Billionaires Buy Merck Site to Build Swiss Biotech Campus

Swiss saviors. Hansjörg Wyss (left) and Ernesto Bertarelli.

Wyss Foundation; Wikimedia Commons

Swiss billionaires Hansjörg Wyss and Ernesto Bertarelli have bought the former building of drug company Merck Serono in Geneva, where they plan to set up a biotech research center with two local universities. The announcement, made on Wednesday, was welcomed by Swiss scientists as a boon for the Geneva area. It comes about a year after Merck Serono said that it would close down its Geneva headquarters and relocate R&D activities to Germany, the United States, and China. The company employed about 1250 people in Geneva at the time.

"This will fill a gap. Serono's exit had caused hundreds of researchers to lose their jobs," Jean-Paul Clozel, head of biotech company Actelion in Basel, Switzerland, told La 1ère, a Swiss public radio station, yesterday.

Merck Serono sold the building to a consortium called Campus Biotech, made up of the Bertarelli family, the Wyss Foundation, the University of Geneva (UNIGE), and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). Bertarelli is, in fact, buying back the site of his former family business, biotech firm Serono, which he had sold to Merck in 2007.

Clozel praised the billionaires, regional authorities, and university leaders for their joint work. "It's quite rare to see so many people agreeing among themselves," he said, adding that politicians should now let scientists lead the endeavor. "Creating this kind of center cannot be done without political will and support … but at the end, the venture's success will be down to the research projects," Clozel said.

The Campus Biotech project includes the creation of Wyss Institute for Bio- and Neuro-Engineering. It will receive $103 million from the Wyss Foundation and will be modeled after a similar center for biologically inspired engineering that Wyss funded at Harvard University. (On Tuesday, that institute announced that Wyss had doubled his gift, from $125 million to $250 million.)

Merck Serono said that it will hand over the property to Campus Biotech on 28 June but did not disclose details of the sale. In December 2012, Swiss newspaper the Tribune de Genève wrote that the site includes 32,000 square meters of offices and 42,000 square meters of vacant land, with an estimated price tag of $517 million. UNIGE and EPFL will occupy about 15,000 square meters of the site; about half of this will be used by the Wyss Institute and the other half by research groups from the two universities. The remaining space will be available for businesses, the consortium said in a statement published on Wednesday.

Forbes magazine now ranks Bertarelli and Wyss as the two richest men in Switzerland. Wyss made part of his fortune by selling his company Synthes, a manufacturer of medical devices, to U.S. firm Johnson & Johnson last year. After selling Serono to Merck, Bertarelli launched investment company Arès Life Sciences in 2008.

The drug industry remains one of the most important economic activities in Switzerland. According to the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, R&D spending in the Swiss pharma industry amounted to €4.62 billion in 2010—an amount comparable to that of much larger countries such as France and Germany.