Visible from neighboring France and Germany, a new 41-story skyscraper that drugs company Roche opened near the river Rhine on Friday reaches 178 meters into the sky, easily the tallest building in Switzerland.

The 550-million Swiss franc ($575 million) tower shows that the company retains its loyalty to the city of Basel where it was founded in 1896.

It also sends a lofty message to cross-town rival Novartis and other drugmakers that Roche, the world’s biggest cancer drug company, is determined to retain its leadership of the $100 billion-a-year oncology market, despite mounting competition.

“This new building can be seen as a defiant reaction to the arrival of others moving into a space Roche has dominated for the last 15 years,” said Michael Nawrath, an analyst at Zuercher Kantonalbank.

Roche said its decision to erect “Building 1,” as the tower is prosaically called, is motivated by a dearth of space at its existing Basel campus, rather than a desire to cast a shadow on Novartis.

Novartis became a more powerful rival in the treatment of cancer this year after concluding a deal to buy GlaxoSmithKline’s oncology business for $16 billion.

“We regard Building 1 as a clear commitment to Switzerland and to Basel,” said Roche CEO Severin Schwan of a structure conceived by the architecture firm, Herzog and de Meuron, that came up with the “Bird’s Nest” stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Building 1 will house about 2,000 workers.

Schwan, an Austrian who will retain his office in Roche’s three-story headquarters down the street, already has an even taller building, at 205 meters, in the works, due to be occupied around 2021.

Previously, Switzerland’s tallest building was Zurich’s Prime Tower, at 126 meters.

Roche’s new skyscraper comes at a time when other rivals including Bristol-Myers Squibb and Merck & Co are developing promising new therapies to harness the human body’s immune system to attack cancer. 

That’s turf that Roche, with its pharmaceuticals and diagnostics businesses, has laid claim to since it helped bring the monoclonal antibodies Rituxan and Herceptin to the market in the late 1990s.

While Roche has been touting trial results of its investigational immunotherapy atezolizumab in shrinking tumors in bladder cancer and certain lung cancers, Merck and Bristol-Myers have similar drugs on the market. AstraZeneca , Pfizer and other drugmakers are also pursuing their own compounds.

Novartis wants a share of immuno-oncology, too.

“These agents allow your own body to work as a defense against the cancer,” Novartis Chief Executive Joe Jimenez said in an interview on Friday on CNBC. “This is what’s so exciting about it.”

Meanwhile, Novartis’ Jimenez has building plans of his own.

The company has enlisted star architect Frank Gehry, designer of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain, among others, as part of its multi-billion-dollar reshaping of its Basel campus.

Novartis is aiming for the clouds, too: three high-rises, each around 120 meters, are being planned for completion over the next few years, according to a local newspaper.



(Reporting by John Miller in Zurich, Ruben Sprich in Basel; Editing by Keith Weir)

Source: Reuters