Billionaires’ biotech centre set for Geneva

A project backed by two of Switzerland’s wealthiest men to create a Geneva biotech centre is back on track after German pharma company Merck agreed to sell its sprawling complex in the Swiss city.

Billionaires' biotech centre set for Geneva
Former Merck Serono headquarters in Geneva (Photo:AIA Chicago/Rainer Viertboek)

The company sold the site of its subsidiary Merck Serono’s former headquarters to Campus Biotech Sarl, backed by Hansjörg Wyss, a billionaire medical device entrepreneur, and Ernesto Bertarelli, another billionaire whose family founded Serono before selling it to Merck in 2006.

A price for the building, valued at between 300 million and 450 million francs, according to the Tribune de Genève, was not announced on Wednesday when plans for the biotech centre, were confirmed at a press conference.

A consortium involving the Wyss Foundation, the Bertarelli family, the Federal Institute for Technology at Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Geneva is involved in the project to boost biotechnology research on the site in Geneva’s Sécheron industrial area.

EPFL announced that it will receive 100 million francs from the Wyss Foundation to create with the university a Wyss Institute, similar to one established by the foundation in Boston.

The public-private project has also received support from the Swiss federal government and the canton of Geneva.

Speaking on behalf of the Wyss Foundation, Hansjörg Wyss said the Wyss Institute would be a "multidisciplinary Institute whose mission will be to develop biologically inspired solutions that will solve critical medical problems and to translate these transformative technologies into products that have an impact on society and the world.”

“We are absolutely delighted to be moving forward with Campus Biotech,” Ernesto Bertarelli said in a statement.

“We have been much encouraged by the wide support for our project which we believe will bring immense value to the Geneva Lake region and Switzerland as a whole.”

Researchers from EPFL and the university will occupy 1,500 square metres of the Sécheron site to pursue biotechnology and biomedical research.

An estimated 120 to 150 jobs are expected to be created.

Additionally, Campus Biotech aims to attract startups, industry and other businesses to use the remaining space in the complex.

Merck Serono put the Sécheron building up for sale in July 2013 after deciding to close its operations there, eliminating 1,250 jobs.

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EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?

Given there is no Covid-19 vaccine at the present time, contact tracing is believed to be an effective, though complex, strategy for breaking transmission chains and controlling the spread of disease. How will it work in Switzerland?

EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?
Research at EPFL will help establish a tracing system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

How does the tracking work?

The process involves identifying contaminated people, so that measures can be taken to prevent the spread of infection on to others.

It is all the more important in cases when the sick person has no symptoms and may not even know they are sick.

Once the infected person is identified, efforts are made to locate and test the people they have been in contact with within the past two weeks. If one of those contacts is found to be infected, the investigation starts again.

Trying to find chains of contamination could be a long process.

What are some of the challenges of contact tracing?

In Switzerland, as in many other countries, the challenge is to establish an effective tracking system, while respecting data protection.

Since mobile phones would be used, various technical and legal questions could arise, particularly on the collection and use of data.

In Switzerland, to process this information in the context of the pandemic, either the consent of the individual or an anonymisation of the data is required.

READ MORE: Swiss scientists launch a new app to collect Covid-19 data 

What tools will Switzerland be using for post-confinement contact tracing?

One possibility would be the tracking by GPS of mobile phones, as already implemented in a partnership between the federal government and Swisscom. This method allowed the authorities to monitor the public to see if they complied with the restrictions related to going out and traveling during the Easter holidays. 

But the government is now supporting a brand new project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and its sister institution, Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETHZ).

Both are working on the so-called D3-PT project, a free downloadable application for mobile phones, which will run on Google’s Android operating system and on Apple’s iOS.

Its goal, according to Edouard Bugnion, professor of computer science at EPFL, is to “break the chain of virus transmission” by identifying new cases and isolating them. If a person is found positive for coronavirus, all the people he has encountered in the previous days will be alerted, so that they can go into quarantine and be tested. 

No exact details or launch date have been released yet, but the Federal Council thinks the D3-PT tracing would work well in Switzerland.

Will this system guarantee privacy?

Until very recently, the two institutions participated in the European research project Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, bringing together 130 organisations from eight countries.

But EPFL and ETHZ distanced themselves from this project after realising that user data would not be protected, and went on launch the D3-PT system which, they said, would be more “decentralised and transparent”.