Drug discovery hotspots: What is the secret to Switzerland’s success? (p1)


DDW’s Diana Spencer takes a closer look into why Switzerland is such a life sciences powerhouse and how Swiss researchers are advancing new technology and tackling modern health challenges.

OECD data places Switzerland second in the world for biotechnology R&D intensity1, and in 2021, the country had the seventh largest share of the global biotech market2. A study conducted by IQVIA and published in the 2023 Swiss Biotech Report recently showed that 20% of European biotech companies are now headquartered in Switzerland3.

So what makes it so successful? This article will examine the regional focus of the country’s life sciences industry, its infrastructure of bioparks, and how this foundation ensures Switzerland maintains its role as a global leader in drug discovery.

Part 2 looks at Switzerland’s focus on new technology and leadership position in tackling world health challenges.

Strong regional hubs

Many European countries that are considered leaders in drug discovery have a centralised hub around which this infrastructure is built. Switzerland, however, boasts three (or arguably, four) separate yet complimentary centres of life science innovation. Basel is probably Switzerland’s most developed hub, though there is significant investment in other cities like Lausanne, Zurich and Geneva. Despite being a relatively small country, Switzerland has turned its size into a benefit, as each of these regional hubs are able to operate independently and yet cooperatively. Michael Altorfer, CEO, Swiss Biotech Association, explains: “The small geographical area of Switzerland is possibly also an advantage whereby all members of the ecosystem are just a short distance from each other, in manageable life science community hubs. The Swiss Biotech Association helps to connect these hubs in one organised community fostering sharing and best practice.”

This system is ideal for nurturing new ideas and new companies, according to Anne Marie de Jonge Schuermans, Global Head of Biologics & Injectables Operations for Basel-based generics company Sandoz, and Board Member of the Swiss Biotech Association. She expands: “Bioparks are a great strategy that is used throughout Switzerland, offering start-ups infrastructure and flexibility, a space to be nurtured but also for the exchange of ideas and skills. So, in this way there is a cross fertilisation from the bigger companies to newer ones. Start-ups will also take drug candidates from the pharma companies that are not getting attention for one reason or another and develop those into viable commercial products.”

Superlab Suisse, a provider of laboratory and research spaces, is a great example of this mix of regionality and reproducibility. In July 2024, the company opened its second facility in Basel, following the success of a Lausanne location supported by Biopôle Lausanne and InnoVaud, with plans to open a third in Zurich next year.

Basel: The pharma incubator

Basel’s prestige in life sciences is largely due to the presence of Basel-based pharma giants Roche and Novartis, large CDMOs (such as Lonza and Bachem) and leading research centres (such as the Swiss TPH, the Institute of Ophthalmology and the Biozentrum, which in turn, attracts other companies to the country, such as the recently announced Botnar Institute of Immune Engineering.

Dr Alessandro Mazzetti, Team Lead, Innovation Collaborations, and Professor Christian Elias Schneider, Head of Innovation Office, University of Basel, tell DDW what makes Basel so special: “Basel is one of the world-recognised hubs for life sciences, biotech and health tech together with US locations like the Bay Area or Boston and the Golden Triangle in the UK. This enabled the Basel start-up ecosystem to grow considerably and consistently, with a strong acceleration in the last five to 10 years. An internal study performed recently, highlighted how Basel is outstanding in scientific collaboration with industry, measured via joint publications and at the same time how the local industry excels globally in the number of patents filed.”

Many of the more recent companies to launch in Switzerland have grown out of, developed assets from, or received financial support from the established pharmaceutical corporations in the country. For example, biotechs Actelion and Light Chain Bioscience/Novimmune were both started by Roche scientists. Actelion was founded in 1997 by husband-and-wife team Jean-Paul and Martine Clozel after obtaining the rights to a cardiovascular programme from Roche. They developed the molecule, which went on to become Tracleer, a blockbuster drug for pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), and Actelion was subsequently acquired by Johnson & Johnson for $30 million.

In another example, university of Basel spin-off T3 Pharma reached Phase I development of a cancer therapy that harnesses the natural behaviours of live bacteria before being acquired by Boehringer Ingelheim for $509m at the end of 2023. Mazzetti and Schneider continue: “The transfer of technologies from the lab to the market, especially in the field of life sciences is no longer purely via IP out licensing, but rather via start-up M&A deals – start-ups being the de-risking vehicle for large corporates, especially in the life sciences and biotherapeutics sector. T3 has been incubated in the University of Basel and was able to thrive thanks to the rich ecosystem of accelerator programmes, health foundations, private and corporate investors, and the incredible local and international talent pool found here.”

Zurich: The financial centre

Life science park Bio-Technopark Schlieren-Zürich benefits from close proximity to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), the University and Zurich University Hospital. It houses 50 companies and 30 academic institutions, representing a mix of start-ups and global companies as well as university clinics, institutes, and research groups. As part of the Technopark Alliance, the Bio-Technopark supports start-up entrepreneurs, provides them with made-to-measure infrastructure, and promotes the exchange of ideas between the life science organisations based there.

Several start-ups at Bio-Technopark have been acquired by larger companies. For example, Glycart Biotechnology was initially established in September 2000 as a spin-off of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich. In 2005, Glycart was acquired by the Roche Group and integrated in Roche Pharma Research and Early Development (pRED). Then, in 2013, Roche gained FDA approval with breakthrough therapy designation for its chronic lymphocytic leukaemia agent obinutuzumab (Gazyva/Gazyvaro) which was discovered at Roche Glycart, and as a result, the new drug generated CHF 730 ($821) million revenue in 2022. Roche Glycart then became the company’s centre of excellence for cancer immunotherapy (Roche Innovation Center Zurich).

In total, the biopark has had 13 successful acquisitions in the last 20 years, including Heptares’ acquisition of G7 Therapeutics, Cell Medica’s acquisition of Delenex Therapeutics, GSK’s completion of the purchase of GlycoVaxyn, and Pfizer’s acquisition of Redvax.

Mario Jenny, CEO of Schlieren Bio-Technopark, explains why he thinks this region is so productive: “The foundation is the life science research at Swiss universities and the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technologies (ETH), as the best professors attract the most talented students who then found successful spin-offs or start working for startups/SMEs. This also means there is no shortage of skilled workers thanks to the universities and the well-established apprenticeship system, for example, in the field of biology laboratory technicians. The country is also highly attractive for life sciences professionals, due to the high quality of living, political/economic stability, and good income potential.”

One company thriving in the Bio-Technopark, Molecular Partners, announced the debut of its lead Radio-DARPin therapy candidate MP0712 in collaboration with radiopharmaceutical company Orano Med, in June 2024. “Three years ago, we started our venture into the radiotherapy space. We have made tremendous progress with our Radio-DARPins and are proud to present MP0712, our first RDT development candidate targeting DLL3 delivering and 212Pb to kill the tumour,” says Patrick Amstutz, Molecular Partners’ Chief Executive Officer.

Geneva/Lausanne: West is best

Although it is a newer biohub than established places like Basel, the west of Switzerland boasts the EPFL (Swiss Federal institute of Technology, Lausanne), UNIL (Lausanne University) and the IMD (Business School in Lausanne). Biopôle Lausanne has been created to provide a focus for life sciences activity in the region. The centre currently has 58 pharma/biotech assets that are in pre-clinical development, alongside 29 that are being tested in clinical trials.

Nasri Nahas, CEO, Biopôle Biopark, Epalinges-Lausanne, justifies his opinion that west is best when it comes to fostering drug discovery start-ups: “Firstly, the region benefits from a network of top-notch research centres alongside a high density of life sciences companies, creating a rich environment which is primed for disruptive technologies. Secondly, there is a range of support systems in place that can help start-ups get off the ground, from seed funding, to affordable infrastructure, as well as access to an established, expert network. Thirdly, organisations like Biopôle encourage a strong sense of community and collective intelligence, which is greatly beneficial to start-ups.”

Nahas also points to the region’s rich medtech, health IT, assistive technologies and diagnostics industries, adding: “This holistic view of the life sciences, from wellness to illness, is what sets western Switzerland apart, when compared to other regions in Switzerland and globally.”

The state of Vaud (which incorporates Lausanne and surrounding area) has heavily invested in research infrastructure to position itself as the leading location for innovative cancer treatment. As part of this strategy, the Institut Suisse de Recherche sur le Cancer (ISREC), the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research (LICR), EPFL, CHUV-UNIL, and the HUG-UNIGE in Geneva have been united under the Swiss Cancer Center Léman. With the creation of the Agora Cancer Research Center on the CHUV campus and the Center for Experimental Therapeutics (CTE) on the Biopôle campus, western Switzerland is aiming to lead the way in the development of innovative oncology treatments.

In early 2024, Biopôle-based Onward Therapeutics launched its Phase I clinical trial of OT-A201, a first-in-class bispecific antibody targeting two immune checkpoints, as monotherapy or in combination in defined haematological malignancies and solid tumours.

In terms of fundraising, a number of start-ups based in the western region have obtained significant investment or been acquired by large pharmaceutical companies in recent years. Lausanne company HAYA Therapeutics, which focuses on precision medicines targeting the dark genome, raised CHF 25m ($27m) in 2021 and featured in Clarivate’s 2023 report ‘RNA Technology Companies to Watch’. In spring 2024, AC Immune signed an exclusive license agreement with Takeda for its immunotherapies targeting toxic forms of amyloid beta, including ACI-24.060 for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Read part 2.


  1. https://www.oecd.org/innovation/inno/keybiotechnologyindicators.htm
  2. https://www.precedenceresearch.com/biotechnology-market#:~:text=The%20global%20biotechnology%20market%20was,11.8%25%20from%202024%20to%202033.
  3. https://www.iqvia.com/-/media/iqvia/pdfs/library/white-papers/iqvia-article-for-sba-report—may-2023.pdf

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