PhD, Director Therapeutic Innovation and BaseLaunch
Tel. +41 61 295 50 17stephan. emmerth@baselarea. swiss
Professor Joachim Seelig has been Professor of Biophysics at the University of Basel since the inception of the Biozentrum and is still actively engaged in research. He is also on the board of the SIP NWCH association (Swiss Innovation Park of Northwest Switzerland) and is Head of the i-net Technology Field of Life Sciences. In an interview with i-net he speaks about the future of the life sciences and explains why the SIP NWCH is important for Basel as a research center.
The pharmaceutical hub of Basel - and Northwest Switzerland - is undisputed today. Will this still be the case in 30 years?
Joachim Seelig*: It’s natural to wonder what will be in 30 years’ time. When I came to Basel 40 years ago, there were only chemical companies here. In the big four of Ciba, Geigy, Sandoz and Roche, the research heads were qualified chemists. Today these positions are occupied by molecular biologists or medical specialists. The chemical industry has been transformed in the last few decades into a pharmaceutical industry. Clariant is still a chemical company, and the agrochemical company Syngenta has its headquarters here, although they are far less deeply anchored in the region than Roche and Novartis. So when we look back, we see that Basel has changed a lot as a research center, and this change will also continue in the next 30 years.
What part did the Biozentrum of the University of Basel play in this development?
The Biozentrum brought together various sciences, such as chemistry, physics, biochemistry, structural biology, microbiology and pharmacology. The founding fathers of the Biozentrum had an inkling of the revolutionary changes to come from biophysics and molecular biology, it was hoped that the collaboration of these various disciplines could lead to something completely new. I believe it was a very shrewd move to bring these different fields together, and it has indeed also had some important results.
And where does the Biozentrum stand today?
Today, the focus is very much on fields such as neurobiology and microbiology, while biophysics and pharmacology take more of a back seat. This may well make sense and bring majors successes. But my personal interest goes in other directions.
So where should the focus be instead?
For the input on the Swiss Innovation Park of Northwest Switzerland, interviews were held with around 30 people from the life sciences with the aim of establishing what subjects will play an important role in the future. Three subject areas were identified in the process. Firstly, there is Biosensing, which links biology and electronics - so-called electroceuticals, for example, are pills that do not deliver their active substance until they arrive at a predetermined site in the body. The second subject area is Biomaterials – an example here could be a seed in which every grain is packed in an energy package, which even provides nutrition and develops when it is sown in dry conditions. The third subject area is Large Number Crunching - the ever more personalized medicine is leading to huge volume of data; so methods need to be developed that support the doctor in efficiently analyzing and evaluating the data.
How well positioned is Northwest Switzerland in terms of these three megatrends?
It has to be realistically acknowledged that we are not very strong in almost all three areas. It is precisely this that the Swiss Innovation Park Northwest Switzerland, which will start up at the beginning of 2015 in Allschwil, is designed to change.
Are there already concrete projects?
Yes, the research project Miracle of Hans-Florian Zeilhofer and Philippe Cattin from the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Medical Faculty of the University of Basel will be the first sub-tenant. The Werner Siemens Foundation, based in Zug, will support this project for five years to the tune of 15.2 million francs in total. The aim of the project is to miniaturize laser technology for endoscopic surgery. Many areas, such as robotics, imaging and diagnostics, sensor technology and micromechanics, play a role in this project. Roughly speaking, it is a medical technology project in which electronics, robotics, imaging and medicine come together.
How big will the innovation park be in the future?
It is assumed that 1000 people and later perhaps 2000 people will be employed there. This critical mass is essential. A role model here could be the technology park in Eindhoven. Ten years ago, Philips opened its research center there with about 2000 employees for collaboration with external groups and companies. Today around 8000 people work there, and sales of around a billion francs are generated. Many new companies have settled there. The engagement of companies such as Roche, Novartis, Actelion and Syngenta will be crucial for the SIP NWCH. But of course outside companies and start-ups have to be attracted.
The University of Basel is not regarded as very innovative; does something not have to happen there?
I cannot let this statement stand unchallenged. Only recently a study was conducted on how efficiently a university works – and the University of Basel came out of this very well. The University of Basel is a full university. The natural sciences represent only a small part, i.e. at most around 2000 of the 12,000 students in total. So the figures of Basel University cannot be compared directly with the ETH or EPFL, which can concentrate entirely on technologies. At the Biozentrum we are engaged mainly in basic research, while applied research is left to others. Nevertheless we have generated a number of spin-offs. For example, Santhera and 4-Antibodies had their first laboratories in the Biozentrum.
What could be done to get more spin-offs in the region?
Attractive conditions must be created in the innovation park, and scouting ought to be institutionalized at the university, so that more projects are developed. I think we are ideally situated here in Northwest Switzerland. The innovation potential in Basel at least is huge, and there are already many start-ups that are doing outstanding work.
Are there issues that Northwest Switzerland could miss out on?
One point that is rather underestimated in Basel is the influence of computer science and the internet on biology and the life sciences. When it comes to information technology we certainly have some catching-up to do. Personally I believe in a stronger link between biology and electronics. I already endeavored some years ago to establish a department for bioelectronics at the university, but I was unable to push it through. But in the innovation park it is essential that we establish this link. It is important to attract the right talents. It is not only Google that should be attractive for really good IT specialists in the future, but also companies such as Roche and Novartis.
You have been involved in i-net as Head of the Technology Field Life Sciences for some years – what role should, can, ought i-net increasingly play in this field?
Basically people are grateful for and in many cases also excited by what i-net is doing for them. As a neutral link between the various actors, i-net can and will also play a major role in the Swiss Innovation Park in future. The life sciences companies are experiencing frequent personnel changes due in many cases to the global operations of these companies. It is becoming ever more difficult to find contact partners who have the authority to make decisions and at the same time have a profound knowledge of our region. The decision makers in the private sector are too tied up in the requirements of their jobs to find time for honorary activities in important bodies in our region. Life in the private sector has become faster and more global, and the local and regional networks suffer as a result. It is therefore important that a professional organization in the shape of i-net takes on this role and institutionalizes it.
*Professor Joachim Seelig was one of the first researchers of the Biozentrum at the University of Basel and was Head of this Department between 1997 and 1999 and also from 2000 to 2009. He is a member of the board of the SIP NWCH association (Swiss Innovation Park Northwest Switzerland) and serves in an honorary capacity as Head of the i-net Technology Field Life Sciences.