A few days ago, I visited the Roche Historical Archive here at our global headquarters in Basel, Switzerland. It’s 14 metres underground, behind thick walls, cool in temperature …
Why did I go down there? Due to the pandemic, there is once again no physical Roche Annual General Meeting this year, so I recorded my address to our shareholders as a video message. No place could be more suitable than this special room that stores our collection of memories – in a year that marks Roche’s 125th anniversary!
For me, as a curious person, the company archive is always fascinating. Impressive memorabilia abounds: the financing agreement signed by founder Fritz Hoffmann in 1898, which put the company on a solid financial footing two years after it was founded; old medicines such as the first standardised heart treatment Digalen, one of Roche’s first products introduced in 1904; photos of Alice Keller, who became Roche’s first female senior executive in 1929, one of the first women in such a position worldwide – just to name a few.
Looking at things on the shelves, what strikes me is that the Roche story is a story of change, shaped by science. When we succeeded in manufacturing vitamins synthetically in the 1930s, Roche helped address the public health concern of nutritional diseases and became the largest producer of vitamins in the world. The discovery of benzodiazepines – the key to today’s tranquilizer-sedative medicines – revolutionised the therapy of diseases of the central nervous system and transformed the company. Research done at the Roche-sponsored Basel Institute for Immunology led to the development of therapeutic antibodies that are still instrumental for what we do today. It was very impressive to hold the respective scientific notes of Nobel Prize winner Georges Köhler in my hands.
In the field of diagnostics, Roche developed the revolutionary amplification process known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, a technique used to amplify a segment of DNA and produce many copies. This paved the way to completely new forms of precision diagnosis. We have all seen the benefit of the highly reliable PCR tests in the current pandemic. Each of these and other breakthroughs had a profound influence on the course of the company.
Roche, I believe, still today has a unique ability, despite its size, to remain flexible and re-invent itself in light of the changes in science and the changes in the environment in which we operate.
Going forward, we see exciting opportunities in the increasing digitalisation of healthcare. The interplay between pharmaceuticals, diagnostics and health data is set to be the next step in the evolution of our company. The pandemic highlighted the tremendous value of health data. Real world data would be hugely valuable not only for fighting COVID-19, but also for many other diseases. I am absolutely convinced this is the next major topic in medicine.
It makes me proud when I think of all the great things that many generations of Roche people have achieved for society. There is no magic formula, but there is a deep conviction that our core purpose of improving health is worth working and fighting for.
Proud as we are of our past and present achievements, what really excites me and all of us at Roche, is what we can achieve for people’s health in the future.
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