The small Italian-speaking Canton of Ticino, nestled away in Southern Switzerland, is fast developing its reputation as a life sciences hub which – if not able to compete directly with Basel and Zurich – has plenty to offer in a number of important niches. Ticino boasts a core of well-established companies across the pharma value chain; good connections with both the rest of Switzerland and Italy; top-notch academic institutions; and now has an ambitious Innovation Park project on the way.
A 2019 European Commission study ranked Ticino as the second most innovative system (after Zurich) within over 238 European regions, while an independent economic research study conducted by BAK-Basel in the same year positioned the Canton as one of the fastest-growing regions in Switzerland and the world for the pharma industry since 2009.
Lorenzo Ambrosini, CEO of the Agire Foundation, the Canton’s innovation agency, adds that “other positive signs that indicate the strength of our economy include the growth of workforce in the scientific and technological sector, an above-average number of patent applications (some of which are world-class patents) and a dynamic development of the sectors of chemistry, biochemistry and pharma, as well as medtech and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS).” Ticino is also home to one of the world’s ten most powerful supercomputers and is particularly strong in computer science.
Within the life sciences, Ticino’s most important cluster of companies is Farma Industria Ticino (FIT), which brings together 32 members, 2,900 employees, and which has a combined global turnover of USD 2.45 billion. FIT Chairman Giorgio Calderari highlights that “The cluster is made up of a nice blend of privately owned firms and others owned by external shareholders. From a business point of view, the blend is composed of companies developing proprietary drugs, others focusing on generics and service providers. Looking at the value-chain, some firms are purely concentrated on early phase research activities, others focus their attention on R&D after phase II clinical trials or after a proof of concept has been established.”
Calderari adds, “We also have companies dedicated to manufacturing or promoting products on the market, whether they are primary care therapies, orphan drugs or targeted therapies. If managed correctly, this diversity represents an extraordinary asset in further developing this territorial cluster. In addition to their core business, companies traditionally continue to offer their know-how as services to other companies, of course in the territory but mainly internationally as contract manufacturing or contract development companies. This clearly differentiates FIT from other well-known Swiss pharma clusters.”
Location, Location, Location
The Canton’s location also serves as a key selling point. As Susanne Caspar, the German CEO of Ticino-based natural API producer Linnea points out, “Ticino is an attractive life sciences hub because it is at the crossroads of Europe, making it a small hotbed for innovation.” Agire’s Ambrosini expounds, “The position of the Canton of Ticino is strategic on the North-South axis, enhanced by the opening of the Gotthard Base Tunnel and the recent entry into operation of the Ceneri Base Tunnel,” two deep railway tunnels through the Swiss Alps. “This position brings with its numerous opportunities, which our Canton is striving to exploit.”
These opportunities include greater connections to the north with the Greater Zurich Area, of which Ticino has been a member since 2019, as well as with Italy. Ambrosini adds, “We have physical and cultural vicinity to both Italy and Switzerland, meaning that we are a gateway both for Switzerland to invest in Italy and for Italy to invest in Switzerland.”
Leveraging Academic Excellence
Another important factor in Ticino’s growing international standing is its excellent academic and research institutions which collaborate with private companies in the region. Within the life sciences, these include the Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), the Oncological Research Institute (IOR), the IOSI in the oncological field, the Cardioentro Ticino, the SIRM in regenerative medicine, the Neurocentro Ticino, and the Faculty of Biomedical Sciences at USI, which offers a master’s degree in medicine.
Beyond purely life science-focused institutions, the Dalle Molle Institute for Artificial Intelligence is among the top 10 in the world in its field of research and has a number of programs in place for working with an increasingly data- and AI-focused biopharma industry. Andrea Emilio Rizzoli, the Institute’s director, notes how the Institute “works with Roche using natural language processing techniques to process disease related conversations on social media. They are interested in understanding the knowledge and how to process it through machines while retaining the connection with the human counterpart.”
Rizzoli continues, “Additionally, we are about to start a new EU-funded project on AI-driven drug discovery efforts in conjunction with Janssen, Bayer and AstraZeneca, that will be funding PhD students to work with us for 18 months, and 18 months with one of the Big Pharma companies, so their PhDs will involve AI research and its applications to drug R&D. This will breed a new type of scientists able to bridge the gap between AI and drug R&D.”
Innovation Park Ticino: “A Generational Project”
A key milestone in the establishment of Ticino as a genuine innovation hub came in November 2020, with the announcement that a Switzerland Innovation Park Ticino will be created in the Cantonal capital of Bellinzona; representing one of six physical sites across Switzerland where companies can settle down, cooperate with academia, and create new innovations in a structured way. The new innovation district will be associated with Park Zurich, allowing Ticino to leverage its larger neighbour’s innovation footprint and expertise.
Outlining the particularities of the project, Ambrosini explains that Switzerland Innovation Park Ticino “aims to connect companies with academic institutions, capitalizing on Ticino’s academic excellence in three key areas: life sciences – especially in bio fabrication and high potency ingredients – drones, and blockchain. The Park will have three competence centres structured around these areas, where we have a globally competitive research footprint. Connecting industry to academia is nothing new, but these centres aim to do so in a structured manner that allows easy access to academic excellence.”
He continues, “It is also important to note that there are many interdisciplinary connections between these three areas. Blockchain technology can be used in pharma logistics, drones can be used to deliver drugs, and principles developed in pharma can be used to develop drone algorithms. We are therefore aiming for cross-fertilisation between these different competencies.”
Ambrosini does, however, highlight challenges to the implementation of the project which is slated for completion by 2026. “Talent is an issue and, as we are a small Canton, it can be difficult to retain, attract, and re-import the right people,” he admits. “Our two universities are attractive and are starting to offer more specialised courses, but we have to think carefully about how to improve and present Ticino’s value proposition. Training will become increasingly important, and the end goal will be to attract people and companies from both inside and outside Switzerland to come and set up shop here.”
“There are also some internal organisational challenges in building up such a park, such as facilitating cooperation between different actors. We are building processes and models from scratch, not just creating another company, and need heavy investment in staff, machinery, governance etc. The other challenge is launching and selling this park to Switzerland and the world. A huge marketing effort required to showcase our excellence.”
He concludes, “All in all, this will require a huge effort on the part of all stakeholders. More than an academic or institutional exercise this is an entrepreneurial and generational project. This is not a quick shot, but rather part of a concerted push to catapult Switzerland into position as the country of innovation with Ticino as part of it.”
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