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Basel to become Europe’s Silicon Valley of biotech

Novartis_Pavillion_3 Jean Jacques Schaffner
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Basel to become Europe’s Silicon Valley of biotech

12.05.2023

Silicon Valley is synonymous with technology and innovation, and home to dozens of Fortune 1000 companies and thousands of startups. On the other side of the Northern Hemisphere, Basel in Switzerland is drawing parallels, edging the city closer to becoming Europe’s Silicon Valley of biotech.

Published by BioScience Today

Novartis_Pavillion_3 Jean Jacques Schaffner
Novartis Pavillon at Novartis headquarters in Basel (image: Jean Jacques Schaffner)

Over 700 startups and SMEs – plus several pharmaceutical giants – are already taking advantage of the talent pool, academic institutions, collaboration opportunities and investors that the area has to offer. Combined with the country’s well-known political and economic stability, Basel & the surrounding area is now a thriving scientific ecosystem. But what are the driving forces behind Basel’s appeal?

A hub for “big players”

Silicon Valley is a renowned technology hub, hosting the likes of Apple, Google, Meta and Uber. The Basel area is rapidly developing the same blend, but in the biopharmaceutical field. It is now home to over 31,000 employees in companies spanning various sectors, including biotechnology, digital health, medical technology, chemistry and advanced manufacturing. This includes some of the world’s major pharmaceutical players, for example, Roche and Novartis – which have their global HQ in Basel – Bayer, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna and BeiGene, as well as numerous small and medium-sized biotech companies, such as Idorsia, Roivant Sciences, Skyhawk Therapeutics, Basilea and VectivBio. This mix of industry heavyweights, scaleups and innovative startups makes the region an attractive destination for highly skilled workers, creating an ecosystem that supports entrepreneurship, talent and further growth.

Wide-reaching research

The large number of companies based in Basel leads to a broad range of scientific interest, with oncology, neurology, immunology, infectious diseases and metabolic diseases all under the spotlight. One company making the most of the Basel area is Idorsia Pharmaceuticals, which spun out when Johnson & Johnson acquired Actelion in 2017, with the aim of turning Actelion’s early phase assets into a fully integrated biotech company. The company has a diversified clinical development pipeline of 10 compounds – half of which are in late-stage development – spanning CNS, cardiovascular, and immunological disorders, as well as orphan diseases.

Neighbors such as Roche and Novartis have an amazing pull on the talent that is needed for our kind of business. Not only that, but the Basel area is also one where you get everybody trying to congregate, whether they’re coming through the local academic system or across the world, because they want to work in this area. We are building our commercial organization from scratch, and so this local talent pool is crucial to find the people we need.

Andrew WeissHead of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications at Idorsia

A breeding ground for startups

One of Silicon Valley’s defining features is that it is a home for many successful businesses that have grown from academic spinouts with the support of a wealth of local incubators, accelerators and venture capitalists. The Basel area is seeing a similar trend, and venture capital from top-tier investors – such as the Novartis Venture Fund, Versant Ventures, Roche Venture Fund and BioMedPartners – makes the region an ideal breeding ground for company creation. They are further backed by local initiatives, like BaseLaunch, which provide helpful platforms for growth. BaseLaunch is an accelerator and incubator designed to help scientists and entrepreneurs bridge the funding gap between launching innovative biotech companies and raising further financing.

Innovation in oncology

An exciting focus for BaseLaunch is oncology, and it has supported some innovative spinouts in the field. This includes Engimmune, which was founded in 2021 as an early-stage spinout from the Basel-based Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering at ETH Zurich. It is using genome editing, deep sequencing, functional screening and machine learning to address key efficacy and safety challenges in T-cell receptor (TCR)-based therapies, and is developing highly potent and specific immunotherapies based on two distinct TCR cancer targeting approaches. The first involves the discovery of highly target-specific, engineered TCRs that bind to antigens exclusively expressed on a variety of different solid tumor types. The engineered TCRs are introduced into the patient’s own T-cells in combination with another engineered proprietary mechanism, significantly improving tumor cell killing when re-infused into the patient. The second approach focuses on creating soluble bi-specific TCRs in fusion with a molecule that recognizes cancer cells, thereby recruiting the body’s own T- and NK-cells to kill the tumor. Following initial support from BaseLaunch, Engimmune has made rapid progress and recently gained almost £14M ($16.7M) in seed financing, co-led by Pureos Bioventures and Novo Holdings.

Another company supported by BaseLaunch is Cimeio Therapeutics, a spinout from the University of Basel that is developing immunotherapies for patients with serious and life-threatening diseases. Its innovative cell-shielding technology uses gene editing tools to insert novel protein variants into stem cells or other types of cells, allowing the cells to maintain their function while making them resistant to depletion by a paired immunotherapy. By combining cell-shielding technology and precisely paired immunotherapies, they aim to significantly improve the eligibility and outcomes of hematopoietic stem cell transplants and adoptive cell therapy.

BaseLaunch was very helpful; it supported us a lot to get off the ground, and to make sure that the project survived in the earliest days. The science was working, and BaseLaunch allowed us to start talking to investors and try to think bigger.

Prof Lukas JekerFounder, Cimeio

Looking to the future

The innovative culture and diverse range of life sciences companies, both small and large, are making the Basel area an exciting region, which is developing a reputation synonymous with innovation and success. Dr Christof Klöpper is CEO of Basel Area Business & Innovation, that helps the local authorities to drive the growth of the region into a world renowned life sciences hub, he concludes: “The Basel Area is very well positioned for the future; the continued growth of established companies and local start-ups is likely to encourage further investment, with more healthtech companies moving to the area to capitalise on the technology hub that has evolved. We are seeing ground-breaking work emerging in a diverse range of fields – including oncology and immunology – and we are looking forward to supporting this innovation. The Basel area has a lot to offer and we are very excited for the future of this vibrant region.”

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