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Swiss Biotech – 1 Nation 1 Biotech Cluster

Biotechnology is expected to continue to play a key role in the sustainable development of Switzerland. It will be vital to economic growth, environmental efforts, commercialisation of new technologies and public health, to boost innovation in this industry. By further strengthening academic output, enablers and competitive clusters, the sector will continue to blossom.

The Swiss Biotech Industry has gained a lot attention in recent years. Unlike many other industries, the sector has grown during the crisis, and Swiss Biotech sustained itself remarkably well. The number of employees approached 20’000 (including big Pharma numbers).

This overview illustrates the structure of the biotechnology sector and puts emphasis on the various institutional players and enablers. Included in the definition of ‘Biotech’ are Pharma and chemical companies, seeds manufacturers, producers of intermediates, service companies and to a certain extend also investors, this seems logical in the nature of a cross-sectional technology field such as biotechnology. However, the most important success factor is the research community in academia and companies. They stand for innovations and hence at the beginning of the value chain.

Swiss research enjoys a first-class international reputation, thanks primarily to the scientists who are supported bythe Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and pursue their research interests predominantly in individual projects. With a view to further strengthening Swiss research in strategically important areas, the SNSF currently maintains more than 20 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 for the economy: in international competition,

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 PSI, WSL, EMPA and EAWAG. As public sector services, they guarantee a base level of pure and applied research, teaching and innovation

The universities are funded partially by the cantons. Only the 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.

Some universities of applied sciences have stepped up their activities in the field of biotechnology and work closely with the universities and federal institutes of technology for industry transfer projects. This results in better vertical technology transfer and faster product innovation cycles. The universities of applied sciences coordinate their industry efforts through a network called biotechnet.

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

Technology Transfer

The National Association swiTT – The interface between academia and the private sector

Collaboration with partners from academia and other companies is vital to many biotech companies

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

swiTT members assist 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, and actively promote and market such technology opportunities to companies interested in developing and marketing new products and services based on university technologies. swiTT lists many of these opportunities from various research institutions in Switzerland on its website.

Lastly, it is one of the most important interfacing organisations that can be employed to extend the current success of the five KTT-consortia funded by the Federation and managed by various resources in the field of industry/TTO’s and joint initiatives.


Companies are the biggest assets of any industry. According to Porter, a true cluster requires companies with solid histories. 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 a program called ‘Cleantech by Biotech’ as well as ‘BioActors’, a programme that brings together job-seekers and job-offers in Switzerland. It also organises networking opportunities for all segments active in the sector.

Over the years, the SBA has established good working contacts with other industry associations and federal offices.

Life Science Clusters
Another success factor for any country is the presence of active regional clusters. Switzerland is well-served with regional clusters for Life Sciences. Berne Capital Area, Bio Alps in the West, Bio Polo Ticino in the South and in the North, the Greater Zurich Area and the Basel Area for Life Sciences.

Berne Capital Area is the global centre of the precision industry, and an extremely valuable strength for the life science industry. This international reputation nurtures the clusters of both biotechnology and life sciences

Bio Alps serves as a shining example of the importance of a match-making ability. Initiated by five cantons in Western Switzerland, the Bio Alps cluster provides pragmatic and non-bureaucratic support of ideas from the laboratory through to international commercialisation

Bio Polo Ticino is smaller but similar in approach. The cluster covers the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland and also cooperates with the Italian Biotech community, which in turn, looks to Switzerland for further growth opportunities.

A recent excellent example of collaborating on know-how is the ‘Life Science Zurich Business Network an organisation at home in the Greater Zurich Area. This network connects academia and industry in the region.

In the Basel Area for Life Sciences, big pharma and the chemical industry are strong magnets for other successful ventures. Thanks to the presence of the international blue chips such as Roche, DSM, Novartis, Lonza, Clariant and Syngenta, small businesses develop rapidly and profit from the attention given to their big neighbours.

Finance Sector
The biotech industry in Switzerland has developed over the past years into an internationally-recognised focal point 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.

The author: Domenico Alexakis is founding partner of Bridge Plus AG. His company manages various projects and initiatives for the stakeholder community of Life Sciences. He serves also as CEO of the Swiss Biotech Association.