Prof. Dr. Werner E. G. Müller and Dr. Silvia Tschauder

Dr. Werner E.G. Müller developed a novel method based on inorganic biopolymers for the treatment of cartilage damage and osteoarthritis in his third ERC PoC project "ArthroDUR", building on the results of his ERC Advanced Grant.

Univ. Prof. Dr. Werner E.G. Müller developed a novel method based on inorganic biopolymers for the treatment of cartilage damage and osteoarthritis in his third ERC Proof of Concept project "ArthroDUR", building on the results of his ERC Advanced Grant. He was supported in project management at the University Medical Center of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz by the EU consultant Dr. Silvia Tschauder.

Brief information on the project

  • Acronym and title: ArthroDUR: Bifunctional and regeneratively active biomaterial: Towards an ultimate solution for osteoarthritis treatment
  • Principal Investigator: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Werner E.G. Müller
  • Research Coordination: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Werner E.G. Müller
  • Host institution: University Medicine of the Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz
  • Funding line and year: ERC-2017-Proof of Concept
  • Panel: Proof of Concept (PoC)
  • Website
  • Contact: Univ.-Prof. Dr. Werner E. G. Müller

Prof. Dr. Werner E. G. Müller

portrait photo of Professor Werner Müller

Heinz Schröder

Describe your proof of concept project in three sentences.

Bone and joint diseases are among the most important medical challenges of our aging society. They often start with damage to the cartilage. Untreated cartilage defects can lead to osteoarthritis and progressive destruction of articular cartilage. In my ERC Advanced Grant "BIOSILICA", we developed the first morphogenetically active biomaterial, Biosilica, capable of triggering cell regeneration and differentiation via differential gene expression. The concept of my ERC-PoC project is to combine Biosilica with another morphogenetically active inorganic biopolymer, long-chain polyphosphate, to effectively treat cartilage defects and prevent the development of osteoarthritis.

What makes your project "excellent"?

A satisfactory method for curing osteoarthritis or preventing the progression of the disease does not yet exist. We succeeded for the first time in finding two materials that have the unique property of being morphogenetically active: inorganic, enzymatically formed biosilica and also inorganic polyphosphate, which is degradable via the ubiquitous enzyme alkaline phosphatase and provides energy. In a novel approach, amorphous microparticles are to be produced from these two unusual materials. The expected effect is twofold: (1) dissolution of bone fragments after injection into the joint capsule, thereby relieving pain, and (2) repair of the damaged cartilage, which is normally poorly supplied with oxygen and energy. Thus, a causal therapy for osteoarthritis becomes possible.

What are the benefits of ERC funding for you as a scientist?

The relatively high financial support over a period of five years in an ERC Advanced Grant makes it possible to carry out even larger, ambitious and risky projects, as well as those requiring the introduction of new technologies, which do not have to lead to a result in the short term, but in the longer term, until the end of the project, bring a significant gain in knowledge and scientific breakthrough. There is no restriction to a specific topic as in many other EU calls. The scientist himself is free to decide which topic he chooses - according to his excellence - for the proposed project. In addition, such a project increases the reputation of the scientist, which is reflected, among other things, in increased invitations to publications in renowned journals or to keynote lectures at international congresses. An ERC-PoC project also motivates the scientist to think in a product-oriented way with regard to the requirements of the market and the economic and social benefits of his or her results.

What was the biggest challenge in preparing the application?

In an ERC application, the focus is on excellence - both of the scientist and of the proposed project. ERC applications are highly competitive and require intensive preparation. Groundbreaking past results alone are not enough. The concept underlying the proposed project must lead to a significant scientific breakthrough as well as be visionary and of far-reaching scientific/societal relevance. Results must be achieved that go far beyond the state of the art in science, but at the same time are realistic, i.e., achievable within the duration of the project. This must be clear to the reviewers. The difficulty is to present all this convincingly on a limited number of pages. This means that every sentence must be well thought out and perfectly formulated. In an ERC-PoC application, moreover, the presentation of the commercial aspect is extremely important - the reviewers here are not only scientists, but also come from the business world - a major challenge for any scientist doing research at the university, and one that is often difficult to master. With ERC-PoC, the term is only 12 to 18 months. There must be a reasonable prospect that the goal can be achieved within this short time frame. 

How did you find out about the ERC?

I was informed about the possibility of ERC funding many years ago by the EU Office of the University Medical Center Mainz and encouraged to apply. Research into the enzymatic processes involved in biomineralization in my ERC Advanced Grant "BIOSILICA" then led to the discovery of the basis for three medically applicable, commercially viable products. To clarify the commercial potential, successful PoC applications were submitted for all three products (one material each for bone repair, for the production of artificial blood vessels and now: for healing cartilage defects).

What tips would you give to scientists planning to submit a proposal for the first time?

The most important step is to develop a convincing concept - here the scientist should ideally find out in discussions with colleagues in the field whether the idea also excites others and the expected results are really perceived as a scientific breakthrough. It is helpful to discuss the strategy with "successful colleagues". Here, the applicant can get an idea of the high demands placed on such a proposal and how other scientists structure and argue their proposal. All this requires a great deal of time, more than perhaps initially assumed. In the case of an ERC-PoC application, it is also helpful, especially if the applicant has no experience in developing commercial products, to discuss the idea with colleagues from industry/business in order to design a realistic exploitation strategy that promises success.

portrait photo of Doctor Silvia Tschauder

Thomas Böhm

Dr. Silvia Tschauder

How do you support scientists in the ERC proof of concept application process?

We make all our ERC grantees aware of the PoC funding line. The scientists who want to pre-commercialize a research result during the term of their ERC grant or at the latest one year after the end of the project can contact me with their application idea. Since the focus is on the market potential of such an idea, I involve colleagues from the Technology Transfer department in the proposal consultation and discussion. I try to provide feedback on the proposal as early as possible and also provide sample templates for the more formal parts of the proposal, e.g. Ethics Self Assessment. Depending on the time available, there are several rounds of feedback. In addition, I help with budget planning - together with colleagues from the Third Party Funding Department -, and with filling out the forms in the Funding & Tenders Portal.

What tips would you give to scientists who are planning to submit a proposal for the first time?

They should start early to familiarize themselves with the procedure at their institution and the EU application forms and evaluation criteria. To get started, it is advisable to seek personal advice from the local EU advisor or from the ERC NCP and to attend one of the information events offered in many places, such as those held annually on the Mainz campus. The EU advisors at the institution have not only seen many (successful) applications and draw on this experience, but also coordinate the involvement of other departments as well as obtaining the necessary documents such as the "Commitment of the Host Institution". The European Commission expects good English, therefore you should have your proposal proofread by a native speaker if possible.

The service offered by the ERC's National Contact Point is also very helpful. They can answer individual questions about the application process and, if you wish, they can also review the draft proposal, confidentially of course.

What advice would you give to other EU referees who have little experience with ERC Proof of Concept Grants?

It is recommended to follow the very detailed instructions in the "Information for Applicants" and to involve the colleagues from Technology Transfer for questions regarding market analysis, business plans, exploitation, etc. as well as the Third Party Funding Department for budget planning. Since applications are submitted to the Funding & Tenders Portal, early exposure to the portal, which has regular updates, is recommended to better assist applicants. If available at the institution, successful applications can also be used in application guidance. I also like to use the Evaluation Summary Reports of rejected applications here.

What are the biggest stumbling blocks in proposal writing/project implementation?

When submitting an application, good time management is essential for the application design. The necessary information for the forms in the portal, the preparation of additional documents, and budget planning require additional time.

When drafting the contract, there may be delays due to questions regarding ethics. Therefore, the preparation of the Ethics Self Assessment should be done very carefully. Late hiring of team members can be problematic, as a cost-neutral project extension is difficult and the project duration is already very short at 12 or 18 months. Any changes - in budget or also in the work plan - should be clarified with the responsible ERC Project Officer at an early stage in order to avoid problems, for example with cost reimbursement.

How did the ERC NCP support you in preparing your application?

At the beginning of my consulting work, I participated in the seminars of the ERC NCP to inform myself. Since then, I have been recommending all scientists to attend these seminars, which we also hold regularly on site together with the National Contact Point, although the remarks on PoCs are of course only a small digression.

In the specific case of the application process, I have often contacted the ERC NCP by phone, and they answer my questions of all kinds, whether about the budget or content-related aspects, quickly and extremely competently.

How important are ERC grants in your institution?

The ERC grant represents a special distinction both for the scientist and for us as a research institution. However, the acquisition of PoCs also shows that the ERC grantees are indeed - as required by the EU - innovating beyond basic research.