Biotechnology – made in Switzerland

Domenico Alexakis, 12 Sep 2012

Biotechnology is a key established sector of the Swiss economy and is expected to be an important future sustainable growth driver. It brings new and innovative technologies into fields as diverse as public health, environmental protection and productive industry. By further integrating academic output within competitive clusters, Swiss Biotech will continue to blossom.

At its simplest, biotechnology is technology based on biology - biotechnology harnesses cellular and biomolecular processes to develop technologies and products that help improve our lives. We have used the biological processes of micro-organisms for more than 6,000 years to make food products, such as bread or tofu, and to preserve dairy products.

Modern biotechnology provides breakthrough products and technologies to combat debilitating and rare diseases, reduce our environmental footprint, feed the hungry, use less and cleaner energy, and have safer, cleaner and more efficient industrial manufacturing processes. 

Biotech branches

With biotech being used by more than 50 industries, biotechnologies are broken down into industry segments illustrated by colour codes, defined by the OECD:

  • Industrial (white) biotechnology: fermentation and biotransformation of chemicals and natural products and raw materials.
  • Pharmaceutical (red) biotechnology: Development and production of (bio)pharmaceuticals, vaccines and diagnostics.
  • Environmental (grey) biotechnology: Identification and decontamination of harmful products.
  • Marine (blue) biotechnology: Use of marine organisms for pharmaceuticals, nutrition, cosmetics and new materials.
  • Agricultural (green) biotechnology: Transgenic plants for nutrition and as renewable raw materials for sustainable chemistry.

Recent advances in biotechnology are helping us prepare for and meet society’s most pressing challenges. Examples include biotech as a component of significant medical progress (Red biotech): 

  • Reducing rates of infectious disease;
  • Changing the odds of serious, life-threatening conditions affecting millions around the world;
  • Tailoring treatments to individuals to minimise health risks and side effects;
  • Creating more precise tools for disease detection; and
  • Combating serious illnesses and everyday threats confronting the developing world.

White biotech uses biological processes such as fermentation and harnesses biocatalysts such as enzymes, yeast, and other microbes to become microscopic manufacturing plants. White and gray biotech is helping to improve efficiency and reduce our environmental footprint by:

  • Streamlining the steps in chemical manufacturing processes by 80% or more;
  • Lowering the temperature for cleaning clothes and potentially saving USD 4.1 billion annually;
  • Improving manufacturing process efficiency to save 50% or more on operating costs;
  • Reducing use of and reliance on petrochemicals;
  • Using biofuels to cut greenhouse gas emissions;
  • Decreasing water usage and waste generation; and
  • Tapping into the full potential of traditional biomass waste products.

Green biotech improves crop insect resistance, enhances crop herbicide tolerance and facilitates the use of more environmentally sustainable farming practices. Biotech is helping leverage greater agricultural efficiency by:

  • Generating higher crop yields with fewer inputs;
  • Lowering volumes of agricultural chemicals required by crops - limiting the run-off of these products into the environment;
  • Using biotech crops that need fewer applications of pesticides and that allow farmers to reduce tilling farmland;
  • Developing crops with enhanced nutrition profiles that solve vitamin and nutrient deficiencies;
  • Producing foods free of allergens and toxins such as mycotoxin; and
  • Improving food and crop oil content to help improve cardiovascular health.[1]

Switzerland – a base for biotechnology

Biotechnology is a knowledge intensive industry. The most important factor for success is the research community in academia and companies. Product innovation at the head of the value chain is essential for the wider success of the industry.

Switzerland is home to 249 biotech companies, three quarters of which are core biotech companies with solid research programmes, while the remaining quarter form a strong base of biotech suppliers. As a whole, the branch employs more than 19,000 people.

Switzerland has become one of the global leaders in the development and production of biopharmaceuticals, vaccines and diagnostics (red biotechnology), with 85% of all Swiss biotech companies playing an active role in this field. However, agricultural (green) and industrial (white) biotechnology may also have a lot of growth potential.

Swiss research enjoys a first-class international reputation, thanks primarily to scientists who are supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and with the scope and autonomy to pursue their individual research interests. With a view to further strengthening Swiss research in strategically important areas, the SNSF currently maintains 19 National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs), just under one third of which are devoted to topics related to biotechnology.

By guaranteeing top quality in Swiss research, the SNSF also plays an important role in the economy. In a competitive international field, first-class research plus highly qualified and motivated young scientists are among the main advantages for innovative companies.

Academic thrust – public funds

The academic structure of the country reflects the federal system of government. There are two federal institutes of technology, Zurich’s ETH and Lausanne’s EPF plus several research institutions. As public sector institutions, they guarantee a base level of pure and applied research, teaching and innovation. They also turn out world-class results in the promising, future-oriented disciplines of life sciences, communications and nanotechnology.

The universities are funded partially by the cantons. Only larger cantons have their own universities and these vary in size and faculty emphasis. The universities of Basel, Bern, Geneva, Fribourg, Lausanne, Neuchâtel and Zurich offer extensive curricula in life sciences, medicine and biotechnology. It is worth noting that universities obtain a lot of third party funding by working with private industry on various programmes.

Some universities of applied sciences have recently increased their activities in the field of biotechnology and work closely with universities and federal institutes of technology. This results in better vertical technology transfer and faster product innovation cycles. The universities of applied sciences coordinate their industry efforts through an R&D network called biotechnet, a group of academic centres that collectively address industry and company challenges with interdisciplinary approaches.

The Innovation Promotion Agency (CTI) specifically backs the transfer of knowledge and technology between universities and business.

CTI supports application-oriented research and development. One of CTI’s main missions is the promotion of start-ups, because many innovations are realised and put on the market by young entrepreneurs. Switzerland needs scientific talent with exciting business ideas, which is willing to take on the competition and persistently implement their visions in the market. CTI’s start-up support offers them a wide range of training and coaching opportunities. The promotion of entrepreneurship specifically targets growth-oriented business projects with a technological focus.

Technology transfer

Today, researchers at Swiss universities are generally open to, and interested in collaborating with industry.  A large number of joint research projects have been completed. Various tools are available to private industry to help identify appropriate research partners in academia, such as personal contact with researchers, scientific conferences, the research database “forschungsportal.ch” used by a number of Swiss universities, or databases for scientific literature (e.g. PubMed, Scirus etc).

The swiTT (Swiss Technology Transfer Professional Organisation) organisation, with over 100 members, assists researchers at public research institutions in their dealings with the private sector. In addition, they play an important role in the identification and evaluation of research results with commercial potential. swiTT members actively promote and market such technology opportunities to companies interested in developing and marketing new products and services based on university technologies through the. swiTT lists. This website contains many opportunities at various research institutions in Switzerland on its website. The annually published swiTT report is the most comprehensive analysis of technology transfer activities of many swiTT member institutions.

Private industry

Companies are the biggest assets of any industry. Switzerland is known for having many innovative small and medium-sized companies with global reach. Often unknown to the public, these quiet champions are old companies that have been seeking new solutions or applications. Having built their know-how over decades, they have become integral parts of the cluster and contribute to the respect commanded by products that are ‘Swiss made’. 

At the networking level, the national industry association for biotechnology, the Swiss Biotech Association (SBA), is motivating strategically selected stakeholders to trigger developments that will benefit the whole industry.

Because of the relative youthfulness and strong academic roots of many companies the culture among the actors is open. Unlike older industries with a first class reputation such as the medical devices industry, biotech sees itself as a community with different players. The SBA has initiated a platform for ‘Therapeutic Biologics’ and an exchange platform called ‘Cleantech by Biotech’ as well as ‘BioActors’, a programme that brings together job-seekers and recruiters in Switzerland. It also organises networking opportunities for all segments active in the sector. 

Over the years, the SBA has invested a lot of resources to establish good working contacts with some life science clusters in Switzerland, other industry associations and federal offices the like. Today, joint projects between associations are common and the whole community reaps the rewards.

Finance sector 

The biotech industry in Switzerland has developed over recent years into an internationally-recognised market leader and is supported by an active public and private investor base. In terms of market capitalisation, the life science companies listed on the SIX Swiss Stock Exchange together represent the largest peer group of its kind in Europe. Through the association SECA (Swiss Equity Capital Association), many of the active investor groups meet and raise the benchmark of knowledge in this field.

Made in Switzerland

The successful and prosperous economies, particularly in a world of increasing digitalisation, will be based on knowledge. Made in Switzerland has always been about promoting the quality of Swiss manufactures. With the growth of biotech industries, among other hi-tec, knowledge intensive industry sectors, will increasingly associate Switzerland with cutting edge technologies. Biotech will not so much be made in Switzerland but will be discovered, refined and developed in Switzerland.

 


[1] For further details, see: www.bio.org/articles/healing-fueling-feeding-how-biotechnology-enriching-your-life

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Author

Domenico Alexakis

CEO of the Swiss Biotech Association, founding partner of Bridge Plus AG

Domenico Alexakis is founding partner of Bridge Plus AG. His company manages various initiatives in the field of Life Sciences and Technology Transfer. He also serves as CEO of the Swiss Biotech Association. In 2012 he founded sportcluster.ch – an initiative around innovation in sports.

 

 

 

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