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Investors urged to ride biotech wave

Serono is one of Switzerland's leading biotech firms. Serono

The Lake Geneva area's claim to being one of the most important hubs of the biotech industry will be strengthened with a major conference in Geneva.

This content was published on January 20, 2002 - 10:50

"Biotech is one of the two or three biggest growth industries in the world, and Geneva and Lausanne are at the very forefront. But in terms of investment it's still embryonic," says Hervé de Kergrohen, president of BioData 2002.

The two-day symposium, which opens on Tuesday, will be the second-biggest gathering of its kind in the world and the largest in Europe. More than 30 biotech firms - including major companies like Serono, Millenium and GeneProt, but also smaller start-ups - will use the gathering to showcase their latest achievements.

But while the symposium will address the scientific aspects of the industry, the primary goal is economic, for BioData 2002 will bring decision makers from pharmaceutical and biotech companies into contact with investors.

Dotcom bubble

"This is the chance for Swiss investors to meet the Bill Gates of the future," de Kergrohen says. A fund manager and a doctor specialising in genetic engineering, he is well placed to know.

The Life Sciences are regarded as one of the most dynamic sectors, but apart from a few specialists, most investors are either unaware of its massive potential or fear that its bubble will burst, as it did with the dotcom boom.

"Many of the companies that will dominate this new market are still in the process of being formed," de Kergrohen says.

"We want to provide a mechanism for these companies to initiate partnerships with the investment community and other key players shaping the biotech industry of tomorrow," he told swissinfo. These are precisely the kind of investment opportunities that were missed in the early days of the information technology industry.

Bio-informatics

But it is not only investors that will be coming into contact with the biotech whizz-kids. Representatives of information technology firms will also be in Geneva.

"We now have databases that are 1000 times more powerful than they were just a couple of years ago," says de Kergrohen. "This is changing biology as we know it. In future, there will no longer be biology, only bio-informatics."

Significantly, one of the sponsors of the symposium is the IT and bio-informatics giant, Compaq. "We are at the start of an explosion, and we felt we had to be part of it," says Dominique Gillot, head of the company's European Life Sciences division.

Proteomics

The area of the Life Sciences that promises to be the most exciting growth area is proteomics, the search for new proteins that can help to diagnose and prevent certain illnesses. Geneva is home to GeneProt, the world's first large-scale company devoted to proteomics.

"With new information tools, proteomics will be the big revolution of the biotech sector," de Kergrohen says.

"We missed Microsoft when it was starting out. We mustn't miss the proteomics start-ups," he adds.

It is no coincidence that the gathering is taking place in Geneva. Together, the cantons of Geneva and Vaud have re-christened themselves the BioAlps region. They constitute the most important research centre in continental Europe.

"The Lake Geneva area has become a veritable hotbed for the Life Science sector," says Geneva's cantonal economy minister, Carlo Lamprecht. He points out that the region is home to Europe's largest biotech company, Serono, as well as two universities, a federal technology institute, two university hospitals and many other public and private research facilities.

by Roy Probert

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