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Walter Schmidt

What happens if the nutrient medium for HepG2 cells is enriched with sterile, filtered beer? Not surprisingly, the cells don’t appreciate the altered conditions and die. It wasn’t exactly the most promising experiment Walter Schmidt had designed during his Postdoc-years at the IMP but it shows that there was always room for creativity.

Contrary to this one, most of the projects Walter worked on turned out very successful and ultimately led him to his present career as CEO of the biotech-firm Affiris. The company, which is just around the corner from IMP and IMBA, focuses on the development of peptide-based vaccines for the treatment of Morbus Alzheimer and Atherosclerosis. Founded by Walter Schmidt and his partner Frank Mattner in November of 2003, Affiris managed to have a compound in clinical studies within less than four years. This is a remarkable success and Walter is obviously very happy about it – and a bit proud, too.

Asked whether he regrets not working at the bench any more, he doesn’t have to think twice. “No, definitely not”, he says. “However, this is a completely different world to being in basic research. I find it extremely rewarding to work on something which is beneficial to patients and at the same time commercially successful.” His company has grown to 33 employees and will soon have to look out for a strong strategic partner to progress to the next phase of clinical trials. Yet another major task for Walter Schmidt, who seems to thrive on this kind of challenge.

During my years at the IMP, I developed a kind of scientific ‘basic instinct’.

Walter Schmidt

In hindsight, Walter’s affiliation with the IMP also started by presenting him with an unexpected challenge. Back in 1991, on the day he was invited for an interview, he expected to meet one to one with IMP-director Max Birnstiel and talk over his possible job as a Postdoc.

Instead, he found that he was supposed to give a presentation in front of an audience, complete with slides and all. Unprepared, Walter chose to use a piece of chalk and a blackboard instead and gave an improvised talk which obviously impressed his listeners and got him the job. The elderly guy in the back of the lecture hall who kept asking lots of smart questions turned out to be Hamilton Smith, who happened to do his sabbatical at the IMP back then.

Walter ended up staying at the IMP for six years, first as postdoc and later as staff scientist. He worked in the lab of Max Birnstiel, the founding director of the institute. It was during these years that Max Birnstiel, Ernst Wagner and Matt Cotten developed a transfection system called “transferrinfection”. The method was highly efficient and was subsequently turned into a tumour vaccine, one of the most ambitious IMP projects at that time.

A first round of clinical studies by Boehringer Ingelheim looked promising, but the autologous vaccine turned out to be too expensive to manufacture and too unreliable. The project was discontinued but the principle was successful. Control experiments showed that the transfection system also worked well for peptides and proteins. Based on this knowledge, Walter Schmidt developed an innovative, peptide-based vaccine technology which subsequently led to a patent application.

The technology looked so promising that in 1998 Walter Schmidt founded InterCell AG, together with Max Birnstiel, Alex von Gabain, Michael Buschle and Aaron Hirsh. The new company developed rapidly and Walter moved from the technology to the business side of development, taking over a senior management position. He negotiated the strategic partnership with Merck and was involved in preparing InterCell’s IPO. When everything was up and running, it seemed time for a new challenge - Affiris.

Walter’s biography is thus a true success story. From his PhD with Fritz Eckstein in Göttingen, which earned him the Otto Hahn medal for outstanding young scientists, to the filing of several patents and the establishment of two start up biotech companies, his projects seem to have gone extremely well. “Common sense and a bit of luck” he explains with understatement. Certainly, a combination of experience and gut feeling have been helpful in making the right decisions at the right time. And it is this gut feeling, a kind of scientific “basic instinct”, that Walter says he acquired during his years at the IMP.

By Heidemarie Hurtl, first published in 2008