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BERLIN - It was one of Chancellor Angela Merkel's most radical ideas during her last term in office: a new agency that would bring to market ground-breaking German innovation such as a way to clean the world's oceans and a therapy for Alzheimer's disease.

But two years after Merkel launched the project, driven by both her own scientific background and concerns that Europe could fall behind, the SPRIN-D agency for disruptive innovation is struggling under the weight of institutional, cultural and budgetary constraints.

Summing up some of the frustration echoed by Merkel herself, the head of the agency, Rafael Laguna de la Vera, told Reuters: "There is a valley of death that every innovative technology has to go through before it can be turned into a marketable product.

"In Germany, this valley of death is especially long."

The concept is to identify and support potentially ground-breaking technologies in niche fields - outside the vast R&D landscape Germany has long been associated with in the car industry and engineering - to develop new business areas to secure the jobs of the future.

It takes a two-pronged approach to track down ideas.

Inventors can pitch projects without any deadlines to receive funding. In addition, the agency is launching challenges to motivate creative minds to develop solutions for specific problems. The first "SPRIN-D challenge" is calling on inventors to find a new drug for combating viral diseases.

One of the most celebrated innovations out of Germany, the BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, developed with U.S. pharma giant Pfizer, was created outside the agency structure, although it did receive a 375 million euro science ministry grant.

Among SPRIN-D's first projects is the development of the Alzheimer's treatment, a way to rid the oceans of micro plastic and an analogue computer that is faster and less energy-consuming than digital rivals.

The early-stage projects have yielded no breakthroughs yet from the Leipzig-based agency that has a staff of 36. Without changes, Merkel and Laguna are concerned there might never be and the lost opportunities of the past could be repeated.

The MP3 coding format for digital audio, for example, was invented by scientists at Germany's state-funded Fraunhofer Institute in the 1980s. But it took companies from Asia and America to realise its commercial potential and turn it into cutting-edge applications and devices such as Apple's iPod.

SPRIN-D has an annual budget of 100 million euros - a fraction of the 9 billion euros supporting start-ups in general in Germany and of the 3 billion euro budget of the U.S. Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency on which it is modelled.

The small budget has partly to do with a decision by Merkel's ruling coalition to forbid SPRIN-D to support military applications as the co-governing, centre-left Social Democrats insisted on a purely civil nature of the agency.


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