Italian Switzerland: Creativity & Excellence

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The southern Swiss canton of Ticino does not have the life science reputation of Basel, Zurich or Geneva, but benefits from an open business environment, strategic location, and a thriving network of pharmaceutical SMEs.

“Ticino is really a perfect example of the excellence of Swiss SMEs in the pharma industry, as this canton with a population of only 330,000 has a pharmaceutical industry which collectively produces over CHF 2.3 billion (USD 2.3 billion) worth of pharmaceuticals and employs well over 2,000 people.”

Stefano Rizzi, Ticino Department of Economy & Finance

Don’t let the Sprezzatura (studied carelessness) fool you! Tucked away on the south side of the Alps, the majority Italian-speaking canton Ticino can feel almost like a suburb of Milan at times. Yet, anyone who visits either the canton’s economic center Lugano or capital Bellinzona, will quickly pick up on the fact that despite being separated from the rest of the country by snow-packed and ski-chalet sprinkled mountains, Ticino is very much a part of Switzerland. “From a business owner or manager’s perspective, Ticino offers all of the advantages of any canton in Switzerland in terms of an open business environment,” attests Alpex Pharma’s managing director Shahbaz Ardalan, who points out “You don’t lose time due to excessive bureaucracy or circular discussions with authorities, and instead can really focus on your clients, products, and growing your business without significant political distractions,” as might be the case outside of Switzerland’s borders.

True to Swiss form, the life sciences are of course an important part of the Ticinese economy, with Stefano Rizzi, director of economy at the canton’s Department of Economy and Finance, explaining that, “the life sciences sector constitutes a bright spot within the context of the cantonal economy. With approximately 240 companies employing nearly 4,200 FTE employees, the life sciences industry generates 21 percent of all Ticino exports, about CHF 1.1 billion (USD 1.11 billion).” Rivopharm’s president and CEO Piero Poli clarifies that “Ticino is really a perfect example of the excellence of Swiss SMEs in the pharma industry, as this canton with a population of only 330,000 has a pharmaceutical industry which collectively produces over CHF 2.3 billion (USD 2.3 billion) worth of pharmaceuticals and employs well over 2,000 people.”

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Indeed, with no true multinational pharma players with a significant presence in Ticino, the Ticinese pharma industry is almost exclusively made up of privately owned SMEs. IBSA is the largest pharma company based in Ticino, and head of Swiss business operations Maleša Ulrico Sidjanski affirms that, “as the largest privately owned pharmaceutical company in Switzerland, the company remains very committed to the community and families which exist around the company here in Ticino.” This commitment to the region is a key feature of the company’s strategy according to Sidjanski, who says “keeping our development, production and distribution activities concentrated “under one roof” in Ticino and the nearby areas of Italy along the border… we can ensure that we are able to deliver overall quality “from the grape to the bottle” so to speak.”

Despite the limited size of the canton’s population and corresponding pharmaceutical community, with the 27 members of the Farma Industria Ticino (FIT) association generating combined revenues of a single blockbuster drug, these members form a diversified miniature pharma ecosystem with true cluster dynamics, synergies, and innovation infrastructure. Giorgio Calderari, chairman of FIT boasts that “the great strength of this small territory is that if you view the pharma industry as a sort of “virtual company”, you will essentially see a CHF two billion (USD two billion) entity with over 2,000 employees, and a huge range of capabilities and specializations.” He further explains that “almost all of our members offer some third-party contract capabilities in addition to their own business, and as such you can view FIT as a big CDMO with a great range of capabilities,” with facilities which are for the most part “approved by regulators worldwide, including the FDA, EMA and Japanese PMDA.” As such, Calderari proclaims “whatever your need, someone in Ticino will be able to help!”

Moreover, the canton also boasts a fully-fledged life sciences R&D ecosystem. Rizzi elaborates that “a total of 75 research institutes and laboratories are active in the canton in different fields and sectors,” with “the two main academic centers, the University of Italian Switzerland (USI) and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Italian Switzerland (SUPSI), employing over 1,500 collaborators, and carrying out CHF 45 million (USD 45.45 million) of research each year.” With internationally known and respected institutions such as “the immunology focused IRB (Institute for Research in Biomedicine) in Bellinzona, the Institute of Oncology Research (IOR) and the Oncology Institute of Southern Switzerland (IOSI), the Cardiocentro Ticino and the Swiss Institute for Regenerative Medicine (SIRM), and for the neurosciences the Neurocentro Ticino,” the canton generates quite a lot of impactful medical research for what is ultimately a community of 330,000 people. With this robust academic and research infrastructure in place, the canton has more recently been looking to turn that research into commercial innovation locally, and now has all the support mechanisms in place to foster the development of a start-up ecosystem, with the public-private partnership AGIRE Foundation fostering innovation and entrepreneurship, and the Tecnopolo Ticino techno-park and Lugano MedTech center around Lugano serving as incubators for young and innovative life science companies.

Writer: Alexander Ackerman

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