Backed by billionaires, a major new biotech research initiative in Geneva dubbed ‘Campus Biotech’ looks set to shift Switzerland’s ‘Health Valley’ up a gear. Coming after major job losses in the region, it is receiving a cautious welcome.
Inside the lofty glass entrance hall of the former headquarters of Merck Serono in Geneva you can hear a pin drop.
“The last staff members left last week,” explains the lone receptionist.
Just over one year ago the German drug and chemical maker Merck dropped a biotech bombshell when it announced it was closing its drug-development headquarters in Geneva and moving it to the German city of Darmstadt, shedding 1,250 jobs.
At the end of May it was announced that entrepreneur Ernesto Bertarelli, whose grandfather founded Serono, a pharmaceutical company sold to Merck in 2007, and fellow Swiss billionaire Hansjürg Wyss, who made part of his fortune selling artificial joint maker Synthes to Johnson & Johnson in 2011 for over $21 billion, had bought back the 40,000 square metre site for an undisclosed amount.
The two businessmen have formed a consortium with Lausanne’s Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) and the University of Geneva to create a new institute for bio- and neuroengineering on the site, funded by a donation of CHF100 million (US$103 million) from the Wyss Foundation.
The new owners look set to move into sprawling complex from the end of June. When the project is up and running, a third of the space will be taken up by labs employing 300 researchers and the remainder will become home to life science start-ups and more established firms, says the consortium.
The Swiss biotech community and politicians have generally welcomed the long-awaited news, which they hope will breathe new life into the biotech industry and the job market.
University of Geneva rector Jean-Dominique Vassalli said it would allow them to do research “we’d never have imagined possible on our own”.
Jürg Zürcher, a biotech specialist at Ernst and Young, was cautiously optimistic however. “The closure of Merck Serono last year had a big impact on the Swiss biotech industry. The new campus won’t compensate overnight for Merck Serono job losses and it will take time to get trust back and a clear understanding of what they want to do.”
But he felt it was a “good starting point and excellent infrastructure”.
“The campus could become a talent hub and focal point. In the mid- to long-term I believe it will have a positive impact on Geneva, the Lake Geneva region and Switzerland as a whole,” said Zürcher.
Since the beginning of the 2000s, western Switzerland has witnessed the convergence of biotechnology and medical technologies, promoted by people like EPFL President Patrick Aebischer, to form a so-called Health Valley.
This fast-growing cluster stretching from canton Valais to Geneva and as far north as Neuchâtel and Bern, comprises 750 biotech and medtech start-ups and multinationals, such as Baxter, Debiopharm and UCB Farchim, incubators and 20 research institutions and universities, and employs 25,000 people. The cluster ranks among the top three European centres for biotech and medtech research alongside Cambridge and Oxford.
While welcoming the billionaires’ plans, Benoit Dubuis, president of BioAlps, an association that has spearheaded Health Valley, said the initiative would not be “a revolution” but was rather recognition of what was being done in the region.
“Wyss could have chosen Singapore or Shanghai to set up his institute but he decided on Geneva as he found credible partners in the shape of EPFL, the University of Geneva and Bertarelli,” he noted.
The aim is not to duplicate what is being done at the world-class Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard, said Dubuis.
Technology developed at the Boston institute includes a ‘lung-on-a-chip’ - a micro-device lined by human cells that mimics complex functions of the living lung - and a robotic bee that can be used in search-and-rescue missions.
But Dubois noted that the Wyss approach of “innovation, collaboration and technology translation” fit perfectly with what was being done in the Swiss Health Valley region, namely interdisciplinary research and closer synergies with industry which follow ‘bioconvergence’ developments – the meeting of the pharma and medtech worlds.
Swiss biotech sector
Biotechnology is the science of using living organisms to enhance medicines, crops, fuels and other products.
Most firms in the industry are clustered around the Basel or Zurich regions, but there are also significant groups in cantons Geneva and Ticino.
The industry generated sales of SFr4.7 billion in 2012. Some SFr1.3 billion was spent on research and development in Switzerland.
The industry employs more than 13,700 people.
Source: 2013 Swiss Biotech reportend of infobox
While the Campus Biotech initiative may boost the local industry, Zürcher warned that Switzerland was too small for the Lake Geneva region to compete against other Swiss regions like Basel and Zurich.
Basel is considerably larger. According to the BioValley Basel Association, the northwest region boasts some 50,000 staff working in life sciences, as well as 15,000 scientists based at universities, research centres and technology parks. In all, 900 pharma and medtech firms are based there, including giants Novartis and Roche. Globally this represents 40 per cent of all pharma companies in the world.
Zurich also has a thriving medtech sector, albeit smaller than the Health Valley. Around 21,000 people are employed there, representing around four per cent of canton Zurich’s gross domestic product.
Together these three regions form the densest network of biotech firms anywhere in the world.
“Switzerland itself is one cluster. Switzerland is well positioned globally but it needs to concentrate on its strengths and think about what each region can do best,” he added.
The life sciences specialist said the Swiss community must keep their eyes firmly on competition from the east, especially India and China. He pointed to Shanghai which had recently opened a second biotech innovation centre and headhunted Chinese expats who had been living on the west coast of the United States to work there.
“People are moving where the work conditions are best with access to science and funding. We have those things in Switzerland so let’s make the best use of them. We need better promotion of life sciences in Switzerland as we do so many great things here but we don’t talk about them enough,” he added.
Swiss medtech sector
Swiss medtech manufacturers cover a broad field of medtech products, technologies and competences. Many firms manufacture implants. The main roots of the Swiss medtech industry evolved from watchmaking and machine engineering and manufacturing.
Approximately 1,600 companies in Switzerland are part of the medical technology industry. Some 51,000 employees work in the medtech industry with an annual growth rate of over 1.5 per cent in the past two years.
Medtech represents 2.1 per cent of overall Swiss gross domestic product, 1.1 per cent of total employment and 5.5 per cent of total export value. These figures are much higher than in other globally important medtech manufacturing nations like the US and Germany.
Swiss medtech firms invest on average 13 per cent of their turnover on research and development, which has been stable for the past five years.
Around 60 per cent of Swiss medtech manufacturers collaborate with the ten universities and two federal institutes of technology (ETHZ/EPFL).
Source: Swiss Medtech Report 2012end of infobox