“The coronavirus has hastened the advance of digitization – for us as well”
Interview with Domenico Scala, Chairman of the board Basel Area Business & Innovation and Christof Klöpper, CEO Basel Area Business & Innovation by Annett Altvater
This year was shaped by the coronavirus pandemic. How has this impacted the Basel Area?
Christof Klöpper: The crisis has hit business throughout Switzerland very hard. This goes not only for the hospitality sector and tourism, but also for other sectors, such as the export-dependent watch industry. Overall, the Basel Area got through the year well compared with other regions of Switzerland.
Domenico Scala: The Basel Area is shaped by an advantageous economic structure. With Novartis and Roche we have two global corporations that pay out several hundred million each month in salaries. Many suppliers also benefit from this. Compared with other economic regions, we’re still in good shape. The life sciences, which form a strong cluster here, are one of the winners.
Can you elaborate on this a little more?
Scala: The companies themselves played a major part in this, having invested in technologies and infrastructure in good time. These include not only IT companies, but also biotech companies. We also benefit from Switzerland’s exceptionally good starting position. The state finances are in order and the political framework conditions are stable. The crisis management could have been organized more centrally – that is one point I would criticize. But I’m convinced that federalism is nevertheless a proven asset in the long run that also benefits the Basel Area.
Klöpper: The comparatively good performance of the economy in the region also has to do with the fact that the financial aid during the first lockdown in spring reached the companies quickly. In addition, many companies take their entrepreneurial responsibility very seriously. Many startups that we supported succeeded in pulling themselves through. Some even managed to close major financing rounds during the crisis.
With the coronavirus, working from home has become normal. What has the impact of this been on the economic cluster of the Basel Area?
Klöpper: Our strong life sciences cluster will remain important in the future. There are functions that cannot be replaced with video conferences. But it’s true: every cluster is under increased competitive pressure when a large proportion of the workforce can decide for themselves where their desk should be.
Scala: The well-developed technological infrastructure in the Basel Area is a prerequisite for an extensive and well-functioning system of home working – for those functions where this is possible. A further prerequisite is flexibility in the organization of work that allows many people to continue working from home. The smooth transition to working from home contributed to the resilience of the economic region in the crisis. The present pandemic will not fundamentally change the world. But it will reinforce existing trends. The idea that soon every company will switch entirely to home working seems too dramatic to my mind. Things will evolve differently depending on the sector and the corporate culture. I’m convinced that a strong cluster like the Basel Area will also continue to be important – regardless of how the various companies organize their workplaces.
How has the Basel Area Business & Innovation organization coped with the challenges of Covid-19?
Klöpper: What was important for us was to maintain our services and protect the team. We succeeded in both. Nevertheless, there are areas that are suffering. If we want to convince foreign companies of our location, this is best done locally. This was hardly possible in 2020. The coronavirus has hastened the advance of digitization – for us as well. We quickly digitized a great many processes and services. Coaching sessions now take place via video conference, and events are held online. I have noticed that the work time management when working from home has become more rational. Many meetings are shorter and more efficient, distances are eliminated. But at the same time, the human component suffers – and with it an important element of communication.
Scala: Despite the coronavirus we had an outstanding year: Almost as many companies moved to the Basel Area as in the previous year, and the number of startups in the region is also high. We organized the biggest event in the history of our organization with 850 participants. Basel Area Business & Innovation functioned well, and large projects could be implemented as planned. The board is very satisfied with both the team and management.
Which projects defined the year 2020?
Klöpper: The construction work for the innovation campus of Herzog & de Meuron in Allschwil started. We were the first external organization to open an office at the Switzerland Innovation Park Basel Area on the Novartis Campus. We extended our Jura site to include a further floor. And we also positioned ourselves more clearly and relaunched our brand identity. Another crucial development was that Basel-Landschaft and Basel-Stadt secured the further financing of BaseLaunch.
What do you expect in 2021?
Scala: The economic starting position of the region is better than is sometimes reported. A lot of people have work and an income. Sooner or later this will be reflected in increased consumption again. The tax reforms in Baselland, Basel-Stadt and Jura will also do their part in helping to make sure we remain an attractive business location: our three funding cantons are introducing a patent box or have already done this and are lowering the profit tax rate for companies.
Klöpper: I expect us to be assisting in the settlement of fewer companies in 2021. We’ve noticed that foreign companies are tending to take a wait-and-see approach at present. They want to get to know the region first and experience it personally before they expand here. If fewer companies come to the Basel Area, investments will also decline. 2020 was a record year for startups, which did not surprise me. A crisis combined at the same time with an attractive, stable environment leads to more startups. I expect the same effect in 2021.
What priorities have you set for 2021?
Klöpper: Our customers have different needs. A company from abroad wants to get to know potential partners, and an innovative biotech startup is interested in laboratories, while a founder might be looking for experts for the Asian market, for example. To serve these needs even better, we will link our areas of activity more closely. In short: we plan to continue further improving our services in 2021.