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Biotech a job engine for area west of Zurich

Where once factory workers pounded out heavy, metal rail wagons, now molecular biologists toil. A spate of spin-offs from nearby research institutes is creating jobs in Schlieren, a town that once relied on heavy industry for growth.

Ten kilometers or so and several used car dealerships from the heart of Zurich, in a place called Schlieren is an emerging biotech alley, dubbed “The Biotech Center Zurich”. Except for their fresh coats of paint, its building do not really stand out among the new 24-hour bakery-cum-gas stations, fitness centers, and industrial buildings in the neighborhood, but they are important to the community here.

The industrial base that Schlieren’s economy on was founded had been eroding and finally capitulated to the new economic trends in the eighties. New growth in Schlieren and surrounding regions is driven by companies firmly placed in the new, high-knowledge economy, offering the region hundreds of new jobs, many of them highly skilled.

The Biotech Center Zurich is housed in the “Wagi Areal”, a spot that takes its name from the business activity of Schindler Waggon, the former occupant, a manufacturer of rail vehicles and coaches. The first firm to move out to Schlieren after outgrowing its first location was Cytos Biotechnology, a young company that is aiming to create a new class of drugs to “develop disease-modifying drugs rather than those just treating symptoms”. It raised some SFr106 million in venture capital from investors specialising in top tier,life sciences.

New neighbors

New neighbors for Cytos include the genetics company, Prionics, a company that just won this year’s Swiss Economic Forum award, and ESBATech, all fast growing biotechnology companies. Plus the Department of Biomechanics of The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology’s is located in the same block.

The Wagi Areal is a good spot to go to when a startup leaves the university of Technopark, according to the property’s owner, Leo Krummenacher. Although it is many miles from the country’s pharmaceutical and chemical industry cluster in the Basel region, the location is near the University of Zurich, Technopark in “Zuri West”, and the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) where spin-off activity in the field of biotechnology is increasing.

The Genetics Company, a startup that has identified several validated drug targets against cancer, is one of the latest to move in. Its co-founder and CEO Mario Jenni says he likes the location because it is minutes from the train station, the highway, and a quarter of an hour from Zurich airport, an important consideration for a company whose livelihood depends on drug discovery partnerships with Big Pharma.

The biotechnology firms housed in the Biotech Center are in the process of forming an association to lobby and gain recognition for their importance, according to insiders. In addition, a public-private initiative, Zurich MedNet is intent on fostering biotechnology and life sciences in the Zurich region. A symposium is planned in October of this year to discuss the biotech companies and their impact.

Jenni also points out that there is lots of room to grow in Schlieren. And that is just what Schlieren’s city councilors would like to happen. If biotech blossoms beyond the borders of the Wagi Areal in the coming decades, it will help to compensate for an earlier attempt to bring the new economy to the region.

Last year plans for a Life Science Park fell through. The science park was going to develop research from the ETH in Zurich in tissue engineering and related fields, but plans dissolved when licenses and agreements could not be organized in the time allotted by investors. One of the key scientists left the project and is now working in Germany, according to a university source who was part of the original plan.

New biojobs in Schlieren as of June 2002:

Cytos Biotechnoloy 170
Prionics 70
ESBATech 25
The Genetics Company 40
Degradable Solutions Ag 10

Total number of workplaces to date 315

by Valerie Thompson

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR