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(swissinfo.ch)

Getting to the Himalayas is not easy. It usually involves a hair-raising and gut-wrenching journey by bus or car or an agonisingly slow climb on a miniature train built by the British. Accessing the Alps on the other hand, is child’s play in comparison, thanks to a super-efficient network of mountain railways and cable cars. But in spite of differences in the journey, the end result is a magnificent view. Switzerland and India may be very different countries but they’ve been able to work together on many issues.

Politically, both are multiparty democracies that are simultaneously admired and disliked by their neighbours. India’s non-alignment policy and Switzerland’s neutrality helped both tide the Cold War. This political legacy lives on and both countries remain reluctant to take sides or rush into geopolitical alliances. Switzerland’s neutrality also helped serve India during the India-Pakistan war of 1971. Between 1971 and 1976, Switzerland represented Indian interests in Pakistan and Pakistani interests in India in its mediation role as a protective power.

India launches Switzerland's first satellite

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SwissCube, a satellite designed entirely by engineering students, has been successfully launched from a site in India. It is Switzerland's first home-grown satellite.

The mission of the gift box-sized device is to map airglow, the faint bands of green and mauve light caused when the sun's high-energy radiation collides with atoms and molecules in the upper atmosphere.

"Mission accomplished," said an emotional Muriel Noca, project coordinator at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). "I can't believe how smoothly it went as so many things can go wrong."

The SwissCube blasted off at 08.22 Central European Time (CET) on Wednesday morning from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre in southeastern India, atop the country's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV).

Twenty minutes later, after ditching the four stages of the rocket, the satellite was placed in orbit at an altitude of 720 kilometres.

A first signal and sign of life brought a huge sigh of relief from the packed EPFL auditorium who came to watch the historic launch.

SwissCube was developed by students from five Swiss engineering schools, three universities and private industry partners, each "bringing their part of the puzzle" under the supervision of the EPFL.

It follows the CubeSat standard, protocols developed by Stanford University and California Polytechnic State University in the United States in 2000, which allow universities and research centres to build their own satellites.

"Building a satellite is something enormous for students. Most of them didn't know anything about rockets or satellites when they started so we had eight people teaching the 200 students," explained Maurice Borgeaud, director of the EPFL Space Centre.

"Industry helped a lot, but it's the first time that a satellite has been built in Switzerland from A-Z."

Price advantage

The multidisciplinary group took three years to design, construct and test the satellite, which measures 10x10x10 centimetres and weighs 820 grams.

Due to its size and available power (its solar panels will generate 1.5 watts, barely more than a mobile phone), SwissCube cannot compete with much larger satellites, although it is packed with similar systems.

Its advantage is price. The 1,000 components include a mini-telescope, 16 electronic cards and 357 different wires, and all are commercially available. The project, not including the launch, cost around SFr420,000 ($410,000).

The mini satellite was not flying alone on Wednesday, however. SwissCube was packed in alongside the one-ton Indian OceanSat II, designed to identify new fishing regions in the oceans, as well as three other tiny CubeSats: two German and one Turkish.

Long wait

SwissCube had to wait a long time before being launched, however.

In June 2008, the satellite was one of nine CubeSats accepted by European Space Agency (ESA) for the first mission of the new European rocket Vega. However, this programme has been seriously delayed.

After first considering the Americans and Russians, the solution eventually fell to the Indians. Former EPFL students from the Netherlands, who had built their own CubeSat, have created a start-up company, Innovative Solutions in Space (ISIS).

The firm helps projects like EPFL's find available space for satellites on rocket launchers.

"It's much easier for us. We just contacted them and they suggested us to the Indians," said Noca.

Red and green lights

For the EPFL project leader, after the rewarding educational phase and tense launch, "the fun part now begins".

SwissCube's scientific mission over the next three to 12 months will be to observe and map airglow.

These are the faint bands of green and mauve light caused when the sun's high-energy radiation collides with atoms and molecules at an altitude of 80-120 km.

The light phenomenon has been studied in detail up to 80km above the Earth, but not from space, said Noca.

The EPFL hopes that via their study of airglow they can create improved models of upper atmosphere activity, which are important for understanding interactions between the atmosphere and the oceans.

Niche area

The EPFL also wants to build on the success of SwissCube and already has a number of space projects up its sleeve.

"We want to develop a niche area and build slightly bigger satellites up to 10kg," said Borgeaud. "With those you can do some amazing things but at reduced costs."

It is presently in discussion with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) to see how its observational requirements can be met by small satellites.

There is also an interest in using the tiny devices in the fields of astronomy and planetary science, where Switzerland is a world leader.

And another idea is for a "space junk vacuum cleaner"; a satellite to de-orbit space debris, which is a growing problem, said EPFL scientist Anton Ivanov.

"Who better than the Swiss to clear up space," he smiled.

Simon Bradley in Lausanne (with input from Marc-André Miserez)

100% Swiss-made

Swiss technology has been widely used in space exploration but SwissCube is the first satellite to be designed and made entirely in Switzerland.

Around 200 students from the Lausanne Federal Institute of Technology, Neuchâtel University, the Universities of Applied Sciences of Yverdon, Fribourg, Sion and St Imier, plus several aerospace companies took part in the project.

In total, SwissCube costs SFr530,000, of which SFr110,000 was allocated for the launch.

The project is financed by universities, industry, space research funds and the French-speaking lottery.

end of infobox

CubeSat

SwissCube will be placed in polar orbit, at an altitude of 720km, and will circle the Earth at 7km/second once every 99 minutes.

It will map the airglow, a light phenomenon observed by astronauts at an altitude of about 100km.

Some 80 universities worldwide, including 25 in Europe, have built CubeSats.

end of infobox

Business is another area for common ground. Indo-Swiss cooperation began as a business venture in 1851, when the Volkart Trading Company established itself in Bombay. The first Swiss consul was the head of Volkart and the company played an important role in fostering early ties between the two countries. Indo-Swiss bilateral trade was worth CHF3.35 billion in 2014. India exported over $200 million worth of software and IT-enabled services to Switzerland in 2013-14.

A free trade deal between India and EFTA countries (Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) could take bilateral trade to new heights. It has been on the negotiating table since 2008.

Science and technology is another area of cooperation. India is one of only seven non-European countries that has been given priority status by Switzerland for research cooperation in science and technology. An Indo-Swiss Joint Research Programmeexternal link (ISJPR) aims to create links between researchers and research institutions.  Swissnex Indiaexternal link, the Swiss node for scientific exchange, has been operational in Bangalore since 2010 and helps researchers in setting up joint projects.

But the Himalayas and Alps, are also physical barriers that divide. And Switzerland and India remain divided on certain issues like secret banking and intellectual property.

Lost battle Novartis loses landmark patent case in India

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Novartis has lost a seven-year patent battle over its cancer therapy Glivec in India, a heavy setback for western pharmaceutical firms, which will find it much harder to sell enhanced drugs in the second most populated country.

India’s top court has refused marketing exclusivity for a new form of Glivec on the grounds that it is not a novel medicine but an amended version of an existing compound. The decision means that generic drug makers are officially allowed to sell more affordable copies of the cancer treatment in India.

The Supreme Court’s ground-breaking ruling sets a benchmark for several intellectual property disputes in India, the world’s pharmacy for the poor. Western pharmaceutical companies now have certainty that there is only “limited” patent protection for their products. In future it will be very difficult to get enhanced drugs patented in India.

Novartis said that the denial of the patent “provides clarification on Indian patent law and discourages innovative drug discovery”. For Doctors Without Borders, on the other hand, the Supreme Court “ended Novartis’ attack on affordable medicines”, calling it a “win for millions of people in developing countries”.

Monday’s ruling is a boost for advocacy groups, which have been accusing western drugmakers of evergreening their drug patents. They claim that pharma companies extend the duration of patents on top-selling drugs by making minor changes to existing medicines. The activists claim that a patent for Glivec would have weakened the Indian generics industry, which supplies affordable drug copies to poorer countries.

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Important victory

The large majority of the Indian drug market are generics, unbranded copies, which contain the same ingredients as the original but which are sold at a much lower price. Groups such as Doctors Without Borders say that these cheaply made generics save the lives of millions of patients who cannot afford to pay Western prices to treat cancer, malaria or HIV.

Doctors Without Borders welcomes the decision, which it says is an important victory for patients in poorer countries. It will prevent companies from abusing the system in order to obtain unjustified patents on existing drugs and block price competition on essential medicines, it said.

“Novartis wanted to set a precedent, which would have levered out an important clause of Indian patent law,” said Oliver Modenhauer, coordinator of the drugs campaign for the group in Germany. According to the clause, a new version of a known medicine only deserves a patent if it works clearly better than the original, a rule which illustrates that access to affordable drugs has more weight in India than profits, Modenhauer said.

According to Leena Menghaney, responsible for the group’s Acces to Essential Medicines campaign all the patent offices in India must apply this verdict. She says the law is clear and must be strictly applied. The organisation hopes that many countries will follow the Indian example and include corresponding clauses in the patent laws.

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Setback for patients?

India, the world’s leading exporter of generics, introduced drug patenting in 2005 with a provision to exclude the protection for medicines, which it considers a modification of an existing compound. The majority of patent applications in Europe fall into this category.

Novartis has been fighting since 2006 to challenge this clause of the Indian Patents Act to win a patent for an enhanced form of Glivec. The original version of the drug never had an Indian patent because it was introduced before India adopted the patent law.  

“We brought this case because we strongly believe patents safeguard innovation and encourage medical progress, particularly for unmet medical needs,” said Ranjit Shahani, vice chairman and managing director of Novartis India in a press release. “This ruling is a setback for patients that will hinder medical progress for diseases without effective treatment options.”

Growth of India's market for pharmaceutical products has a massive potential compared with western markets, where sales are slowing down. Still, the ruling is unlikely to have an immediate impact on earnings at Switzerland’s largest pharmaceutical company. Indian sales of the cancer drug only account for a fraction of the $56.7 billion in total sales last year.

Novartis says that more than 95 per cent of patients who are prescribed Glivec in India receive the medicine free of charge – currently more than 16,000 patients. It also said that since 2002 it has provided more than $1.7 billion worth of the drug to patients in India through its donation programme.

The ruling is particularly interesting for Novartis, because the Swiss drugmaker also generates about $9.5 billion (CHF9 billion), or 16 per cent of its total sales, with generic medicines.

Other drugmakers, including Switzerland's Roche, Germany's Bayer and Pfizer of the United States have over recent months lost patent cases in India.

Secret banking is considered almost sacrosanct in Switzerland and has been a pillar of the Swiss economy for decades. But it is a thorn in the flesh for India that views it as a means to funnel billions of undeclared rupees out of the country by tax dodgers. There is hope though. The treaty on automatic exchange of information that both countries have signed up to could put an end to this discord once and for all. It is expected that India and Switzerland will begin collecting data from 2018 and exchange information from 2019.

India and Switzerland have big pharmaceutical sectors but a different understanding of intellectual property. Cutting edge patented pharmaceutical drugs are seen as a symbol of the Swiss pharma industry’s capacity for research and innovation. In India however, they are seen as overpriced monopolies based on tweaking existing patents that deny the poor access to affordable medicines. Drug patents are largely to blame for the glacial pace of the EFTA free trade agreement. However, recent developments hint at a softening of  India’s stance on the patents issue.

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