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‘Innovation is about people’

The Biopôle campus in Lausanne is full of companies with new ideas for tackling the life sciences challenges of today. It’s exciting, demanding work, which means it can often be tricky to pause and look up to take stock of what’s going on around you. Enter Pierre- Jean Wipff. His role as Biopôle SA’s Innovation and Partnerships Director is to consider the bigger picture. In other words, Pierre-Jean focuses on understanding the different journeys being made by Biopôle’s members and partners and seeing where the opportunities lie for them to innovate together.


The background

Pierre-Jean joined Biopôle SA at the start of 2022, but has been based on the campus for a decade, joining only a few years after the first buildings were inaugurated. ‘I’m kind of the dinosaur of Biopôle,’ he jokes. With a background in cell and molecular biology, he started a company right after finishing his PhD. The move coincided with the financial crisis of the late 2000s, which offered him valuable experience: ‘I know what it takes to start a company when it’s really not the right time.’ Since then, he has specialised in building comprehensive ecosystems on which companies can rely, enabling entrepreneurs to move forward faster. Indeed, those skills are now vital in his role at Biopôle SA. Pierre-Jean describes his job as ‘matchmaking’, putting the right people together: ‘I help companies find opportunities for their development and then nail down those opportunities.’

At the Biopôle campus, such opportunities could ultimately mean a licence, agreement or investment. But they also include the steps building up to those milestones, such as support with pilots and other collaborative or development projects, as well as facilitating information exchanges about projects, methods, strategies, goals and milestones. As Pierre-Jean puts it, Biopôle SA offers ‘a continuum of opportunities’.


Fostering the spirit of connection

Driving innovation is a key part of Biopôle SA’s vision, but Pierre-Jean believes innovation is itself a misunderstood concept. ‘It’s perceived as being super cool, but when you’re trying to build your company, it’s anything but – you really need to be prepared for relentless efforts in your quest for maturation, in your quest for impact’. He believes that is truer now than ever: ‘The competition is even more fierce than it was 10 or 15 years ago. The world is large and everybody – every country – is innovating. You have to see the people who are moving in the same direction as you – you have to differentiate yourself or be at the front of the pack to be successful’. When the challenge is so great, what can Biopôle SA do to support its members? Pierre-Jean feels that it’s significant that, even though the team is small (seven employees and one intern at the end of 2022), they choose to have someone on site who is dedicated to driving innovation and who is there to make connections. To him, that’s a sign that ‘Innovation is at the heart of the community that Biopôle is striving to build’.

Entrepreneurs are so focused on their day-to-day activities that sometimes they don’t grasp the opportunity to talk to their neighbours.

Pierre-Jean feels that it’s vital to bring the entrepreneur out of their bubble: ‘Entrepreneurs are so focused on their day-today activities that sometimes they don’t grasp the opportunity to talk to their neighbours. And if you don’t encourage this spirit of communication – a spirit of connection – then you really miss opportunities. You have to create the conditions to make these interactions happen.’ So why doesn’t Biopôle SA offer coaching? According to Pierre-Jean, there are many accessible coaching programmes in Switzerland: ‘Companies don’t need another layer of coaching – we’re not adding value. Instead, we need to be here for everyone at Biopôle, from start-ups to major companies.’


2023: Building for collaboration

Looking forward, Biopôle SA plans to focus more closely on investors and corporate partners in 2023. ‘We’ve seen that the corporates have a lot of scouting capacity around the world, but they’re often unaware of what is happening in their own region,’ observes Pierre-Jean. ‘We’re here to make connections. We’ve learned that putting the corporations and the start-ups together adds a lot of value to the ecosystem.’ One way of making those connections is through Biopôle’s Corporate Partnership scheme, which has been running for two years. Biopôle SA currently has six different partners – Bristol Myers Squibb, CSL Behring, Ichnos Sciences, Labcorp, Swiss Medical Network and Clinique La Prairie – who, according to Pierre-Jean, share a common thread of expressing the need to be closer to innovation environments. ‘All of them want to be introduced to new ideas, to be more active and to create a difference,’ he explains. ‘So they commit to engaging with our community. They organise events with us, partner with us for workshops and seminars, participate on juries for our initiatives and in turn, we put companies of interest under their radar and foster the relationship further through projects, collaboration and discussions.’

The organisers of the Start-up Day, dedicated to pharma and biotech, that took place at the end of November 2022 in collaboration with Biopôle's corporate partners CSL Behring and Bristol Myres Squibb, as well as corporate member Ferring Pharmaceuticals.

Nurturing trust between people

Biopôle SA created two major initiatives that support start-ups: the Vanguard Accelerator programme and the Biopôle Start-up Fund. The former is dedicated to helping digital health start-ups mature. ‘We take companies that have a proof of concept or a minimal viable product, and we help them to find the focus that will bring them the most value,’ says Pierre-Jean. ‘It’s a crucial time: you don’t have a lot of money and you have to make crucial decisions about where to take your company,’ he continues. Biopôle SA helps in that intellectual process, not through mentorship or coaching, but by acting as super connectors. It opens its network and extended network, so that the entrepreneurs can talk freely to validate their business hypotheses.

This network includes the Vanguard jury, a group of more than 25 individuals who represent different parts of the value chain. Sometimes, when these people really click with their Vanguard applicants, they might follow their progress in the long term. ‘It’s part of an entrepreneur’s job to seduce investors, customers, adopters,’ says Pierre-Jean. ‘When we’re considering projects for the Vanguard Accelerator programme, we consider which projects people might fall in love with.’ While the Vanguard Accelerator programme is open to all projects willing to interact with the Biopôle community, the Biopôle Start-up Fund is especially for Biopôle members and specifically young life sciences companies that have raised less than CHF 5m and are less than five years old. The fund is special because it covers companies’ basic needs, such as the lease, salaries and materials. Pierre-Jean explains the rationale: ‘These are the first things in your balance sheet, which must be paid before you think about financing. We help young companies so that they can focus on the other valuable activities. And we have a top-quality jury, made up of scientists, corporate investors and representatives from universities and tech, who select the companies and provide valuable feedback.’ Running for just over a year, Biopôle SA supported eight companies through the fund in 2022, offering a total of CHF 460,000. All the recipients have experienced significant progress. ‘We concretely assisted companies with acquiring critical devices that helped them to be up and running faster, to be fully independent from universities, for instance.’

According to Pierre-Jean, Biopôle SA provides much more than its flagship initiatives. ‘We offer premium infrastructure, visibility, but one thing that really differentiates us is the way we nurture trust between people, so that they can exchange meaningful or helpful information, and the way we connect people or organise events or opportunities to connect them either passively or actively.’

‘People benefit from the dynamics, momentum, growth and successes of the community,’ he continues. ‘In 2022, Biopôle based companies raised almost CHF 400m. It’s a momentum that really engages people in our community to move forward themselves.’


Innovating for the future

Pierre-Jean paints a bright picture of the future of innovation in life sciences, with exciting AI developments and original ways to support patients and identify better care pathways leading the way. ‘We are at the dawn of a new era.’ And that era includes open innovation. Twenty years ago, people were encouraged not to talk about their intellectual property and work behind closed doors. Now, in both the corporate and start-up world, Pierre-Jean sees a change: ‘Of course there will still be IP, protections, patents, the need not to disclose everything, but the more you interact, the more you can get involved.’ ‘People are talking and exchanging ideas. Innovation is about people, and Biopôle is working to help open more of those doors – to help people find each other.

Pierre-Jean Wipff
Innovation and Partnerships Director

This interview is part of the 2022 edition of The Biopôle Review. Read the full magazine here.

Biopôle Start-up Fund

In 2022, the fund was awarded to:

  • Biped.ai
  • Genknowme
  • Limula
  • ND Biosciences
  • Parithera
  • PeriVision
  • Testmate Health
  • Volumina Medical

CHF 460,000 were given to promising start-ups selected by the fund’s Scientific Advisory Board.

Discover more
Vanguard Accelerator programme
In 2022, the programme welcomed:

  • Consulto
  • PeriVision

50+ introductions were made between members and experts, investors and early adopters

Discover more
Corporate Partners
In 2022, six corporate partners engaged with our community:

  • Bristol Myers Squibb
  • Clinique La Prairie
  • CSL Behring
  • Ichnos Sciences
  • Labcorp
  • Swiss Medical Network

100+ one-to-one meetings between start-ups and our corporate partners

Discover more


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