Shortly before Christmas in 1979, Swiss molecular biologist Charles Weissmann from the University of Zurich was enjoying a day of skiing in Davos. “And it was exactly then that a clone tested positive in my laboratory,” Weismann recalls today. This was the breakthrough that made it possible to produce an immunostimulating protein in any quantity – and for patients with multiple sclerosis (MS), the hope they were looking for.

Weissmann is one of the founders of Biogen, a biotechnology company established 40 years ago in Geneva. Two other founders of the company – Walter Gilbert and Phillip A. Sharp – were later awarded the Nobel Prize. Some of the sharpest minds could be found at Biogen’s laboratories in Switzerland, which have even been referred to as the cradle of biotech.

Pioneers in their field

Biogen’s successes are milestones in the history of neurology. Over the years, Biogen has launched five recognised MS therapies worldwide, which are used by more than one million MS patients. Biogen specializes in neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS. In 2017 alone, more than $2 billion was invested in R&D, putting the Wall Street listed company on the road to success.

“Neurological disorders are a main cause of disability, yet for a long time the approach was that there was nothing more one could do but diagnose them. But treatments exist – and we are the ones developing them,” says CEO Michel Vounatsos. What’s more, the Greater Zurich Area continues to play an important role in this success story to this day.

Headquarters and production in Switzerland

Zug has been the hub of Biogen’s international business since 2004. The company now employs 400 people here, something that Zug’s economic director, Matthias Michel, calls a win-win situation: “Biogen is making an important contribution to the development of the life sciences ecosystem in Zug and is significantly strengthening this sector.”

The situation is similar in Luterbach in the canton of Solothurn, where Biogen is currently building one of the most modern biotech production facilities in the world with an investment of 1.5 billion Swiss francs. Biogen is giving the life sciences sector in the canton of Solothurn a boost, says the canton’s economic director, Brigit Wyss.

The fact that Luterbach and its 3,200 residents prevailed over other contenders around the world is also thanks to the efforts of all the responsible authorities. Says CEO Vounatsos: “Whether in terms of specialists, the support of the authorities, the business-friendly environment or the political stability, the conditions here are very good.” 

The facility aspires to blaze new trials for the company and the industry alike. In that sense, some things never change: 40 years later and Biogen continues to make history in Switzerland.

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