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The Heart of Europe's Biotech Sector

More than 5,000 scientists with higher academic degrees work in public research in Europe's Upper Rhine valley, making this area one of the highest densities of life sciences-related research in the world. Now, the triangle region from Basel, Switzerland, in the south to Strasbourg, France, and Freiburg, Germany, in the north is striving to become the European heart of the biotechnology sector.The Dreiländereck or la Régio, as the region is called locally, has a lot going for it: excel

By | August 2, 2004

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More than 5,000 scientists with higher academic degrees work in public research in Europe's Upper Rhine valley, making this area one of the highest densities of life sciences-related research in the world. Now, the triangle region from Basel, Switzerland, in the south to Strasbourg, France, and Freiburg, Germany, in the north is striving to become the European heart of the biotechnology sector.

The Dreiländereck or la Régio, as the region is called locally, has a lot going for it: excellent molecular biology research at over 40 institutes, five Nobel prizes in chemistry, immunology, and genetics, and four universities with 10,000 students in the life sciences. In addition, 40% of the world's pharmaceutical industry is located here. And on the social side of things, the region offers a beautiful countryside, a famous gastronomy, a highly developed infrastructure, and a strong cultural life, enough to attract scientists from 150 countries to the region.

Borderless research and close ties between academia and industry have a long tradition in the Upper Rhine valley. For more than 15 years, the universities of Basel, Freiburg, Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, and Karlsruhe in Germany offer a trinational course in biotechnology that is run in close collaboration with industry. Initial plans to create a similar curriculum in the field of bioinformatics are in the works. And in 1999, neuroscientists in the region founded Neurex, a trinational network of more than 1,000 scientists from universities, clinics, and industry.

The present situation seemed a distant dream in 1996. Back then, the merger between Ciba and Sandoz to form Novartis saw 3,000 life scientists lose their jobs. It was then that a team of entrepreneurs decided to launch the BioValley initiative, a trinational project aimed at turning the region into a biotechnology hub that could compete at the global level. The European Union soon funded the initiative with more than €4 million. "[BioValley] is a brand that is becoming increasingly known and important, both within the region and outside it," says Christian Jehle at the Center for Applied Biosciences of the University of Freiburg.

"When we started 10 years ago, there were 300 life sciences and pharma companies in the region," recalls Sylvie Schott, national coordinator of Alsace BioValley. "The goal was [to have] 700, 20 years after." To date, about 150 new companies dot the region. A number of factors have contributed to this success, including the availability of a highly skilled workforce, and the presence of Big Pharma. Novartis, Roche, and Syngenta have their headquarters in Basel; other important companies with facilities in the region include Sanofi-Aventis, Eli Lilly and Company, and DuPont. Many of the smaller companies carry out research and production for Novartis or Roche, and a few have begun as spin-offs from the pharma industry.

Companies that want to establish themselves in the region have the choice to set up base either inside or outside the European Union. Switzerland is an attractive business location, as corporate tax rates and social security contributions are among the lowest in Europe; it also has a liberal regulatory environment. In addition, Swiss biotech companies have easier access to venture capital (VC). "It is more or less parked in Switzerland," says Dominique Mollet, CEO of BioValley Basel. "[The VC companies] are simply looking for profitable ideas." Mollet adds that in the trinational region as a whole, around 3 billion Swiss francs of VC money are available.

The majority of biotech companies are therefore located on the Swiss side of the border, while many employees prefer to commute from Germany or France, where the cost of living is lower. But the French and German governments also have made efforts to promote entrepreneurship among life scientists. Since January, young innovative companies in France are exempt from tax and social contributions for eight years, and the Freiburg region benefits from the BioRegio funding program launched by the German government to promote the formation of biotech clusters.

The secret to the success of the biotechnology cluster, however, is its trinational nature, says Schott. Building bridges can be difficult because of language barriers and cultural differences, she notes, but these difficulties can also turn into an advantage. "The stakeholders of the trinational region are used to working in several languages, thanks to this multicultural environment. On the global market, it is very important to be able to do that." Many of the biotechs and their location are presented on the following pages.

Martina Habeck mhabeck@the-scientist.com

BASEL

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Actelion

Founded in late 1997, this biopharmaceutical company has become a leading player in endothelium-related research. It is now a profitable business that employs 330 staff in R&D. The company will recruit another 350 employees for a new R&D center to be finished by the end of 2006.

Arpida

Based in Münchenstein near Basel, the company, with a staff of 46 people from 13 countries, is dedicated to the discovery and development of novel antimicrobial agents. It recently raised 51.3 million Swiss francs in its third financing round and is seeking to employ eight new people by the end of the year.

Biozentrum

Over the last three decades, this department at the University of Basel has won a worldwide reputation as a leading research institute for molecular biology, microbiology, and immunology. Since 2002, it also includes research in the fields of bioinformatics and genomics. The institute has attracted scientists from more than 30 countries, and young professors lead one-third of its 35 research groups.

Center for Biosystems Science and Engineering

This new department of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich will be based in Basel. The project, costing 33 million Swiss francs between 2004 and 2007, was approved in March.

Friedrich Miescher Institute

Mainly financed by the Novartis Research Foundation, the FMI is known for its research in the fields of epigenetics, growth control, and neurobiology. The staff of 280 representing 30 countries includes 180 graduate students, PhD students, and postdocs.

Genedata

The company with a staff of 80 is a leading supplier of high-performance bioinformatics software and database systems, specializing in the handling and analysis of genomics and proteomics data.

Innovation Center

The 27,500 m2 incubator located in Allschwil, a suburb of Basel, is currently home to 20 companies.

Novartis

One of the fastest growing pharmaceutical companies worldwide, the company's headquarters and a research community in Basel comprise 1,590 employees. Major research strengths in Basel include oncology, musculoskeletal research, neuroscience, transplantation, and ophthalmology.

Roche

Last year, the pharmaceutical company with headquarters in Basel spent 4.7 billion Swiss francs on R&D. The 1,000 Roche scientists who work in Basel focus on oncology, virology, neuroscience, inflammatory and metabolic diseases, and vascular and urogenital disorders.

Roche Center for Medical Genomics

The successor institute of the renowned Basel Institute for Immunology (BII) employs 80 to 100 scientists and is fully funded by Roche. Research focuses on the development of individualized medicines.

Syngenta

Headquartered in Basel, Syngenta is an agribusiness that invests more than $2 million (US) per day in research. At its research site in Stein, near Basel, 160 scientists conduct research into crop protection, a field in which the company is world leader.

FREIBURG

BioTechPark Freiburg

This incubator has 6,000 m2 of office and lab space for new startups. Another 24,000 m2 are available to more established enterprises, and it also offers consulting services. Altogether 10 biotech enterprises are settled at this location.

Center for Applied Biosciences

This virtual institute brings together scientists from the University of Freiburg to initiate or increase cooperation with industry. Currently 30 such applied research projects are underway, mainly in the field of plant biotechnology.

Genovac

The company produces custom-made antibodies and develops antibody-based cancer therapies. Founded in 1999, it was recently bought by Aldevron (Fargo, ND, US). Genovac employs 14 people.

Greenovation

Founded in 1999 as a spinoff of the University of Freiburg, the company has developed a moss bioreactor for the production of biopharmaceuticals. It has a staff of 20.

Max Planck Institute for Immunobiology

Approximately 100 scientists investigate the molecular basis of the immune response, and topics of developmental biology. The Max Planck Society is currently investing €11 million to renovate and upgrade the labs. A 1,300 m2 extension is planned in the near future.

Plastic and Hand Surgery Department

This department of Freiburg's University Clinic (one of the largest university clinics in Germany) is renowned for its expertise in the field of tissue engineering. Research focuses on growing muscle, cartilage, bone, fat, skin, sinew, and nerves to replace defective tissue. The department's six research groups work in close collaboration with industry.

ProQinase

A spinoff of the Tumor Biology Center, the company employs 28 people and offers kinase screening and production services. It also engages in the development of new kinase inhibitors for the treatment of cancer.

Tumor Biology Center

Basic research at Germany's largest privately owned oncology research clinic focuses on angiogenesis and molecular oncology. Scientists also are involved in all stages of anti-cancer drug development.

MULHOUSE

Neuro3D

Founded in 2000, Neuro 3D (Drug Discovery Development) conducts research into the treatment of depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. The company employs 37 people and has raised €34 million from VC firms.

STRASBOURG

Entomed

Entomed develops insect-derived small molecules with anti-infectious or antitumor activity. Clinical development is anticipated by 2005–2006. The company has 41 employees.

Institute for Genetics and Molecular and Cellular Biology

IGBMC is devoted to the study of higher eukaryotic genomes and the control of gene expression; it is currently expanding to include research in proteomics and structural biology. Its annual budget of €12 million is paid jointly by the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM) and University Louis Pasteur.

Gilbert Laustriat Institute

The institute's labs are run by CRNS, INSERM, and University Louis Pasteur. Research focuses on developing new drugs. The institute has special expertise in the screening of chemical libraries and in the molecular pharmacology of animals. It employs around 360 people.

Innovation Park

Located in Illkirch, a Strasbourg suburb, the Park is a meeting point for education, public, and private research and companies. Bioparc within Innovation Park offers 5,900 m2 of biotech-dedicated labs and offices.

Institute for Molecular Biology of Plants

IBMP is a CNRS institute with 20 research groups that study cell division and plant development, plant mitochondria, isoprenoids, metabolic responses to the biotic environment, and virus-vector-host interactions.

Mouse Clinical Institute

MCI is housed in a new 6,000 m2 facility with a capacity to house 70,000 mice. It employs 93 people devoted to the generation, care, and analysis of transgenic mouse models.

Transgene

The company develops gene delivery technologies and therapeutic vaccines for the treatment of cancer. It has a 2,800 m2 GMP-complaint (good manufacturing practices) production facility in nearby Illkirch. Transgene employs 166 staff, including 139 directly involved in R&D.

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