Building a biotech hub: Switzerland puts the focus on personalized medicine, mRNA, CGT and more

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Scouting out opportunities for Switzerland's biotech sector. Pic:getty/jordansiemens
Scouting out opportunities for Switzerland's biotech sector. Pic:getty/jordansiemens

Related tags Switzerland Innovation Lonza CSL Behring mRNA Roche cell and gene therapy Novartis

Switzerland wants to build on the momentum of recent years to get ahead in key areas for the future.

The country has long been home to global heavyweights such as Roche and Novartis. And having been ranked as the world’s most innovative country for the 10th​ year in a row by the United Nations Global Innovation Index, the industry has also set its sights on attracting start-ups with new tech and ideas: ranging from AI and machine learning to digital health.

Building a biotech hub

Dedicated efforts to build Switzerland as a biotech stronghold started to gather pace in the late 1990s and grew in force in the early 2000s: thanks to collaborations between academic institutions, the creation of innovation funds at federal and cantonal levels, and the settlement of strong global actors from the biotech and biopharma industry.

UNITEC and PACTT, technology transfer offices, were founded 1999 and 2000. Other Technology Transfer Offices followed suit throughout Western Switzerland in the following years (TTO in Neuchâtel, FRI-UP in Fribourg and Alliance in Vaud).

However, it could be argued that Switzerland has been home to a long tradition of pharmaceutical and biotech innovation since the late 19th​ century, from Basel to Visp, with family companies gone global such as Roche (Basel), Novartis (Basel), Vifor Pharma (Fribourg) and Lonza (Valais).

“The concentration of life sciences innovation expertise in the country has led to the implantation of global biotech and biopharma players throughout the years, such as GSK (Bern, Zug and Vaud) as of 2001; UCB Farchim (Fribourg) in 2005; Merck Serono (Geneva) and Ferring (Vaud) in 2006; and more recently Takeda (Neuchatel), who took over from Shire, and Incyte (Vaud) in 2019,” ​notes Magali Bischof of BioAlps, an association formed in 2003 by 12 academic institutions in Western Switzerland to promote life science activities.

“Lately two major investments have contributed to the growth of the biotech sector in Switzerland. After investing CHF 400m ($436m USD) in 2020 to expand its biopark in Visp (Valais), Lonza invested another CHF 850m ($928m) in 2021 to build a new manufacturing facility dedicated to small molecules and biological products by 2024. In 2019, CSL Behring joint forces with sitem-insel and invested CHF 300m ($327m) to expand its manufacturing facility in Bern.

All these investments and company establishments in the biotech sector have contributed to the positioning of Switzerland as a global biotech hub.”

Switzerland's biotech sector

  • The Swiss biotech industry generated revenues of CHF 4.5bn ($4.92bn USD) in 2020.
  • That year was the best year ever for Swiss biotech in relation to financing activities, with around CHF 3.4bn ($3.71bn) raised.
  • In 2020, the industry saw an increase in approvals by the FDA (57 compared to 48 in 2019), all granted within a review period of less than a year, and there was also an increase of almost 50% in European approvals by EMA (97 compared to 66 in 2019). Swissmedic approved 42 new drugs in 2020 (which was over a third more than the 29 approvals for innovative new drugs in 2019).
  • There are 314 biotech companies in Switzerland: broken down into 251 developers and 63 suppliers.
  • Swiss life science exports were valued at CHF 99.1bn ($108bn USD) in 2020 and accounted for 44% of total exports. The sector has grown by a factor of 4.5 since 2000, when life sciences accounted for 17% of total exports, making it the strongest single driver of Swiss export growth.

Source: Swiss BioTech Report 2021

So what makes Switzerland attractive to biotech players?

“Besides its politically and economically stable society, its central location in Europe and its high living standards, Switzerland has a lot to offer the biotech sector,” ​said Bischof.

“It can rely on a strong diversified higher education landscape, with its universities, university of applied sciences, and Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology: all of which provide highly qualified manpower as well as R&D collaboration opportunities.

Western Switzerland hosts innovation hubs, scientific parks & incubators such as:

  • Biopôle - a life sciences campus founded in 2004; which inaugurated its Startlab in 2018 to support startups by offering lab facilities within an incubator framework
  • Eclosion Foundation - created in Geneva in 2013 for biotech startups
  • Campus Biotech - founded in 2013 and located in the former Merck Serono building in Geneva
  • The Ark Foundation - created in 2004, now with 6 sites across the canton of Valais
  • The Swiss Innovation Park - sites across Switzerland including Zürich, Aargau & Biel

“Moreover, the presence of strong pharmaceutical global players and a diverse life sciences network, with its innovative start-ups offering technological collaboration opportunities, enables the biotech sector to build on solid foundations.

“The focus on translational medicine, as well as efforts made by universities to collaborate with industry via their technology transfer offices, offers a significant advantage.

“All of these elements, combined with Western Switzerland’s government’s focus on innovation support, through its innovation parks and innovation initiatives, demonstrate that Switzerland is an ideal ground for biotech players to establish themselves at any stage in their development lifecycle, from bench to market.”

Zurich as a European hub

Reto Sidler, head of communications and marketing for Greater Zurich Area, the official investment promotion agency for Switzerland's largest economic area, sees the opportunity to create a complementary - not competitive - hub to existing biohubs.

“We want to be the location of choice for forward-thinking companies and talent from Boston or other regions of the US and the world when they want to expand internationally. Be it for commercialization, R&D, production, supply chain management, etc," ​he told us.

US start-ups are expanding into Greater Zurich to accelerate their growth in Europe and expand R&D as well as production capabilities, he added. Some of the most recent additions to the local life sciences cluster include Apellis, Reata Pharmaceuticals, Deciphera, Global Blood Therapeutics, Stemline and Arvelle Therapeutics among others.

And nine out of ten of the largest biotech and pharmaceutical companies globally have a substantial presence in the Greater Zurich Area along: including Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, AbbVie, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Novartis, Roche, Novo Nordisk, Abbott and Merck (MSD). Amgen, Takeda and Biogen are other giants with HQs in Greater Zurich.

Strongest sectors

“Switzerland is already top in oncology, immunology, rare diseases, neurology,"​ continued Sidler. "Personalized medicine, cell and gene therapy, clinical and digital health are also becoming increasingly important.

“Beyond individual disciplines, the Greater Zurich Area has established itself as the European headquarters for commercialization, production, supply chain management (also thanks to the existing blockchain expertise) and other corporate functions such as IP management, tax planning, HR.”

The pandemic has also brought to light a new set of expertise, adds Bischof of BioAlps: both to tackle COVID-19 and to embrace emerging tech for the future.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has enabled some former Swiss biotechnology strongholds to reappear such as vaccine innovations,"​ she said.

"Lonza is producing the active agent for the Moderna vaccine and other organisations such as the Swiss Biotech Center and Berna Biotech Pharma are collaborating to develop and produce a second-generation vaccine to fight against SARS-Cov-2.

“The importance and efficiency of some vaccine technologies, such as mRNA, used for immuno-oncology treatments (MaxiVax), have recently been highlighted as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Opportunities and challenges

“The high standard of living and the highly qualified competencies already present in the country, the diversity of the biotech landscape and its scalability, imply that companies and talents are easily attracted to Switzerland,"​ said Bischof. 

"However, it is important to build on Switzerland’s competitiveness by boosting innovation support mechanisms and investment. Start-up investments in Switzerland seldom originate from Swiss investors. Therefore, although the country may be attractive for an initial establishment, many start-ups are compelled to leave the country for lack of Swiss investment.

“Ideally, more investments should be made to retain the biotech know-how and innovation within Switzerland.”

While Switzerland’s stable political and economic situation is an advantage, Bischof warns that challenges could come from its emphasis on direct democracy – animal testing, for example, has been under the spotlight under a popular initiative.

"Many new drugs and therapies emanating from the region are based on genomics and RNA-sequencing research. The latter can be facilitated by using, for example, a proprietary sample preparation solution developed by the startup Alithea Genomics, based in the canton of Vaud.

"Other pathologies, such as heart failure, are also being treated with RNA-based therapies as a result of technologies developed in Western Switzerland (Haya Therapeutics).”

She also highlights Digital Health as another area to watch.

“Digital health has developed rapidly in Western Switzerland over the past few years. As a result, the Biopôle in Lausanne launched DH2, ​its Digital Health Hub, in March 2019. Data-driven and precision medicine companies have stemmed from the combination of biotech and digital technologies, including big data, AI and machine learning.

"For example, SOPHiA GENETICS supports collaborators in medical institutions across the world in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer and hereditary disorders through the application of high-level data-driven genomics and radiomics analysis. Quartz Bio, now part of Precision Medicine, helps synthesize biological data through the use of AI and computational biology.”

Western Switzerland is also home to drug repurposing actors. For example, Relief Therapeutics makes use of molecules, which have in some cases gone through several clinical trials, with the aim to provide long awaited therapies for serious illnesses. The EspeRare Foundation researches existing therapies which can be used to treat rare and orphan diseases.

Wider opportunities could come from the combination of biotech and foodtech with nutraceuticals and nutrition tech.

“The key areas to look out for in the coming years are personalised medicine, digital health and its many applications, as well as the emergence of biotechnologies linked to nutrition,”​ concludes Bischof.

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