Europe's booming biotech powerhouse is called Basel
The first places to spring to mind when most people think of “life sciences hubs” are long-established, high-profile geographical locations such as the Boston-Cambridge biotech hub in the USA. However, in recent years, Basel in Switzerland has risen to join their ranks, establishing itself as Europe’s Silicon Valley of biotech, with hundreds of startups, SMEs and pharmaceutical giants taking advantage of the talent pool, academic institutions and investors that the area has to offer.
Published by Technology Networks
Roche towers with river Rhine (image: Jean Jacques Schaffner)
Switzerland’s well known political and economic stability – coupled with its favorable tax laws – has created a Petri dish of innovation, culturing a colony of entrepreneurs eager to make their mark on the biopharmaceutical industry. And what are the driving forces behind Basel’s snowballing reputation as Europe’s booming biotech powerhouse?
The ideal location
Switzerland is renowned for its high standard of living, healthy economy and stable politics, making it an extremely attractive part of the world to live and work in. Basel, in particular, is proving an increasingly popular choice for both established international companies and early innovators, not least because of the specialized infrastructure and personnel that have amassed in the city and surrounding areas, especially in the life sciences industry. The city is also home to world-class academic institutions including the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering (D-BSSE) of the ETH Zurich – one of just two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology – and the University of Basel. In total, there are 14 universities less than an hour’s drive away.
The city’s unique geographic location on the borders of France and Germany is ideal, with fast train connections and an international airport enabling almost every part of Europe to be reached within three hours. This has helped the region to build a multicultural and multilingual employee base – with many people choosing to live in France or Germany and commute across the border – providing an immense pool of talented individuals from a range of backgrounds to businesses looking for knowledgeable and experienced staff.
A growing biotech hub
The Basel area is home to over 700 companies across sectors including biotechnology, digital health, medical technology, chemistry and advanced manufacturing. It has a long association with the pharma sector, which grew out of the region’s textile and chemical industries, and initiated the production of synthetic dyes and medicines during the 19th century. Today, it is home to some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical giants and international companies, including Roche, Novartis, Bayer, Johnson & Johnson and Abbott. Moderna and BeiGene also have their European headquarters in Basel, alongside a plethora of small to medium-sized biotech companies – such as the up-and-coming Idorsia, Roivant Sciences, Skyhawk Therapeutics, VectivBio and T3 Pharma – venture capitalists and technology parks.
One of the major reasons for the continuing growth in the region is undoubtedly the support that companies of all sizes have received from Basel Area Business & Innovation. This independent, non-profit agency provides assistance with the relocation or expansion of companies, offering business consultancy, partnership services and accelerators, as well as networking events. For example, several startups spun out from academic environments have already benefitted from early guidance, even down to something as fundamental as whether or not the technology is ready or the timing right to launch.
A stable launchpad for growth
One of the initiatives that Basel Area Business & Innovation offers is BaseLaunch, an incubator designed to help scientists and entrepreneurs bridge the funding gap between launching innovative biotech companies and raising venture capital financing. BaseLaunch serves as a steady growth platform for early-stage ventures, supporting all aspects of company creation, scientific de-risking and business development. It offers up to CHF 500,000 in convertible loans and opens up connections to an extensive support network that includes pharma partners, venture capitalists, key opinion leaders and IP law firms. Fledgling biotech companies also receive support with scientific derisking, and company and team building, and get access to labs and related infrastructure. This combined package and expertise helps to build companies from inception through to Series A funding.
Undoubtedly, capital gains tax exemption as it is applied in Switzerland is also a huge attraction for startups, but other equally important considerations come into play for the longer term as the company grows. For R&D that has yet to realize any income, the focus is on the costs of their work, and the ready availability of service providers and suppliers in the area makes it easy to work in a lean and flexible manner, outsourcing activities while continuing to grow the business. However, once commercialization takes place, a different set of skills is required, including expertise in reimbursement, marketing, management, regulatory affairs and market access; the high diversity of life sciences talents in the Basel area makes it very easy to complete the required commercial skillset.
One company that has benefitted from this approach is Synendos Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company focused on developing selective endocannabinoid reuptake inhibitors (SERIs) for neuropsychiatric disorders. Spun out from the University of Bern and the NCCR TransCure program, it joined BaseLaunch in 2019. It concluded a Series A funding round of CHF 24 million – co-led by Kurma Partners and Sunstone Life Science Ventures, together with Bernina BioInvest, and joined by Ysios Capital and other investors in November 2020/April 2021 – and is currently completing the non-clinical phase of its investigations before moving on to clinical studies. Why did Synendos choose Basel? Andrea Chicca, chief executive officer and chief scientific officer at Synendos, explained: “In Basel, we have access to non-dilutive grant funding and support from public institutions and universities, which can be hard to come by in other countries. The area is also awash with similar people with entrepreneurial and business minds, notably in biotech and pharma.”
Establishing a presence in Europe
It’s not just startups that are benefitting from being part of the Basel biotech powerhouse either. There are advantages for established companies too, whether they are looking to scale up operations or set up a European base. For these larger enterprises, it’s crucial to have ready access to detailed information about the location and the economic situation in Switzerland – particularly if the parent company is based outside Europe – including advice about taxation, and work and residence permits. Tapping into the Basel ecosystem gives them access to a range of experts – including lawyers, accountants and tax advisors – who can help them to set up a Swiss or European base. And backing from organizations such as Basel Area Business & Innovation can help them with introductions to local authorities and like-minded research institutes or companies already established in the region. This proved beneficial for pharma giant Moderna, which set up a European base in Basel in 2020, taking advantage of the assistance available for company registration, finding offices and recruitment, as well as help with regulations and tax topics. Nicolas Chornet, senior vice president of international manufacturing at Moderna, said: “It made sense to choose Basel because it is a hub of biotech and pharmaceutical companies. Basel Area Business & Innovation was extremely helpful in navigating through the set-up process, and the local authorities were very collaborative and supportive in getting Moderna established in the city.”
The right talent, at the right time, in the right place
Whatever the size of the company, the Basel area has something favorable to offer, even as requirements change. Situated in a business-friendly country, it appeals to everyone from entrepreneurs and new ventures to multinational corporations, all keen to reap the benefits of liberal labor laws, a capital gains tax exemption for shareholders and investors, and widely available loans and equity financing. In addition, government funding is often offered for research carried out as part of a collaboration between companies and universities. It’s this combination of company-friendly taxation, R&D and commercial talents, and geographic location that is the true “added value” of Basel, making it the biotech powerhouse of Europe.