From Yesterday to Today – Historical Development

The Fraunhofer IBMT is the nucleus of medical engineering in the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft and the leading institute in this important field, with clinical and industrial applications in the community of the Fraunhofer institutes.

Founding director, Prof. Dr. Klaus Gersonde, in 1987, followed a call to the newly established Chair of Medical Engineering in the Department of Clinical Medicine at the Medical Faculty of the University of Saarland and, at the same time, took over as co-director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Non-destructive Testing (IZFP) the management of the precursor of the IBMT, the Main Department of Medical Engineering in St. Ingbert. Due to its steady development, in 1992 this department established itself as an independent Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT). 

On April 1, 2001 there were changes in the management board of the Fraunhofer IBMT due to age reasons. Prof. Dr. Günter Rolf Fuhr became the head of the institute and, at the same time, followed a call from the Chair of Membrane Physiology at the Humboldt University Berlin (since 1993, with parallel representation of the Chair of Experimental Biophysics since 2000) to the Chair for Biotechnology and Medical Technology at the Medical Faculty of the University of Saarland. Professor Fuhr is a member of both the Medical Faculty and co-opted in the Faculty of Physics and Mechatronics, a member of the Centre for Bioinformatics and co-opted member of the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences of the Humboldt University Berlin. He received his PhD in 1981 in the field of photomorphogenesis in higher plants; in 1985 he habilitated in biophysics. In 1999 he founded the Centre for Biophysics and Bioinformatics at the Humboldt University Berlin, and served as its first executive director until he joined the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

In November 2012, Prof. Dr. Heiko Zimmermann was appointed by the executive board of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft as the second head of institute to take over the direction of the Fraunhofer IBMT after the later retirement of Professor Fuhr. He studied physics in Würzburg and Berlin, received his doctorate in the field of biophysics, completed a Junior Professorship and was appointed in 2008 to a W3 professorship at the University of Saarland. Through its Chair of Molecular and Cellular Biotechnology/Nanotechnology, IBMT is connected with the Faculty of Chemistry, Pharmacy, Biosciences and Materials Sciences of the Universtiy of Saarland.

Since then, the institute is headed by a dual management. On January 1, 2015, the Managing Head of the Fraunhofer IBMT was transferred from Professor Fuhr to Professor Zimmermann.

Prof. Dr. Hagen von Briesen links the Fraunhofer IBMT with the Medical Faculty of the University of Saarland, in the academic discipline of Experimental Haematology. Another professorship for biomedical engineering, occupied by Prof. Dr. Klaus-Peter Hoffmann, Head of the Main Department of Biomedical Engineering, links the IBMT with the Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft des Saarlandes – University of Applied Sciences of Saarland (htw saar). On this basis the institute has an excellent training and college competence, which is manifested in a wide range of graduation works (from master degrees to doctorates right up to junior professorships and habilitation) and a busy scientific life.

In 1994, the IBMT branch Sulzbach/Saar was established in constant further development of the technology transfer practised since the foundation of the institute – the first working group (Sensor Manufacturing Technology) started its activities here. Today, biobanks, cryoelectronics and device manufacturing groups work side by side with immunologists, molecular biologists and biophysicists. In 1997, several biomedical Centres of Competence were established in Sulzbach to form a cluster for technology transfer that helped many customers to find the most suitable partner for their specific problem. Since June 2015 the former branch has been the headquarters of the Fraunhofer IBMT with institute management, administration, human resources department and press and public relations department all on site. In 2015, after completion and handover of the extension building, the new main department of Medical Biotechnology with its departments of Cryo & Stem Cell Technology and Bioprocessing & Bioanalytics also moved into the new headquarters at Sulzbach/Saar. 

Founded in 1996 in the U.S. and continuously developed since then, the Fraunhofer IBMT Technology Centre Hialeah (FTeCH) in Miami (Florida) was outsourced in 2004 after extremely successful growth and made independent under the auspices of the City of Hialeah. This outsourcing of IBMT on the American continent was the successful completion of more than ten years of international profile building by the institute. During the year 2006, as a result of many years of U.S. experience and contacts of the IBMT, the first major project of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was acquired. In the meantime the IBMT is working on the fourth project of the Gates Foundation with a total funding of over $ 15 million. Thus, the Fraunhofer IBMT is probably the largest third-party funding recipient of the Gates Foundation in Germany.

Under the direction of Prof. Dr. Nai-Teng Yu (The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, HKUST), on October 1, 1998, IBMT´s China representative office in Shenzhen, Guangdong (FTeCS) was established, which, as a further component of the IBMT network, built connections to provincial governments and the rapidly emerging industries in China. In 2000, the China activities were rounded off by the Fraunhofer IBMT Technology Centre in Xiamen (FTeCX). Meanwhile, the IBMT has found so many Chinese partners that direct cooperation is more effective, and the representative office of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has taken over the placement of partners and research tasks in Beijing.

In November 1998, this was followed by the establishment of the working group Molecular Bioanalytics in Potsdam-Rehbrücke as a new branch of the Fraunhofer IBMT in Brandenburg. The proximity to the Institute of Biochemistry at the University of Potsdam, where for many years biosensors have been successfully developed to market maturity, and to the rapidly growing biotechnology market in the Berlin-Brandenburg region, were of decisive importance in the selection of the location. This working group developed to become the Department of Molecular Bioanalytics & Bioelectronics in the year 2000, and was joined with the working group Medical Biotechnology & Biochips initiated by the chair of the new head of the institute at the Humboldt University Berlin and embedded in the Centre for Biophysics & Bioinformatics, to form the working group Medical Biotechnology (AMBT) of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. To accommodate these initially decentralized working groups, a branch institute of the IBMT was newly built in Golm near Potsdam. The sod-turning ceremony took place on August 30, 2004, the topping out ceremony on June 22, 2005, the move in mid-October 2006 and the inauguration on May 09, 2007. The research and development spectrum of the two departments merged to form a competence cluster for biochip systems and nanobiotechnology. The Potsdam-Golm section was extended in 2007 by the department of Nanobiotechnology & Nanomedicine and the BMBF Junior Research Group Biomimetic Materials & Systems as well as the working group Biodatabases/CRIP assumed by the RZPD. With a group of young researchers it was also possible to start up, in 2010, a lab complex for the development of "cell-free biotechnology" at the Potsdam-Golm location, which later developed to become a separate department with three working groups.

In order to synergetically focus the regionally existing Fraunhofer expertise in the life sciences sector at the sites in Leipzig, Halle and Golm, the executive board of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft decided to integrate the highly successful research activities in Golm as of July 1, 2014 into the Leipzig-based Fraunhofer IZI.

The Fraunhofer IBMT thus completed a further foundation and pioneer work in the reconstruction of the New Länder with the expansion of the Science Park Potsdam-Golm and is now focusing again on the Saar-Lor-Lux region and new fields of biotechnology and medical engineering.

In the presence of the former Prime Minister of Saarland, Peter Müller, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, under the patronage of its President Professor Hans-Jörg Bullinger, opened the Cryo Research Bank "Eurocryo Saar" in Sulzbach/Saar on September 09, 2003. Thus, following the Centre for Cryobiotechnology & Cryophysics, the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering (IBMT) took on a second unit for the development of a technology platform appropriate to all requirements of future biotechnology and medicine. The object of the original "European Cryo Research Bank", today's "Fraunhofer BioArchive", is to support and store valuable and unique collections of cells (bioresources) from numerous areas of life sciences and medicine, as well as to develop modern automatable biobank technologies and demonstrate and provide them in applied form to third-party users. So far, cryostorage tanks with a volume of up to 1,400 litres each had been installed and filled with samples on an area of more than 1,200 square metres. On September 14, 2007 another cryobank for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was designed and started in a second part of the cryo hall in Sulzbach after only one year of project and construction work. Since then, scientists from all over the world participating in the Gates Foundation AIDS program can store bioreagents with the aim of developing HIV vaccines in a deep-freeze library and have it sent as needed. Through the extension building completed in 2015, 1,000 square metres were added to the usable area for biobanks and universally usable laboratory units of the class S1 to S3.

In 2004, the Fraunhofer IBMT established a project group at the University of Lübeck led by Prof. Dr. Charli Kruse to deal primarily with the extraction of stem cells from marine organisms and differentiation protocols, but also with new forms of aquaculture. Through a series of joint patents, the basis was laid for the development of a Fraunhofer-specific research unit. Together with the State of Schleswig-Holstein, the nucleus of an institute in the field of "Marine Biotechnology" was created at the University of Lübeck. After an eight-year development phase under the direction of Prof. Dr. Günter R. Fuhr, the project group was promoted as a Fraunhofer research establishment, which, under the direction of Prof. Dr. Charli Kruse, received a new institute building on the university campus and became an independent institute in 2013. Within the Fraunhofer Group for Life Sciences the IBMT can proudly claim to have been the institute with the greatest impact and a catalyst for technology development in all fields of biotechnology.

In 2011, the Fraunhofer IBMT applied for the Environmental Specimen Bank (Human Samples) tendered by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and was awarded the contract. Since 2012, the Fraunhofer IBMT has been operating a second biobank site with large storage capacities in Münster/Wolbeck as part a long-term project.

In 2013, a laboratory for algae biomedical research was opened in Chile in collaboration with Fraunhofer Chile and the Universidad Católica del Norte.

In addition, a cooperation laboratory was launched in 2014 with the aim of producing products based on induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS, among others for the pharmaceutical industry) in cooperation with Fraunhofer UK and the Scottish company "Roslin Cell Science" on the Babraham Research Campus in Cambridge, Great Britain,

In 2015, a contact office in Berlin was added to the Fraunhofer Forum Berlin.

In the reporting year 2017, a new project center for stem cell process tengineering in Würzburg was initiated together with the Fraunhofer ISC. The project center in Würzburg combines the material science competence of the Fraunhofer ISC and the competence in the establishment of biomedical workflows in the field of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) of the Fraunhofer IBMT in one location. The project center can thus offer an integrated portfolio for the development of application-specific high-throughput production processes for stem cell applications. The project center will bring together a unique combination of research and development in materials innovation for bioreactors and tissue engineering scaffolds in conjunction with novel, autonomous cell production. 

This highly condensed description of the national and international activities of the Fraunhofer IBMT provides some typical examples of the implementation of the Fraunhofer model for the promotion of applied research and the wide range of our R&D approaches.