Biotech is a major pillar of the Swiss economy, part of a life sciences industry that accounts for 40% of exports in Switzerland. Its reach is more than just financial though.

Swiss biotech participants drive innovation that helps patients and improves healthcare outcomes worldwide. The Swiss Biotech Association’s annual Swiss Biotech Success Stories celebrate the industry’s valuable contribution. EY is proud to sponsor these awards as part of our commitment to innovation, start-ups and entrepreneurship in biotech and beyond. Jürg Zürcher served on the jury to select this year’s winners, as featured in the Swiss Biotech Report 2020. He shares his insights into a thriving industry and considers how COVID-19 will affect the biotech market.

What makes Switzerland such a hub for biotech?

EY Switzerland’s strong biotech focus within EY EMEIA has a good reason: Switzerland has a strong life sciences ecosystem, and biotech benefits from that. We’ve got excellent higher education, incubators and accelerators. But I think we’re also very good at connecting the dots. The Swiss Biotech Association acknowledges this in selecting Werner Arber as one of this year’s Swiss Biotech Success Stories award winners. He’s a professor, Swiss microbiologist, geneticist, and Noble Prize winner. Besides his own personal contribution to biotech – he’s widely recognized for his research in the mechanisms of biological evolution and bacterial restriction and modification – Professor Arber proposed the inception of the Trinational Biotechnology Program, which continues to be taught today. The Swiss Biotech Association recognizes his achievement as someone who embodies that Swiss success, where fundamental university research makes its way through the R&D process to market and has a lasting impact for the good of patients.

What kind of companies thrive in the Swiss biotech landscape?

Switzerland offers a healthy environment for Swiss start-ups and established firms, big names and niche players. While newcomers benefit from biotech clusters and related sectors, sustainable success takes time. I think longevity is something Swiss biotech does well. We see this for example in the two family businesses recognized in this year’s Swiss Biotech Success Stories: Debiopharm and Helsinn. Debiopharm focuses on treatments for oncology and bacterial infection. The Swiss Biotech Success Stories jury was impressed by the fact that they also endeavor to improve treatment as a whole, from diagnostics to medication and monitoring. And they’ve been doing so for over 40 years. Helsinn is currently under third-generation family leadership and has a strong product pipeline in cancer care and rare diseases. Both companies were chosen by the jury in part because they draw on Swiss-based expertise to have a global positive impact.

What qualities are most important for companies wishing to succeed in biotech?

On the Swiss Biotech Success Stories jury, we consider ten categories for success. What all they have in common is the importance of sustainability and impact – for patients, for the economy, for Switzerland. One of the reasons the jury recognized Helsinn this year, for example, is because the company supports a thriving biotech ecosystem in Switzerland. They’ve established an investment fund to support the future of healthcare and advance early-stage opportunities through funding and strategic support for innovative companies. And with production based in Lugano and Europe, the company helps create jobs, retain expertise and safeguard supply chains in a changing global market. For me, all of these things are important – and very powerful when combined with a commitment to innovation.

Building on the topic of innovation, where does it start, and how can you cultivate it?

Innovation comes undoubtedly from people – people who are passionate about what they do. But it can only take off in a culture that supports innovative thinking and new approaches. It’s not always easy to strike a balance between the requisite creativity and operational aspects, and our clients ask us to support them with pragmatic, solution-driven advice.

Actelion’s innovative spirit was singled out by the Swiss Biotech Success Stories jury this year. Set up by five passionate co-founders in 1997, Actelion quickly became an industry leader in pulmonary hypertension with a billion-dollar turnover. The company was acquired by the Johnson & Johnson Group in 2017 but has stayed true to its R&D roots through its spin-off Idorsia, which has a promising product pipeline in immunology, central nervous system disorder, and rare diseases. The company has chosen to focus consistently on core competences of innovation and R&D, using distribution partners rather than building up internal know-how and capacity.

Looking to the future, how will COVID-19 affect the biotech industry?

The biotech market is always affected by international trends. With COVID-19 very much still on the agenda, life sciences find themselves in the spotlight in an unprecedented way. It’s an opportunity for biotech in that new funding is available for COVID-19-specific projects and there will certainly be a market for companies working in that area. Looking ahead to the 2021 Swiss Biotech Success Stories, we’ve got at least five candidates involved in the global battle against COVID-19.

EY has a long history in biotech, and we’re at an interesting stage in the evolution and transformation of the industry. We’ve observed a high level of interest and appetite for funding that significantly pre-dates our current health crisis. The success was already there, but the pandemic has helped get the biotech industry the attention and recognition it deserves. And that’s a good thing because biotech companies, especially in Switzerland, are often not as vocal about their activities and success as they could be.