Switzerland flexing its CGT muscle with a little help from Novartis and Roche

Heavy investment in R&D and manufacturing capabilities is driving the Swiss advanced therapy space but challenges including the skill-deficit still exist, says consultancy firm Coulter Partners.

As interest in cell and gene therapies (CGTs) grow, certain hubs are arising globally. Philadelphia’s ‘Cellicon Valley’ and Texas both come to mind, but across the pond Switzerland has been subject to numerous investments and the sector is blossoming.

“Switzerland remains a highly attractive location for biopharma in general, due to the fiscal situation, the presence of a well-trained and highly skilled workforce, lenient labor laws and an excellent quality of life,” Coulter Partners, a global search specialist focused exclusively on life sciences, told BioProcess Insider.

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The country is leveraging its long and robust heritage in the pharma sector to advance its CGT presence with Big Pharma giants Novartis and Roche leading the way.

“For Switzerland they have a significant influence on the country’s overall strategy for the pharma industry. Both companies are investing heavily in the technology: Novartis has become a major force, with, for example, the creation of Novartis Gene Therapies through the acquisition of AveXis in the US, the launch of Kymriah, as well as the construction of a world-class CGT 2 manufacturing facility in Stein.”

Roche, meanwhile, acquired gene therapy firm Spark Therapeutics, and has struck deals with Shape Therapeutics, Dyno Therapeutics and Adaptimmune, while also establishing custom biotech manufacturing capabilities in Basel.

“However, much of what Novartis & Roche are doing in CGT is centered in the US, so while the corporate headquarters and a part of the R&D and manufacturing are in Switzerland, a much larger chunk sits in the various sites across the US.”

But despite this, Roche and Novartis’ “know-how, funds and trained personnel, makes the country a very attractive location for young, up and coming companies to set up shop,” we were told, cementing Switzerland as a “well-established presence, with established R&D and manufacturing capabilities in CGT.”

Skill-deficit

Along with the boost from Novartis and Roche, Switzerland is well served to grow its advanced therapy space further from the continued flurry of investments from global companies into the wider biomanufacturing space, Coulter Partners said.

“Many global companies have invested in manufacturing in Switzerland – Celonic and Novartis in Stein, Biogen in Solothurn, Lonza in Visp, CSL in Bern, UCB in Fribourg, Bachem in Basel, GE Healthcare in Grens etc.”

This has created a strong skill base while demonstrating that biopharma manufacturing is very viable, the firm added, citing further examples of Celgene’s second production site investment in Couvet and a third in Boudry (Neuchâtel), plus Incyte’s $100 million in a monoclonal antibody production site in Vaud in September.

“One of the major attractions for people moving to Switzerland is the opportunity to develop their careers without the need to move away from the area – the two major Swiss hubs of Basel-Zurich- Zug and Lausanne-Geneva provide ample opportunities to develop a career in life sciences.”

However, from a CGT recruitment perspective, Coulter Partners said the high demand for talent in the sector across all markets means the country is competing against “very strong centers of excellence in the US, driven to a large extent by the presence of world-class academic research and easy access to funding.” This is skewed by the fact that more than half or the 1,000 or so CGT developers in the world are in the US.

“Hence, the talent today sits mainly in the US. Relocation of these people to Switzerland remains a challenge.”

Training and relocation

This issue is, however, being addressed through training initiatives across the country to boost capabilities in manufacturing of cell and gene therapies. For example: The Biofactory Competence Center (BCC), Fribourg; the Bertarelli Foundation Gene Therapy Platform at the EPFL; the University of Zurich Center for Therapy Development/GMP, and the Department of Biomedicine at the University of Basel.

“In general, academic institutes and universities are beginning to address this skill-deficit through the establishment of industry-relevant degrees in Biomanufacturing Process for example, to produce trained graduates geared to enter the field. Institutes such as International Society of Cell & Gene Therapy (ISCT) have introduced industry mentors, patient education committees and a range of cell therapy training courses. This could have future implications for the formation and growth of CGT talent hubs around universities and academic institutions.”

Meanwhile, we were told the expectations of people to relocate to Switzerland, in terms of compensation, flexible working, etc., have increased since the pandemic, “though this is driving up salaries still further, and Switzerland continues to lead the world rankings in most skilled workers and flexible working. We have also noticed that it is becoming more difficult to recruit people out of Switzerland to other European countries, for financial, career and life-quality reasons.”