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How Innovation in Biotechnology Is Shaping the Future

August 2019

By Karina Rollins

Biotechnology uses living organisms or their components to produce innovative products, such as bio-based chemicals, novel materials, pest-resistant crops, or next generation pharmaceuticals and living medicines. The key global regions for the biotech industry are Europe (especially Switzerland) and the United States.  


Switzerland has the highest number of patent applications in Europe per capita, world-class research institutions, high levels of investment by multinational companies, high-profile “green” innovation projects (such as the solar-powered plane that circled the globe), and a highly skilled workforce (thanks in no small part to the country’s renowned apprenticeship system).

The Swiss have demonstrated that tradition and innovation need not be mutually exclusive. In Switzerland, “slow and steady” leads to exciting developments. Market stability, excellent infrastructure, and a competitive regulation and tax system are also important features that facilitate innovation.

Unsurprisingly, Switzerland is one of the top locations for innovative biotechnology in Europe, and hence, the world. The non-profit Switzerland Global Enterprise describes the “biotech cluster in Switzerland” as a result of a “close-knit network” of “research and development driven by renowned universities, highly specialized SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] and strong multinational corporations.” Important as well are Switzerland’s modern infrastructure, a highly qualified workforce, and a “beneficial funding environment.”

Novartis, Roche, and Syngenta are the largest and best-known companies in biotech, but there are also numerous biotech start-ups, such as Versantis, Amal Therapeutics, and TwentyGreen. Further, there are a number of large companies that significantly leverage biotech in their product portfolios, such as Givaudan and Firmenich.

Key figures for Swiss biotechnology in 2018:

  • 297 R&D biotech companies
  • 13,725 employees
  • $3.8 billion in revenue
  • $1.4 billion in R&D investment

 Explanations for biotech success in Switzerland include:

  • Strong R&D support through private investments. In 2016, Swiss companies spent roughly $15.6 billion on R&D, of which 40 percent was invested in pharmaceuticals, chemicals, and biotechnology.
  • A wide range of modern research laboratories and production facilities for pharma, biotech, and medical products.
  • A simple registration process for protecting intellectual property, making it one of the world’s countries with the highest per capita number of biotech patents.
  • Close cooperation between public universities and the private sector, leading to high productivity. (Researchers at ETH Zurich, for instance are actively encouraged to turn their ideas into commercial projects—since 1996, 407 ETH spin-off companies have been launched.)
  • Minimal bureaucracy. A single authority—the Federal Coordination Center for Biotechnology—governs applications in biotechnology and genetic engineering.
  • Free trade agreements with more than 40 countries and trade blocs, providing access to some of the world’s most important export markets. (For information on a much-anticipated U.S.-Swiss free trade agreement, see ASF’s briefing with key facts and resources.)

United States

The U.S. files the most international patent applications in the world (Switzerland is in the top ten), has research institutions that attract students and academics from around the world, and is regularly the source of top medical and technological innovation.

The top three biotech companies in the U.S. are Amgen, Gilead Sciences, and Celgene Corporation. Some of the most highly ranked startups bringing biotech to other industries (in addition to therapeutics) are Bolt Threads, Impossible Foods, Joyn Bio, Notable Labs, Transcriptic, and Science Exchange.  

Some startup companies, such as Ginkgo Bioworks in Boston, founded in 2009, have already reached “unicorn” status. A unicorn is a privately held startup with a valuation of at least $1 billion. Ginkgo Bioworks describes itself as “design[ing] custom organisms across multiple markets.” One of Ginkgo’s product lines consists of cultured cannabinoids.

Public biotech companies in the United States have annual revenues of roughly $112 billion.

A Sample of Recent Biotech Innovations in Switzerland and the U.S.

  • The “GE chestnut”: The American chestnut tree was nearly destroyed by a fungus about 100 years ago. Scientists in the U.S. now claim to have genetically engineered a resistant variety of the tree. The biotech chestnut tree must be deregulated before it can be planted in forests.
  • Chemists at EPFL have developed a way to more than double the sugar yield from plants—which can improve the production of renewable fuels, chemicals, and various materials.
  • Swiss researchers have discovered substances with antibiotic properties on the surface of field weeds; the discovery is expected to play an important role in creating new antibiotics, as more and more bacteria are becoming resistant to existing antibiotic medications: ETH Zurich
  • Researchers at the University of Basel, working with the Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research, have produced cartilage from bone marrow stem cells: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
  • Biomedicine: “4i”—iterative indirect immunofluorescence imaging—is a new method for easier and more precise cancer diagnosis developed by Swiss researchers: University of Zurich
  • And, of course, biotechnology plays a major role not just in diagnosis, but in new cancer treatments: Personalized “immunotherapy” (instead of chemotherapy) uses the body’s own immune system to fight the cancer.


Challenges and Solutions

While Switzerland is a global biotechnology leader, the Swiss public and members of government, like the publics and governments of most European countries, remain skeptical of various applications of biotechnology, such as genetically modified (GM) crops.

Skepticism does not mean stagnation, however. In 2005, Switzerland placed a moratorium on GM crops, and in 2016, the Swiss government extended the moratorium to 2021. It did, however, add an amendment to allow demarcated GM zones. In June 2019, the Swiss government approved an experimental releaseof a GM fungus-resistant barley. 

The Swiss will also need to strike a balance between opposition to GM crops and support for an ambitious climate-change policy. As the United Nations declared in a 2006 report, the world’s largest source of greenhouse gases is not driving cars—it is rearing cattle, which produce enormous amounts of methane. With more and more people in developing countries doing better financially—and hence being able to afford meat—large-scale animal “factory farming” is on the rise.

At the same time, innovators have made a splash with plant-derived “burgers,” that are ever closer to meat from an animal in appearance, texture, and taste. One such is the Impossible Burger—made with GM soy. Impossible Foods, the Silicon Valley startup that creates “meat from plants,” was created in 2011. In 2019, Burger King, one of the largest burger chains in the world, began selling the Impossible Whopper across the United States.

GM crops engineered to need less water could be a strong boon for environmental protection, as well. As could crops genetically modified to produce proteins that kill certain insect species—making the spraying of toxic insecticides unnecessary (such as Syngenta’s Bt corn).

Certainly, existing GM crops have not been without controversy, and Switzerland and the United States alike will have to find approaches for dealing responsibly with genetically modified organisms.


Global Rankings

  • Switzerland keeps its spot in the 2018 Global Innovation Index as the world’s most innovative economy, and the U.S. drops to sixth place (down from fourth place in 2017).
  • Bloomberg’s 2019 Innovation Index names Switzerland as the fourth-most innovative economy in the world (up from fifth place in 2018), and the U.S. as the eighth-most innovative (up from 11th place in 2018—the first time the U.S. had not been in the top ten).
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report 2018—with the new Global Competitiveness Index 4.0—moves the U.S. up from second place to the top spot, and moves Switzerland from first place to fourth—the first time in a decade that Switzerland has not held the top spot.
  • In the IMD 2019 World Competitiveness Ranking, the U.S. loses its 2018 number one spot to Singapore, and moves to third place. Switzerland, after moving down from number two to number five in 2018, moves up one spot to fourth place.
  • The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019 names ETH Zurich as the fourth-best university in Europe (the 11th-best in the world), and Lausanne’s EPFL as the ninth-best in Europe (35th in the world). California’s Stanford University comes in at third-best in the world, with seven other U.S. institutions in the top ten.
  • The 2019 Universitas 21 ranking of 50 national higher-education systems keeps the U.S. in first place, and Switzerland in second place.
  • In 2018, Switzerland ranked fifth in international patent applications (up from eighth in 2017); the U.S. remained in first place: World Intellectual Property Organization
  • Best countries for business in the world in 2019: Switzerland remains in 10th place, the U.S. moves down from 12th place in 2018 to 17th place: Forbes


Additional information:

“Why the U.S. and Switzerland are innovation champions”: Consumer Technology Association with video of speech by Ambassador Dahinden

Swiss Biotech Day 2019, Swiss Biotech Association

“Top 10 Biotech Colleges and Universities in the USA,” Explore Biotech

“Could Immunotherapy Lead the Way to Fighting Cancer”? Smithsonian Magazine

“The Foods of Tomorrow: How Biotechnology Is Changing What We East,” Forbes

“The startup behind Silicon Valley’s favorite ‘bleeding’ veggie burger has scored a major victory in its battle for legitimacy,” Business Insider

“Regulation of Biotech Plants,” U.S. Department of Agriculture

“A Cruelty-Free Economy? How Technology and Market Forces Are Transforming Animal-Based Industries for the Better,” Karina Rollins (YL 2003) in The American Interest