Text: Jean-Christophe Piot
Photo: D.R.

Building an essential bridge

Small and medium-sized companies bringing together academics and the pharmaceutical industry are emerging throughout French-speaking Switzerland. Their goal? To develop the early phases of research to the point where it captures the attention of healthcare giants.

New companies have cropped up in the life sciences sector in French-speaking Switzerland. They go by Lascco, Geneva Biotech Center or Alpine Institute for Drug Discovery and they share the same ambition of bridging the gap between the universities in the region and pharmaceutical companies. Has that been the missing link so far? It has, according to Laurent Galibert, who founded the Lausanne-based Alpine Institute for Drug Discovery in 2013. “The sector giants tend to cut their investment in fundamental research,” says this immunologist who has already worked with several pharmaceutical companies. Working with the technological transfer offices at universities, these small companies manage and finance development from the molecule to the first clinical trials. In the event of a promising breakthrough, the major groups take over to cover industrial-scale production.

Inspired by Anglo-Saxon initiatives such as Medical Research Council Technology, a UK group that has brought 12 new drugs to market, “this new kind of ecosystem benefits everyone,” says Laurent Galibert. Even universities, which hold the rights to their molecules, can hope to see some financial returns. If a product based on their initial discoveries is developed for commercial use, they receive a percentage of the sales,” says the co-founder of Geneva-based Lascco, Samareh Azeredo da Silveira Lajaunia. By allowing companies like hers to cover these development phases, industrial groups reduce their spending while increasing their chances of identifying promising leads in diverse fields such as cancer research, immunotherapy and so on. In doing so, they meet the needs of both patients and healthcare providers.

An innovative economic model

These new companies are engaged in an economic wager, given the time frame between the initial discoveries and a potential market launch, which can range from 4 to 15 years. Operating in the heart of the Innovation Park at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), Alpine Institute for Drug Discovery was set up through its own funding with financial assistance from the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) and the Foundation for Technological Innovation (FIT). The SME mainly focuses on cancer and auto-immune and inflammatory diseases.

Inventive right down to their financing, these companies seek to maximise their chances of success. “We establish contact with our potential clients quite early in the process,” explains Samareh Azeredo da Silveira Lajaunia. “It’s a way of making sure that they are interested in our initial prospects.” With this strategy, Lascco has clinched several deals with various groups in the healthcare sector, including one with the US company Abbott in 2012.

Is there room for everyone? “There are various areas of research and universities are making worthwhile discoveries in Switzerland and neighbouring countries,” says the young woman, who points out that she and her competitors cannot lead more than just a few projects at a time. Lascco is currently working on developing new antibiotics to counter the resistance of some bacteria.

This leaves space for newcomers without sparking fierce competition. “The success of this model in the United States suggests that these intermediate echelons have a future.”