the balance between mankind’s needs and protecting the natural resources of our planet.

Q. In the same vein, what has been the most incredible technological development or invention you have seen so far at Leaps and why?

A. In health I’m really excited about restoring lost tissue function. If you think about it, most of the disease burden in this world is chronic disease, where patients have lost certain tissue function. Parkinson’s patients, for instance, have lost their dopaminergic neurons, and today, there is really no curative therapy. BlueRock, one of the companies Leaps co-founded and was later fully acquired by Bayer, is working to restore that lost tissue by providing the patient with new dopaminergic neurons and hopefully providing a cure for these patients. Curing chronic diseases through novel cell and gene therapies is truly amazing technology, and one that I believe has great hopes and great potential.

Q. In many ways, Leaps epitomizes Bayer’s goal to combine science and innovation to help the global community achieve a sustainable future. What do you enjoy most about leading this work?

A. I am amazed by various innovative upcoming technologies that could have a huge impact on the world in the areas of health and agriculture. But I think what’s even more inspiring to me is working with all these enthusiastic people who are pushing and developing these technologies, in the academic community, in the startup community, but also on my own team. It’s that inspiring high-energy, can-do attitude in all these people that I get to interact with that energizes me the most.