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Swiss biotech start-up takes root in the US

GeneProt is hoping to map the human protein like the human genome Keystone Archive

A Swiss biotech start-up, GeneProt, is to build a new facility in the United States, as part of its efforts to map human proteins.

Just 18 months after it was set up, GeneProt is building and equipping a new facility in North Brunswick, New Jersey, to study the molecular patterns and sequences of human proteins.

At 80,000 square feet, the site is significantly larger than the firm’s Geneva facility (50,000 square feet), and will more than double the research company’s capacity.

GeneProt is in a race to map human proteins, and has the backing of investors with deep pockets.

More proteins than genomes

The project, similar in principle to the mapping of the human genome, is far more ambitious because there are so many more proteins than genomes. (It is a field of the biotechnology sector known as proteomics – PROTEin complement to a genOME).

GeneProt’s size and backing gives it an edge over competitors – primarily Incyte Genomics and Myriad Genetics, which have teamed up with Hitachi and Oracle – in mapping important proteins.

“In this business you need to be first and you need to be the biggest,” says Michel Venanzi of Darier Hentsch, a private Geneva bank that helped GeneProt raise its seed funding of SFr4.6 million.

The company is one of the few in the world which is in a position to rapidly obtain the total protein profile of healthy and diseased fluids or tissues at the molecular level.

GeneProt is also involved in synthesizing certain human proteins on behalf of life science companies for use in the discovery and development of new therapeutic proteins, protein drug targets and protein biomarkers.

Office in US

Most 18-month old Swiss firms are happy to establish a modest sales and marketing office in the US. It took Logitech, one of the country’s largest computer peripherals manufacturers, years before it moved its headquarters to the US.

One reason for Geneprot’s rapid growth is that the results of its research are seen as much more valuable than start-ups in other fields. The mapping of proteins offers pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies a fast-track to target identification and the subsequent development of new products.

It takes vast amounts of money to fund this kind of research. GeneProt, has raised more than $122 million in capital, chiefly from institutional investors, such as Fidelity.

It opted for these rather than venture capitalists because of their deeper pockets and longer term approach to investing. It also has a number of equity-for-equipment deals, with Compaq and Micromass UK Ltd, for example, to help cover the costs of equipment, which tends to be hugely expensive.

New Jersey base

GeneProt initially planned to establish its US site in Illinois but reportedly settled on New Jersey because its offers better access to human resources and is a centre of the pharma industry.

Its decision may have been helped by a $6 million grant from New Jersey Development Agency – a useful contribution to the $15 million required to build the installation.

The company will also be able to take advantage of tax breaks, allowing it to make savings of more than $3 million over ten years on payroll costs.

by Valerie Thompson, Editor, Swiss Venture Update

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