What Is Biotechnology, and How Is It Shaping the Future?

Switzerland and the United States are both known for innovation, whether for business, entrepreneurship, technology, science, or medicine. The explosion of innovation related to biotechnology offers breathtaking opportunities for humanity, as well as challenges.

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by Karina Rollins 

Biotechnology uses living organisms or their components to produce new technologies, tools, products, and medical treatments and diagnostics, such as bio-based chemicals, novel materials, pest-resistant crops, or next-generation pharmaceuticals and living medicines.

While biotechnology in basic forms has been used around the world for millennia—such as breeding animals and crops to create variations, or using microorganisms to make cheese and wine—modern-day biotechnology is quickly creating a new world.

Traditional biotech involves use of natural organisms to create or modify food or other products for human use; modern biotech involves manipulation of genes and living tissues in a controlled environment to generate new tissue.
The key global regions for the biotech industry are Europe (especially Switzerland) and the United States.  

A Sample of Recent Biotech Innovations in Switzerland and the United States

  • A Swiss-led research team has developed second-generation COVID-19 vaccine candidatesin the form of nasal spray.
  • A combination of 3D “bioprinting” and stem-cell-based tissue engineering could provide novel ways—partially developed at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute—to treat chronic kidney disease.
  • A research team led by Switzerland’s EPFLreports that three patients paralyzed from spinal-cord injuries are able to walk, cycle, and swimafter surgically implanted nerve-stimulation device, which recipients control themselves.
  • Scientists at Tufts University and the Wyss Institute at Harvard have regrown amputated frogs’ legs—leaving hope for human amputees.
  • Scientists at the University of Basel have developed “optogenetics,” a gene therapy that restored partial sight for a blind man.
  • Researchers at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology developed an easy way to extract “black gold” (natural melanin) from mushrooms—a promising substance for creating new materials and protecting natural ones.
  • 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

Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the top locations for innovative biotechnology in 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 biotechnology in their product portfolios, such as Givaudan and Firmenich.

Key figures for Swiss biotechnology in 2021:

  • Around 300 biotech companies, including suppliers
  • More than 50,000 jobs
  • $4.8 billion in revenue
  • $2.4 billion in R&D investment (an increase of $1.1 billion since 2020)

Explanations for biotech success in Switzerland include:

  • Strong R&D support through private investments. While investment has been strong for years, in 2020, capital investment in Swiss biotech firms increased almost threefold from 2019.
  • Gaining public attention due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the biotech industry has become very popular among investors: By July 2021, they had invested around $2.2 billion in Swiss biotech companies.
  • 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, 437 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.

United States

The top three biotech companies in the U.S. are Amgen, Gilead Sciences, and Celgene Corporation. Some of the most highly ranked biotech startups are Bolt Threads, Impossible Foods, Joyn Bio, Notable Labs, Transcriptic, and Science Exchange, with a host of new up-and-comers, such as Sana Biotechnology, Nuvation Bio, and Immuneering.  

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.

Key figures for U.S. biotechnology in 2021:

Challenges, Solutions, and More Challenges

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 2019, the Swiss government approved an experimental release of a GM fungus-resistant barley as well as GM corn.

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 ways for dealing responsibly with genetically modified organisms to reduce risks to human health and the environment.

Global Rankings

  • In 2021, for the 11th year in a row, Switzerland has kept its spot in the Global Innovation Index as the world’s most innovative economy. The U.S. retains its third place from 2019 and 2020.
  • Switzerland has been moving up among the top 10 in Bloomberg’s Innovation Index, earning the rank of third-most innovative economy in the world for the 2021 index (up from fifth place in 2018, and fourth place in 2019). The U.S. has been in and out of the top 10 since 2018, dropping back to 11th place.
  • For 2020, the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report —in which Switzerland has most often held the top spot, and the U.S. held the top spot in 2018 and second place in 2019—released a special edition, for which “at this turbulent time for the global economy, we pause comparative country rankings.”
  • In the IMD 2021 World Competitiveness Ranking,Switzerland moves from third to first place, while the U.S. remains in 10th place.
  • The Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2022 names ETH Zurich as the 15th-best university in the world. The California Institute of Technology and Harvard University tie for second-best in the world, with six other U.S. institutions in the top 10.

Additional information:

“Humble Beginnings: The Origin Story of Modern Biotechnology,” Labiotech.eu

“After a record run, few biotechs are going public. Here’s how they’re performing,” BioPharmaDive

Swiss Biotech Day 2022, Swiss Biotech Association

“Emerging Biotechnology Trends for 2022,” Northeastern University

“Ethics Issues Remain Central to Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology,” Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News

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

“The next 25 years,” Nature

“While the world is looking at AI, it’s biotech that could end up changing the world,” ZME Science

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

“The Evolution of Biotechnology and Its Impact on Health Care,” Health Affairs