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Investing in strengths – Swiss leadership in life sciences

15.05.2017

How can Switzerland and the Basel region maintain their international leadership role in life sciences? As part of the Biotech and Digitization Day, Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann visited the Basel region to discuss current trends and challenges with a high-ranking delegation from politics, business, research and start-ups.

Bundesrat Johann Schneider-Ammann am Biotech and Digitization Day
Bundesrat Johann Schneider-Ammann am Biotech and Digitization Day

The importance of life sciences for the Swiss economy is enormous. Last year, the sector was responsible for 45% of total Swiss exports. Similarly, the majority of new relocations are active in the healthcare sector. Switzerland is said to a leading life sciences location in the world with the Basel region as its engine.

It is against this backdrop that Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann, head of the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research, was invited by BaselArea.swiss and digitalswitzerland to visit the Basel region as part of the Biotech and Digitization Day to discuss current trends and challenges in life sciences with a high-ranking delegation from politics, business and research.

The event was held at Actelion Pharmaceuticals and the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area in Allschwil in the canton of Basel-Landschaft. Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann emphasised the significance of the region and life sciences industry: “The two Basels have a high density of innovation and successful companies, research institutes and universities. This fills me with pride and confidence. Pharmaceuticals and chemistry are rightly regarded as the drivers of innovation.” But Switzerland cannot rest on its laurels if it is to remain successful in the future; business and politics, science and society must all use the digital transformation as an opportunity, he insisted.

The event was organised by BaselArea.swiss, which promotes innovation and business development in the northwest Switzerland cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft and Jura, and digitalswitzerland, the joint initiative of business, the public sector and science, whose aim is to establish Switzerland as a leading digital innovation location in the world.

Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann is currently visiting Switzerland’s leading regions to get an impression of the effects of digitalisation on different business sectors and to talk about promising future concepts.

Supporting biotech start-ups

Life sciences are regarded as a cutting-edge sector with considerable growth potential. But competition among the different locations is becoming more aggressive as other regions in the world are investing heavily to promote their location and attract large companies. A central question of today’s event was: How can Switzerland and the Basel region maintain its leadership role in the face of international competition?

Given its major economic importance in life sciences and when measured against other leading locations worldwide, Switzerland has comparatively few start-ups in this industrial sector. With the launch of BaseLaunch, the new accelerator for healthcare start-ups, BaselArea.swiss and the Kickstart Accelerator from digitalswitzerland have taken a first step to changing this. However, in addition to the lack of seed capital in the early phase of a company’s development, there is also a lack of access to the large capital that an established start-up requires in order to expand. Said Domenico Scala, president of BaselArea.swiss and a member of the steering committee of digitalswitzerland: “We have to invest in our strengths. This is why we need initiatives like Swiss Future Fund, which aims to enable institutional investors to finance innovative start-ups.”

The importance of an innovative start-up scene for Switzerland as a centre of life sciences was also a topic for the roundtable discussion that Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann held with Severin Schwan, CEO of the Roche Group, Jean-Paul Clozel, CEO of Actelion Pharmaceuticals, Andrea Schenker-Wicki, rector of the University of Basel, and others.

Digitalisation as a driver of innovation

The second topic at the Biotech and Digitization Day was digitalisation in life sciences. According to Thomas Weber, a member of the government of the canton of Basel-Landschaft, this is an important driver of innovation for the entire industry and is crucial to strengthening Switzerland as a centre of research.

In his speech, Federal Councillor Schneider-Ammann focused on three aspects: first, the creation of a new and courageous pioneer culture in which entrepreneurship is encouraged and rewarded for those who dare to try something different. Second, more momentum for start-ups by realising an initiative for a privately financed start-up fund. And third, shaping the role of the state as a facilitator that opens up spaces rather than putting up hurdles or bans.

In the public discussion round, in which representatives from research and industry as well as entrepreneurs participated, it became clear that digitalisation is changing life sciences. Everyone agreed that Switzerland has the best conditions to play a leading role in this transformation process. The basis for this are its powerful and globally actively pharmaceutical companies, its world-renowned universities and an innovation-friendly ecosystem with digitally driven start-ups from the healthcare and life sciences fields.

digitalswitzerland wants to promote this, too. According to Nicolas Bürer, CEO of digitalswitzerland, healthcare and life sciences are key industries to making Switzerland the leading digital innovation location.

A further contribution can be made by the DayOne, the innovation hub for precision medicine. Launched by BaselArea.swiss in close cooperation with the canton of Basel-Stadt, it brings together on a regular basis a growing community of more than 500 experts and innovators in an effort to share ideas and advance projects.

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