The Merck Innovation Cup: Inspiring the Next Generation of Scientists


When we launched the Merck Innovation Cup in 2011, none of us was sure about its potential to inspire the next generation of scientists while strengthening our talent pool and internal capacity for innovation. Now, looking back upon a dozen years of successful annual events involving hundreds of participating students and alumni, it is easy to see that the Innovation Cup is an amazing success story.     

The Merck Innovation Cup brings together some of the brightest students worldwide for a one-week summer camp at Merck’s global headquarters in Darmstadt, Germany. During the intensive week, they receive real-world training from Merck managers and scientists about the R&D process in the pharmaceutical and chemical industry. Each year, around 40 talented young students are assembled into several highly diverse teams, with participants from previous Cup events and Merck retirees serving as coaches in a meeting of the generations. Their mission for the week is to develop a breakthrough idea and transform it into a complete project and business plan. Teams benefit from access to Merck databases and discussions with active Merck researchers, managers, patent lawyers, and other experts! Often, the strength of the relationships forged between students and coaches can last a lifetime.  

On the last day of the Cup, each team pitches its project plan to a jury, which selects the winning teams. The overall winner of the Merck Innovation Cup receives 20,000€, with a 3,000€ to 5,000€ prize being shared between the second and third place teams.   


team building

Team building
Attentive audiences, team building and the winning team of the 2023 Innovation Cup

The best ideas may also be implemented at Merck, with the two best-performing participants offered a permanent position at Merck through its top-talent entry program. The top talent entry program itself innovates the HR recruiting process. Instead of slotting these young scientists into any open position, a new job is created that is aligned with their unique talents and areas of interest. 

Live discussion with Belén Garijo, Chair of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck
Live discussion with Belén Garijo, Chair of the Executive Board and CEO of Merck

A highlight of this year’s Innovation Cup was a live discussion with Merck’s CEO Belén Garijo, who joined the summer camp and answered many questions about Merck, the spirit of innovation, and the best career pathways for promising students. 

The Cup continues to grow in popularity. This year, more than 3500 applications were received. Feedback from Cup participants is consistently very positive, with statements such as:  

  • “It has been one of the most unique, challenging, and mind-provoking experiences in one’s lifetime”  
  • “A perfect mix between networking and fun along with hard work and innovation,”  
  • “I made powerful contacts, I got fueled with motivation for the next year, I learned from the professional paths of others, in total it was a total turning point for my career”, and 
  • “It was a once-in-a-lifetime event which I will cherish for the rest of my life”. 

The Innovation Cup has already been covered in several publications, such as the European Business Review (, Trends in Biotechnology (, and recently in Nature ( 

Since the program started in 2011, around 450 students from more than 100 countries have experienced the Innovation Cup. Of the 84 total project ideas developed during all Cups so far, 37 have been implemented in one way or the other by Merck. The ideas Merck does not implement are released back to the student teams to ensure their ideas are never “shelved “. Some student teams have advanced their innovative ideas further, leading to the founding of new companies such as INIA Biosciences. The Innovation Cup concept was also the basis for the formation of BioMedX GmbH, based on the occupation paradigm published in Nature Biotechnology ( 

All alumni of previous editions of the Innovation Cup are encouraged to stay in touch via the Innovation Cup alumni group. Each year on the first day of the Innovation Cup, an Alumni Symposium is held where participants from previous years can network with the latest teams of students. This symposium allows previous Cup participants to share learnings from the evolution of their career paths, scientific presentations, business presentations, workshops, and to network. The alumni group also has a dedicated webpage and database that features real-time updates and contact information. For 2023, a dedicated mentoring program will be available to alumni group members, while there will be a shift from annual to quarterly meetings. The network is growing in both size and diversity as people with different careers and backgrounds unite behind a common cause to advance the power of science to improve themselves and the world.   

Ulrich Betz

Ulrich Betz
Ulrich Betz, Vice President of Innovation at Merck, presenting at the Innovation Cup alumni symposium, Meeting and networking

The alumni group is even functioning as a blueprint for a larger and even wider network, the participants of the Curious – Future Insight™ conference ( The Curious – Future Insight™ conference brings together some of the world’s brightest scientists and most accomplished innovators to present their work and explore the future of science and technology, solving the challenges of today and enabling the dreams of a better tomorrow. It covers a broad range of topics such as health, nutrition, synthetic biology, materials, energy, digitalization, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, mobility, space flight, secrets of the human mind, and new ways of working together. The conference also features the awarding of the Future Insight™ prize (, a one million Euro prize for groundbreaking science. The conference, one of the world’s most renowned gatherings on science & technology, was initiated by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, the world’s oldest pharmaceutical and chemical company, at the occasion of our 350th anniversary in 2018. The second edition in 2022 featured more than 80 top speakers, including 9 Nobel laureates and >2000 attendees worldwide. The events triggered a global movement in support of science and technology. The not-for-profit Future Insight Association, open for organizations and individuals from all over the world to join, carries the flame and organizes this event bi-annually with hundreds of partners. The association’s logo symbolizes the amalgamation of the iron rule of science with the golden rule of ethics to create a bright and peaceful future. Similar to the alumni of the Innovation Cup, all participants of the Curious – Future Insight™ conference will be offered the opportunity to join the Future Insight e.V., stay in touch and use the group to catalyze scientific progress and innovation. 

United by science for a better tomorrow!



Curious2022 Future Insight™ conference: conference location in Darmstadt, Germany. Tobias Erb receives the 1 million EUR Future Insight™ prize in the 2022 category CO2 to Fuel Conversion.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.