Billionaires Push to Turn Ex-Merck Serono HQs Into R&D Center, New Jobs

06.12.12 - A dedicated Consortium comprised of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Dr Hansjörg Wyss and the Bertarelli family has developed a project to convert part of the former Merck Serono site in Geneva into a multi-development facility. The project, "Campus Biotech", will be a center of excellence in healthcare, biotechnology and life sciences, and will renew the vitality and competitiveness of this important sector in the Lake Geneva Region.

After Merck Serono's announcement to close its Geneva headquarters last summer, the Secheron complex was put on the market in July. The deadline for purchase offers on office and laboratory space was Thursday November 29th, imposed by SPG Intercity, property consultants for the pharmaceutical firm. An offer was lodged on that day by Campus Biotech S.A., a company created by Hansjörg Wyss and Ernesto Bertarelli, in the context of a joint project with the EPFL and the University of Geneva.

Creation of a Wyss Institute

The project plans for the founding of a "Wyss Institute" similar to the one that was created at Harvard University. The objective of this institute will be to support the activities of the research groups of the EPFL, the University of Geneva and potentially other academic institutions. A hub for innovation and applied research, the Institute will create approximately ten new UNIGE and EPFL laboratories (research chairs) dedicated to studying areas such as immunoengineering, neuroengineering and regenerative engineering. The Wyss Foundation will endow the project with an initial capital of up to 125 million Swiss francs over 6 years, creating employment for 120 to 150 people.

An ideal site for research and innovation

If the purchase offer on the Secheron complex is accepted, it will provide the perfect site for the newly-formed Wyss Institute. Part of the building will be rented by the EPFL and UNIGE to provide the necessary 8000m2 of laboratory space. Strategically positioned within the "Metropole lémanique", the Institute will form part of the EPFL and UNIGE's common strategy to develop scientific activities in the field of healthcare, with the aim of enhancing the transfer of technology from the academic to the industrial world. The research platforms will aim to clarify fundamental scientific problems such as transplant organ tolerance and the acceptance of new therapies. Also planned is the development of neuroprosthetics, including cochlear implants, retinal and motor prosthetics, and regeneration of cardiovascular, muscular and neuromuscular tissue.

A new dimension in the region

Based on a private-public partnership model, the project could progress rapidly thanks to its guaranteed and flexible financing. It represents a unique opportunity for UNIGE and EPFL, as well as for the Canton of Geneva and the entire Lake Geneva Region. In addition to reinforcing the region's reputation as an international leader in biotechnology, it will reestablish the Secheron quarter as a hub for world-class research and innovation. The addition of other economic activity within the remaining space at Secheron is currently under study.

Speaking on behalf of the Bertarelli family, Mr Stefan Meister (the Group Chief Operating Officer of the family's joint business enterprise, Waypoint) said: "This bid is an exciting and important opportunity to energize the future of the biotech and life sciences sector in the Lake Geneva region. The Lake Geneva region has a historic depth of talent in this essential area, where science and business combine. It is our hope that this bid will secure these skills for many years to come and realize a vision for the Lake Geneva region as a continuing home for biotechnology. We are grateful to Dr Wyss, the EPFL, the UNIGE and the political representatives for their vision and for their efforts to progress our discussion to this stage. It is a complex project and opportunities of this sort can be fragile at the start, but the partners are confident it can be delivered effectively if the acquisition of the site is successful. It shows what the public and private sectors can do if given a challenge, and we look forward to making more progress in the coming weeks."

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