The UCB Plant in Bulle, Canton of Fribourg, developed from an allergy therapeutics manufacturing plant to servicing three therapeutic areas globally and managing three different technology platforms. UCB’s successful relationship with Switzerland has started as early as 1986 when the global biopharma company set up an affiliate here to develop and manufacture allergy treatments. Their first Swiss-made product turned out to be a gamechanger and helped drive the company’s growth. We talked with Nicolas Tièche, Head of Bulle Site at UCB:
Mr. Tièche, you are leading UCB's plant in Bulle. What has been your experience in Switzerland?
We have been in Switzerland since 1986 when we opened a commercial affiliate to develop and manufacture allergy treatments. The first Swiss-made product was the antihistamine Zyrtec (cetirizine), which turned out to be a gamechanger for UCB. This helped to drive our growth - Zyrtec was the right product at the right time to start manufacturing activities at industrial scale in Switzerland.
Fortunately, we had all the land that we needed and a large network of service providers. The specific advantages of Switzerland were the vibrant and stable local ecosystem, with a large number of biopharma companies and a talent pool where UCB could find the right expertise. Of course, the exceptional quality of life means that nobody ever complains about having to move to Switzerland, and we now employ 25 nationalities. In short, all the necessary ingredients were here.
Although we have had a few difficult moments, we have shown resilience, and in the face of loss of exclusivities we have managed to stay competitive. This continued resilience has also been a factor in our success and continued expansion.
Zyrtec was the right product at the right time to start manufacturing activities at industrial scale in Switzerland.
How would you characterize Switzerland as a biotech location?
Switzerland has a dense ecosystem in three main hubs: Zurich, Basel and the Greater Geneva Bern area. These offer all the vital ingredients for pharma companies.
UCB is well positioned to stay ahead but we must be focused and not rest on our laurels. There are challenges – for example, over the next three years the pharma and biotech industry will need to hire hundreds of people; some of these vacancies will be easy to fill, but others will be more difficult. We are able to find university graduates in engineering, biology and bio engineering, but we do need more specialists and technicians to work on the field, on the production lines. This is why the Swiss dual education system with apprenticeship is important.
What is the current focus of your activities?
Our focus is and will remain the value of the solutions we provide for our patients in the therapeutic areas we cover in Switzerland (Bulle Site), notably allergy (since 1996), neurology (since 2004) and immunology (since 2014), representing 6 marketed products.
Our other focus is to support the growth of the UCB Group and its internal production network in Belgium, Japan, and China. We need to ensure that we are always at the forefront of quality and performance, so that the 'Swiss Made' remains a synonym of excellence and a key factor of choice for our partners.
We do need more specialists and technicians to work on the field, on the production lines. This is why the Swiss dual education system with apprenticeship is important.
Are there any further plans for expansion in the context of UCB’s global manufacturing strategy?
Yes, we always have plans to support the development of the UCB Group and to complete our commercial product range in the therapeutic areas that concern us (allergy, neurology, and immunology). We have three technology platforms - Chemistry (API - Drug Substance), Pharma (Dry Form - Drug product), and Biotech Bacterial (API - Drug Substance) - that we continue to develop.
The sixth commercial product from the Bulle site was added to the neurology portfolio in 2021 and a seventh could be added to the immunology portfolio in the near future.
Two-thirds of the employees at the Bulle site work in manufacturing and the remaining third are active in our centers of expertise, including CMO management, the Swiss affiliate, customer service and global distribution. It's unusual to have a customer service center in Switzerland when many companies prefer low-wage locations.
What are the challenges and trends in biopharmaceutical production?
There are both long-term and short-term challenges. The short-term challenge is related to the post Covid as well as the geopolitical situation. Supply and distribution in all areas (including energy) and all geographies has become a risk factor and will likely remain so for the next few years.
Covid has also resulted in long-term challenges. For example, our clinical study pipeline as well as launches have been delayed, which has slowed the development of new products. We need to fill the gap between the LoE (loss of exclusivity) of old products and the launch of new ones, possibly through acquisitions. UCB has also announced its intention to enter the still closed circle of gene therapy players. Investments are now in the project pipeline at our Braine site in Belgium, but we must also prepare for this shift, notably through the development of skills, to support the group when necessary.
It's unusual to have a customer service center in Switzerland when many companies prefer low-wage locations.
What are major challenges and opportunities that UCB foresees in the healthcare manufacturing space?
Personalized medicine, gene therapy, new models of drug distribution, access to medicine, and diagnostics are some of the challenges and opportunities in our industry. We treat 80 million people with allergy products, 20 million with an epilepsy product and 200,000 people with an immunology product. At the extreme, a specific gene therapy treats only one person. Personalization therefore clearly implies a reduction in production volumes. But the investments and production costs remain significant (for example, UCB invests more than 25% of its revenues in R&D). As gene therapy products have the potential to treat a disease rather than manage it, new reimbursement models will be needed.
In the near future, partners like Amazon or Alibaba might play a leading role in distribution and logistics. Or 3D printing of medicines might allow personalized dosages to be made locally with APIs produced by the pharmaceutical industry. Many developments are possible.
Finally, I hope that the improvement and development of new diagnostics to reduce the time between the first signs of a disease and its accurate diagnosis, will allow us to manage patients more quickly and in the most relevant way.
What are UCB's commitments to sustainability?
We have been committed to an ambitious energy program for almost 15 years. Our first focus was on optimizing energy usage, but now our ambitions have become broader. An absolute priority at executive committee level is the commitment to reduce our carbon footprint, using 2015 as a baseline. By 2030, we aim to be carbon neutral.
A second challenge, which we have been working on, is water usage. Our corporate strategy calls for 80% of the money spent on sustainability to be allocated to carbon footprint reduction and the remaining 20% to be allocated to offsetting. This is very important for us because simply allocating funds to carbon offsetting is not fully managing the problem. Perhaps the best way to achieve the UN sustainability goals would be to create working groups, with the salary of top executives linked to meeting sustainability scorecards.
Our corporate sustainability pillars are diversity, equity & inclusion, scientific innovation, and ethical business practices. In terms of ESG, we have a strong focus on health and safety, as well as salary equity. I’m very proud that we have had equal salary certification for two years. Our other key priorities are green processes, access to medicines for all, and improving epilepsy diagnosis, which still has a large unmet need.
In three words: What does Switzerland as a location mean to UCB?
Quality, expertise, and reliability.