Biogen was founded in Geneva in 1978 by a group of leading international researchers in the field of biotechnology. These included the Swiss researcher Charles Weissmann. Two founding members, Walter Gilbert (chemistry) and Phillip Sharp (medicine), were later awarded the Nobel Prize. The company moved its headquarters to Cambridge, Massachusetts USA in 1982. In 2004, there was a return to Switzerland. The international headquarters moved from Paris to Zug, where it has grown to employ over 400 people. Ten years after this return, the first location inquiry for the new Biogen manufacturing facility was made via the S-GE location promotion organization. S-GE then launched and coordinated an application process for interested Swiss cantons.
The following interview with Markus A. Ziegler, Director Corporate Affairs at Biogen was conducted by Liv Minder, Director Investment Promotion at Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE).
In December 2014, we received a request from Biogen to find a suitable location for a production facility in Switzerland. The goal was to begin production in 2019. This allowed four years for the selection and acquisition of the land, the planning procedures including all permits, and the construction and commissioning of the plant. These were, and still are, very challenging requirements. How far along is Biogen with the project now, and has it been possible to meet these ambitious requirements?
Despite various challenges that naturally arise in a project of this size, we’re currently still on track at all levels.
Why is timing so important?
Timing is crucial for Biogen both in an entrepreneurial and medical sense. Biogen wants to produce enough biopharmaceutical products to serve one million people as soon as possible. The drugs help to delay illnesses, extend life and, in the best case, even provide a cure.
What were the crucial factors in the selection of Switzerland as a location?
The decision was based on a structured selection process that took in various locations worldwide. First of all, the figures had to be right and a possible industrialized country had to be found. Infrastructure such as electricity and water had to be available, as did the supply of local talent. However, time was of the essence here as well. Switzerland managed to quickly bring a selection of top industrial areas to the table. It was also able to comprehensibly demonstrate how the approval process and planning could be completed in time, including construction. It came out on top over the other global applicants.
How far along are you with the construction work and will operation begin according to plan?
To enable production to begin according to plan in 2019, there are currently more than 1,500 people on the site each day carrying out construction work, installing equipment and getting everything ready for operation. The first parts of the plant have already begun operation and are currently undergoing intensive testing.
The construction of the facility is expected to provide positive economic impetus, especially in the Solothurn region. Are there already signs of this?
A study by the economic research institute BAK Economics shows that the project has generated a gross value added of around CHF 800 million in Switzerland. This involves around 2,000 jobs. Local industry also benefits from the project: for example, around 1,700 nights of accommodation have been booked. For the operational phase beginning in 2019, the economists at BAK predict that the canton’s gross domestic product has the potential to grow by 1.5 to 2.0%.
The project will create around 600 new jobs. How is recruitment being carried out in a time of skill shortages?
Regardless of location, recruiting 600 skilled people is a challenge. Biogen is considered to be an attractive employer and this is confirmed again and again by external institutes. The prospect of joining a pioneer in neuroscience with a promising product pipeline and the opportunity to develop a production facility almost from the ground up makes Biogen a highly attractive package for potential candidates. Recruitment is going according to plan and more than 130 people are already working for Biogen in Luterbach. Around 15 to 20 new employees are joining them every month and there are currently over 40 jobs available on our website.
Through cutting-edge science and medicine, Biogen discovers, develops and delivers innovative therapies for people living with serious neurological, autoimmune and rare diseases. Biogen is one of the world’s oldest independent biotechnology companies and worldwide, patients benefit from its leading multiple sclerosis and innovative hemophilia therapies. Today Biogen employs 7,500 people in 30 countries. www.biogen.com
(The interview was first published in the Swiss Biotech Report 2018)