It is Switzerland’s culture capital with its medieval old town dominated by the 16th-century, red-sandstone Town Hall. But it is also a science capital – the number one life sciences location in Europe and a research hub for R&D as well as being the headquarters of the pharmaceutical industry and academia.
Basel is the Swiss “gateway” city at Europe's "three-countries corner," where France, Germany and Switzerland meet. At the heart of this multicultural melting pot is the River Rhine. It is the lifeblood of the city and also the driving force behind Basel's emergence as a life science cluster, in some cases directly being used to fuel industry.
Dr Franz Saladin, Director of the Basel Chamber of Commerce, explains, “Basel grew up with the chemical-pharmaceutical industry, and the chemical-pharmaceutical industry grew up with Basel. The Rhine itself played an important role in the establishment of this industry. It was and still is used to cool down the vessels in the production plants.”
Basel may have a population just short of 200,000, yet out of this small metropolis, monumental scientific and medical breakthroughs have been uncovered which have saved millions of lives across the globe.
talent pool in Switzerland
In 2019, the Global Innovation Index ranked Switzerland the most innovative country on the planet for the ninth consecutive year. Basel boasts Switzerland’s top talent pool and is home to at least 14 pharma companies, 85 biotech firms and 36 MedTech businesses. Plus, there are over 160 research institutes located across the tri-national region, including Switzerland, Germany and France.
From September 9-12, 2019, cutting-edge science and technology was showcased at Basel Life which aims to become Europe’s leading congress in the life sciences, building not only a bridge between basic and translational science but between science and business.
One of the Basel Life Board members is Professor Susan Gasser, director of the Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel.
She wants Basel Life to one day become the Art Basel of life sciences to become the meeting place for top scientists across Europe.
Prof Gasser, says: “What has allowed Basel to be so successful as a life science centre is that it is culturally rich.”
“There is hardly another place of this size with the scientific history and intensity of research that Basel has and as far as scientific productivity, I think it is almost unparalleled in Switzerland and most of Europe for such a small place to have so many breakthroughs.”
According to figures, around 20 per cent of Basel’s GDP comes from the life sciences industry and around 18 per cent of the workforce come across the border every day.
Prof Gasser explains: “Basel is a unique phenomenon in itself. You can be walking along the promenade of the Rhine, which is the lifeblood of the city, and you will hear at least five different languages. It truly is a melting pot. The city has always been innovative with the interfacing between disciplines leading to an openness of new ideas. Life sciences are almost synonymous with Basel but there is this real commitment to other aspects of culture. And I think frankly it is a great marriage. It’s that cultural diversity along with people from all over the world that makes it so attractive.”
Leading the charge of this monumental life science revolution is Roche – a pharmaceutical powerhouse born and bred in Basel.
The company and the city have grown together and will continue to evolve in tandem for the next 100 years as Roche confirms its commitment with a multi-million Euro investment plan.
Physician-scientist Dr William Pao is Global Head of Pharma Research & Early Development (pRED) at Roche and is helping drive the company’s vision and technological advances.
He firmly believes Basel’s diversity is helping pave the way for the future of science and healthcare.
He says: “Studies have shown that the most innovative environments are ones where you have very diverse workforces.”
“We have people from all over the world converging. Where different disciplines – pharmacology, chemistry – people from different cultures, different educational systems – collide, that’s really where innovation happens. That really helps catalyse innovation.”
Roche has discovered, developed and delivered more than 170 molecules to market since its inception and has been at the cutting edge of scientific endeavour, making ground-breaking contributions to global health, for the past 125 years.
Thirty medicines developed by Roche are included in the World Health Organisation Model Lists of Essential Medicines, among them life-saving antibiotics, antimalarials and chemotherapy.
Today, Roche employs more than 94,000 people across a number of pharmaceutical and diagnostic sites globally including in Mannheim, Germany and San Francisco in the USA. In Basel alone, there are 11,400 employees of 90 nationalities.
Breakthroughs in Basel have included the method for producing large numbers of complex antibodies, “magic bullets” which are now used extensively for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease.
More than 40 years ago, George Köhler and César Milstein – scientists at the Roche-funded Basel Institute for Immunology – invented the technology to produce these monoclonal antibodies from hybridoma cells and won the Nobel Prize for it in 1984.
This revolutionised biological research and they have since improved treatments of complex diseases including cancer, viral infections and inflammatory diseases.
Today, Roche scientists are continuing to work at the forefront of scientific breakthroughs.
New generations of biologically engineered antibody drugs are emerging, enabling a strong shift from discovery and production of standard monoclonal antibodies to highly complex formats.
Roche medicines on the WHO list of essential medicines
molecules to market since Roche was founded in 1896
employees with 11,400 in Basel
Roche is investing more than three billion Swiss Francs at its Basel site, constructing a new research and development centre for around 1,900 employees which is earmarked for opening by 2023.
The relationship between Roche and Basel is one which is only going to get stronger over the next 100 years as the company continues to expand and quite literally cements its commitment to the city with a multi-billion infrastructure investment.
According to Dr Franz Saladin, Director of the Basel Chamber of Commerce, “Roche and its competitors are bringing the world here – an enrichment for both the area and what is a relatively small city.”
Roche is investing more than three billion Swiss Francs at its Basel site, constructing a new research and development centre for around 1,900 employees, which is earmarked for opening between 2022 and 2023. It is also building a state-of-the-art office for up to 1,700 employees as well as upgrading infrastructure and renovating its historic office building designed by Otto Salvisberg and built in 1937.
The idea behind the centre is to facilitate communication and further strengthen teamwork among research staff. Dr Reed says, “It’s a long-term commitment of Roche to Basel as an R&D centre. For us it is really an opportunity to modernise the space for the more high collaborative way that science is done today.”
“Our labs were built in the 1960s so they are about half a century old when science was done in a very different way where we had small rooms and small groups. Now it is much more an open, interactive space bringing different disciplines together. You get a lot of innovation at the intersections of different disciplines. Now we try to integrate them all because that is really where the magic happens – at the intersection and collision of different fields.”
Roche CEO Severin Schwan says: “Roche is committed long-term to Switzerland and to Basel in its dual role as corporate headquarters and one of our most important sites worldwide.”
Since it was founded in 1896, Roche has grown decade upon decade into a world-leading healthcare company, focused on developing medicines and diagnostics to help patients live longer, better lives.
Roche was founded in 1896 by visionary and pioneering entrepreneur, Basel native Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche, then aged just 28. From very early on, Roche was known for its technology affinity and was one of the first companies using the principal industrial process for the artificial synthesis of Vitamin C.
Hoffmann-La Roche was among the first to recognise that the industrial manufacture of medicines would be a major advance in the fight against disease.
Since then, Roche has grown decade upon decade into a world-leading healthcare company, focused on developing medicines and diagnostics in oncology, immunology, inflammation, infectious diseases, ophthalmology, neuroscience and rare diseases to help patients live longer, better lives.
With Basel as its headquarters, as Roche has thrived, so too has the city that made it, and they have become inextricably linked.
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