Molecular Millionaire: Jean-Paul Clozel of Actelion

Actelion is the story of a company born in 1997 in Allschwil, a suburb of Basel, and in eleven years the largest European biotech company…

Dr. Clemen Chiang
Dr. Clemen Chiang

Actelion is the story of a company born in 1997 in Allschwil, a suburb of Basel, and in eleven years the largest European biotech company. In 2007, it generated a turnover of 1.3 billion francs and 471 million operating profit. On the stock market, it weighs almost 7 billion. It’s more than Logitech or Kudelski.

Jean-Paul Clozel of Actelion

Jean-Paul Clozel was named, at 53, 2008 global entrepreneur by the Ernst & Young consultants. In addition, his company could be chosen this month to replace Clariant within the SMI index based on the statistics of the previous twelve months. Actelion is the youngest company among the top 20 Swiss market capitalizations, from Nestlé to Credit Suisse.

A team that wins

This success probably owes to the fact that Jean-Paul Clozel never changed into an industrialist or a businessman. He remained the doctor who dreamed of treating his patients by discovering new drugs. “This job is so hard that you can not handle it if your motives are only material. Because there are huge disappointments, “says Roland Haefeli, member of the management committee. Indeed, in biotechnology more than in any other field, luck is a decisive factor. Nine out of ten molecules never reach the market. For example, in May 2001, a clinical trial condemned the Veletri, a drug to prevent heart disease, plunging the action by more than 60% the same day.

Actelion owes a lot to André Mueller. He was approached in 1997 by both financiers, who asked him to evaluate the Actelion project, and by the founders of the company, who had heard of his unique experience in biotech, on the side of both start-ups and entrepreneurs. Quickly joining the initial team as CFO, he is now a member of the Board of Directors.

“There is no ego-trip at Actelion, the company has always focused on patients.”

A site that extends

In Allschwil, the extraordinary growth of Actelion is obvious. In three years, the site has completely transformed. A new building dedicated to research has been in operation for two years. Another dedicated to clinical development opened in January 2007. Next to it, three cranes work on the foundations of a Business Center, a futuristic construction designed by the architects of Basel Herzog & de Meuron, who also designed the Beijing Olympic Stadium. This building will house some 390 employees. And a fourth building is already planned to accommodate several hundred researchers by 2013. “We could never have succeeded elsewhere than in Switzerland. In Basel, you will find the best specialists and a first class industrial and economic environment “,

At the end of May, Actelion had nearly 1,800 employees, of whom some 760 were in Switzerland. But these numbers are increasing every month as the company itself handles overseas sales with subsidiaries in some 20 countries. The United States has more than 300 people, Japan 120.

The drug we are talking about

Actelion is at the forefront of the world in a hot medical field, sleep disorders. “The current sleeping pills prevent the brain from functioning normally to put it in a state close to anesthesia. We do not dream and we suffer from memory loss. Actelion has identified a hormone, orexin, that reacts to stress and stimulates the brain to remain awake. Which creates insomnia. The researchers developed a product that prevents the activity of orexin and allows a natural sleep. A multitude of applications are already emerging, such as the fight against the effects of jetlag.

The state of research at Actelion convinced Jed Black to leave California for the suburbs of Basel. The drug is in its third phase of clinical trials. “The last straight line,” rejoices Jean-Paul Clozel.The drug could enter the market in 2011. The unknowns — and they are important — is whether the remedy will be well tolerated over time. And if it will receive the green light from international drug approval authorities, including the US Food and Drug Administration.

Actelion is constantly approached by companies in search of partnership. “We had to put a little order. We have opened a selection of official offers and we are now studying the dossiers, “explains Roland Haefeli.

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