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Novartis at home in Cambridge

Fruit flies are used in the drug discovery process in Cambridge (Novartis)

When Swiss pharmaceutical giant Novartis decided to move its global research headquarters out of Basel, it chose Cambridge, Massachusetts.

But while the company's scientists turn to the United States as they seek new drugs, Novartis has not completely abandoned research in Switzerland.

In Cambridge, Novartis has three sites, but the firm's showcase is an old sweet factory building it has turned into a designer research complex. It is located right next door to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)'s blue-domed experimental nuclear reactor.

"We have to admit we weren't convinced about the site when we first looked at it, but the architects were able to come up with a workable solution," explains Bernard Aebischer, global head of Novartis' research facility operations.

The protected historical building's former loading dock has been changed into an airy glass-encased lobby, complete with classical muzak. However, science already begins to creep in, with a series of windows giving a view of some of the labs.

Just beyond the entrance, the atrium creates a central space six stories high, all the way to the roof. And on each level, there are cafeterias where employees can mingle.

"We wanted to create social spaces where people can meet outside their offices and exchange ideas," Aebischer told swissinfo.

Inverted layout

On every floor, corridors lead to laboratories on both sides of the building. But the usual layout has been abandoned.

The labs have a view on the outside world, while office space is concentrated towards inner areas. Even management does not have the benefit of a view.

The laboratories also vary widely in their setup. They are based on a modular system, allowing them to be adapted for a variety of purposes.

This leads to extremes such as a department where everyone works in one room, with row after row of lab benches, looking not unlike an old knitting mill.

"Everyone in this department seems happy with this particular arrangement," says Aebischer as he walks through. The undisclosed sum invested here could lead many observers to think that by setting up its research headquarters in the US, Novartis was turning its back on its historical base in Basel.

But according to Aebischer, this perception is far from the truth. "We still have more researchers working in Switzerland," he told swissinfo. "Cambridge is the headquarters for strategic reasons."

Multinational

The building is home to many nationalities, including many Swiss.

Markus Dobler, a chemist, is one of them. After working in Switzerland, he has found the switch to Cambridge a big change.

"It's a different environment," he told swissinfo. "The company I joined here was nowhere near as mature as the one I left in Switzerland, so you really have to contribute to put the research here on a firm footing."

For Dobler, making an impact was one of the big attractions of moving to the US, and he compares his working environment to a start-up, one of the area's specialities.

"It's very vibrant, much more than what you would expect from a mature research organisation such as Novartis," he added.

This doesn't mean Dobler has gone all-American, far from it in fact. Not only does he not hesitate to profess his love for Switzerland, but says his general working environment is not that different from Basel.

"I was fortunate to work in a multicultural environment in Basel," he said. "Here in Cambridge it is the same: we have so many colleagues from so many different countries that cultural background is not important."

He adds that the Boston area's strong European influence helps soften culture shock for new arrivals.

Recruiting

One of the reasons given by Novartis for setting up shop in Cambridge was the close proximity to institutions like MIT and Harvard.

For Dobler, whose technical unit works closely with academic centres and start-ups, this has been a plus. But recruiting hasn't been as easy as originally envisaged by the company bosses.

Rival firms are also competing for the best graduates, and some have not gone ahead with Boston projects because of the high level of competition.

For Dobler, who regularly tries to find recruits for Novartis, a flash lab and nice pay packets aren't enough to get the best minds. He says they and the company need something more.

"We have to work with these people at the end of the day," he told swissinfo. "We have ensured that recruits accept our core values such as sharing scientific knowledge or taking responsibility."

swissinfo, Scott Capper in Cambridge, Massachusetts

In brief

The Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research are Novartis' global research organisation.

The institutes are headquartered in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with a major research facility in Basel, Switzerland.

Other key research sites are located in Horsham, Britain; Vienna, Austria; Tsukuba, Japan; East Hanover, New Jersey.

Novartis' corporate research division oversees three other institutes: The Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation in La Jolla, California; the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore; and the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel.

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Key facts

Over 1,000 scientists work for Novartis in Cambridge, which was chosen to be the global research headquarters in 2002.
Disease areas covered by the Novartis Institutes include immunology/transplantation, the cardiovascular system, the nervous system, dermatology, the respiratory system, and oncology, as well as the musculoskeletal system and diabetes and metabolism.

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