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Sweetening the Swiss Bio Mix

By John Russell

Oct. 16, 2006 | Before jet lag completely obliterates my thinking and before Bio-IT World's art director bursts into my office complaining that my late copy is again holding up the magazine, I'll try to provide you with a glimpse into a week-long junket of journalists to Switzerland.

Imagine 20 or so reporters and editors from around the world - Japan, Korea, India, Spain, Brazil, New Zealand, Singapore, France, Canada, Russia, and the U.S. - bussed from appointment to appointment to dinner (usually with a speaker) with a few well-oiled evenings in between. You thought herding cats was difficult. The pace was brutal, the weather mostly damp and gray, but the meetings were fascinating.

Switzerland is about the size of Vermont and New Hampshire combined and has a population of roughly seven million. It's long been known for pharmaceutical giants (e.g., Novartis and Roche) and giant rocks (the Alps). Now, the land of chocolate and watches and all things precise is attempting to become a power throughout the entire life science food chain - from basic research to small and big business.

Our group toured greater Geneva, Basel, and Zurich. The trip was funded by various Swiss agencies with one clear goal: Spread the word the Swiss have put out the welcome mat for individuals and companies seeking to make a mark in life science and have fashioned a variety of programs (incubator, academic, etc.) to make doing so easier.

For me, the growing emphasis on systems biology was striking and a little surprising. There is a Swiss-wide initiative - SystemsX - with activities at several academic institutions, and there is a new center for systems biology (Center of Biosystems Science and Engineering (C-BSSE)) being established in Basel. It's being directed by Renato Para, who was head of the Center for Molecular Biology at the University of Heidelberg. BTW: Para is looking to hire a few experienced senior researchers.

C-BSSE is also the new home for Rudi Aebersold. Enticing Rudi was a tremendous coup for the Swiss. He is a key architect of SystemX and now splits his time 80/20 with the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, which he and Lee Hood founded.

Mining my notebook and digital recorder for more in-depth articles will take some time, but here are a few trip highlights:

EPFL and Blue Brain. Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne is a sort of the MIT of Switzerland where researcher Henry Markram is building a computational model of the brain using IBM's Blue Gene supercomputer. Based on mouse experiments, he is building models of neocortex columns - distinct volumes of about 10 million neurons with 30 million active synapses. Simulations produce what Markram calls 3-D voltage sculptures displayed as light. He's trying to link the changing shapes to functional interpretation.

Roche Tamiflu Factory.  In a clear example of Swiss precision, this factory can produce roughly 400 million doses of Tamiflu a year. It can also be cleaned in just one week to convert to processing a different compound because it was built with cleaning systems embedded where necessary. Even to the untrained eye, this gleaming plant seems a marvel of organization, with easy access to giant reactors and spotless floors and pipes. It requires few people to run.

Free Room and Board. There are several rival bioscience-specific incubators in Switzerland, most aligned with a particular "canton," roughly analogous to states in the U.S. In Geneva, for instance, the Eclosion group provides space and access to equipment for promising early start-ups using government funds while private investors supply more traditional investment for companies' operations.

It's not all roses. Some observers say Switzerland is an expensive place to do business. But characterized by a well-educated population, an impressive set of universities, ready access to capital, and now, a concrete desire to grow in life sciences, the land with more Nobel laureates per capita than any other clearly has much to offer. More comprehensive coverage will follow.

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