Life sciences
Welcome to Health Valley
Building on skills honed over the centuries, western Switzerland has become a world leader in biotech.

The take away

  • In 2016, more than €550 million in venture capital came into the lemanic area life sciences, or 7.4% of all investment in the industry.
  • The medical-engineering industry developed thanks to Swiss watchmaking, which honed microtechnical skills over the centuries.

More than 1,000 companies, start-ups, research and training centres and close to 5,000 scientists are currently operating in Switzerland’s Health Valley. Named as a nod to California’s Silicon Valley, this phenomenon in the country’s French-speaking area is now one of the world’s most dynamic ecosystems in the life sciences and health industry, competing intensely with similar regions in the US.

For Claude Joris, secretary general of the BioAlps association, Health Valley isn’t just a name. Since 2003, it has experienced strong growth that is supported by politicians because of the industry’s high added value. “There’s nothing like Switzerland’s Health Valley anywhere in the world”, says Joris. As evidence, he cites the more than 16,000 people employed in the pharmaceutical industry, agrochemistry, medical engineering and biotechnological research. This includes 935 companies, ranging from start-ups to multinationals. There are also two major hospitals and six universities. These numbers put it on a level with Silicon Valley and Boston, which in 2010 employed 15,000 and 14,000 people, respectively, in the biomedical field, according to financial website The Balance.

While biopharmaceutical giants like Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck-Serono are present in Health Valley, their R&D departments are not. “These centres would strengthen the local ecosystem”, says Joris, because small companies and start-ups develop their projects by working with the big companies. Even so, this is not a major handicap for the region, says Robert Lütjens, research director at the biopharmaceutical company Addex Therapeutics (see box). “Complementary approaches, rather than proximity, create the right circumstances for collaboration.”

Cautious investors

A key factor for developing a profitable ecosystem is venture capital, of which Health Valley has its fair share. Last year, according to Joris, more than €550 million in venture capital came into local life sciences, or 7.4% of all investment in the industry. These figures are comparable to those for Boston and Silicon Valley. Joris adds that over the past few years Singapore has lost some energy in the life sciences, and that while China has agreed to significant investments, it is still struggling to develop its start-up sector.

Despite these encouraging figures, investment in Switzerland is still falling short. “Investors here take fewer risks than in the US”, says Matthias Lutolf, director of the Interfaculty Institute of Bioengineering at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). Before the 2008 financial crisis, Switzerland was one of the most attractive places for biomedical start-ups looking to go public. The numbers have not returned to their pre-2008 levels, says Joris, “possibly because of risk aversion on the

Swiss stock market and the shock that still remains from 2008”. Consequently, companies in Health Valley are looking more towards large foreign stock exchanges such as NASDAQ and Euronext.

Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne

The EPFL in Lausanne, Western Switzerland, is one of the main locations of the Health Valley.

Support from Swiss watchmaking expertise

One reason for Switzerland’s attractiveness is the plethora of ideas emerging from its schools and scientists. The country ranked number one, ahead of the US and China, in the 2016 Global Innovation Index. A major Swiss strength, according to Joris, is the ability to build on pillars of Swiss expertise. The medical-engineering industry developed thanks to Swiss watchmaking, which honed microtechnical skills – such as meticulous work, precision and perseverance – over the centuries.

One example is Valtronic, which began in the Vallée de Joux, a hotspot for Swiss watchmaking. Now located at the EPFL Innovation Park, Valtronic develops miniature electronic products and mechatronic systems for medical and industrial use. Another innovation that began on Swiss soil is regenHU, whose 15 employees have developed 3Dbio-printers able to produce synthetic tissues and organs from living cells.

The most prominent example of this evolution is EPFL itself. Known mostly as a high-level engineering school as recently as 15 years ago, it is now also a leading player in the life sciences. “This success is in line with the vision held by former president Patrick Aebischer and his desire to bring together medical technology, information technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology”, says Lutolf.

To foster dynamic collaborations, the region around EPFL is now home to centres that bring together various skills and expertise. Examples include the future AGORA Cancer Centre in Lausanne and Campus Biotech in Geneva, which is home to local and international physicians, researchers and engineers who work together to apply neurotechnology from research to clinical products.

Swiss global players

On the cutting-edge of science, they are valued worldwide

Sophia Genetics: genomic analysis

Started at the EPFL Innovation Park in 2011, Sophia Genetics is gradually emerging as the world leader in genomic data analysis, with 270 hospitals in 47 countries employing its services. Using high-speed DNA sequencing to analyse and process massive data from patients, the company recently opened a new centre at Geneva’s Campus Biotech.

Addex: therapeutic molecules

Founded in Geneva 15 years ago, Addex Therapeutics develops treatments for neurological disorders. The company recently celebrated a major success: a study from Belgian laboratory Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, demonstrated the positive effects of its molecule ADX71149 for treating epilepsy. A few months ago, Addex received $835,000 from the Michael J. Fox Foundation to continue developing the molecule in the hopes of treating Parkinson’s disease.

Anokion: autoimmune treatments

Marketing a technology that reduces immunological tolerance in patients, Anokion has shown promising results in immunological engineering. It can be used to reduce the response induced by protein-based treatments used to treat autoimmune diseases. The technology has been well received by investors and pharmaceutical companies. Anokion has an office at EPFL and recently moved its centre of operations to Cambridge in the US.

Sources

Claude Joris (BioAlps), Robert Lütjens (Addex Therapeutics), Matthias Lutolf (EPFL), regenHU, Sophia Genetics, Anokion