The Swiss company Roche has set up its worldwide technology headquarters in Catalonia. The managing director, Jaume Vives, explains in this interview how the quality of professionals in the health sector in Catalonia means that the region has positioned itself as a place of excellence as regards biomedical research.
To deal with the Coronavirus pandemic, Roche Diagnostics has developed an antibody test to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Jaume Vives explains that the group’s subsidiary in Sant Cugat (Barcelona) has put all its energy into bringing these tests to hospitals to make progress in the diagnosis of the disease.
Why was Catalonia chosen to locate Roche's global technology site?
The placing of Roche's global technology site in Catalonia is the culmination of a success story of the group's branch here.
Years ago, here in Catalonia we began to develop digital solutions in addition to technological solutions. And all this work began to take shape until what we were doing here caught the attention of the group as well.
When the group understood that it had to dedicate resources to developing digital and computer solutions, it looked into its options in various parts of the world.
We took a step forward to explain that we had experience, trained people and a situation in Catalonia that gave us a lot of benefits: a university environment, a high-quality teaching environment in computer and engineering, experience and a prepared market.
Based on this, we competed with other places in the world and finally the company opted for Catalonia.
What activities do you do there and what markets do you work for?
The digital diagnostics part deals with making computer products for the management of clinical laboratory data. Today, the scope of our site is quite significant with a large number of people dedicated to developing solutions for the global market.
We collaborate with centres in Catalonia such as the Institute for Research in Biomedicine, Vall d'Hebron Hospital, Bellvitge Hospital, Hospital Clínic, IrsiCaixa Foundation, and so on.
We perform pilot tests of products, ideas and services to see how they can be applied to the care routine. In Catalonia we play a global role in terms of digital functions.
You have also installed the digital centre for Diabetes Care in Catalonia. What activity is carried out there?
Roche also decided to set up its global site for digital solutions for diabetes patients in Catalonia. The diabetes part is more patient-oriented: it develops products for managing and empowering the diabetic patient; in other words, with products such as mobile applications that allow for more individualized management of their illness.
What do you think are Catalonia's strengths in the health sector?
The strongest and most important point for me are the professionals found here. Here, there is a school of work in health sciences that is extraordinary; and not only in medicine, but in biology and chemistry as well.
The professional quality is very, very high, and it also combines with a vocational attitude towards work which is admirable. Most professionals spend time researching outside of their care time.
A kind of environment has been created where everybody supports each other, and this leads to progress in creating a place of excellence in biomedical research topics.
I think every region needs to be good at something in order to be able to compete globally, and we have a good foundation in health sciences, and we should dedicate a lot of effort into it so that we can become better and better.
Do you find talent in Catalonia in digital profiles?
Yes, because there are good universities in Catalonia. But in the world of telecommunications and computer engineering, the demand today is very intense.
We employ 500 people with this profile, but next door, in Sant Cugat, we have the company HP, which is also looking for them, as well as many other companies that have established European and global IT headquarters in Catalonia.
Therefore, these professionals have an extremely good reputation and are highly sought after. We have agreements with Catalan universities so that students can do their internships at Roche.
I also think we should start instilling these sorts of careers in children at a primary and secondary school level in order to promote technological professions.
What growth forecasts do you have?
As regards staff, today there are 1050 of us, and we want to reach 1300-1400 over the next 5 or 7 years. We are building a new Roche campus in Sant Cugat to integrate the two divisions of the group, which will be operational in about 18 months.
We think maybe we can go faster as we grow now that we’ve realized that telecommuting works. We’re seriously considering it given that it can solve the limitations of physical space.
How do you think the technology sector for medical diagnosis will evolve?
It is a growth market. Roche has digital sites in California and Catalonia, and we will grow because there is a need to evolve into data management.
We have diagnostic technologies that generate data from a biological sample (blood, tissues, etc.). It is increasingly important for clinical laboratories that this data can be combined to extract treatment patterns and that far more powerful information systems will be developed in the future.
During the Covid-19 crisis, what has been Roche’s activity in developing diagnostic equipment to fight the pandemic?
In early May, Roche launched a new antibody test to determine if a patient has been exposed to the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The company is 100% committed to developing these tests as fast as possible and with the best possible quality to help manage the pandemic.
We have set discounted prices worldwide so that all countries can access them. The company has decided that it is not a business issue, it is a service issue.
In Catalonia we have been working days, nights and weekends to be able to get these tests everywhere. Our engineers have been constantly traveling to hospitals to fine-tune equipment and train technical profiles.
We have been almost exclusively dedicated to the subject of Covid-19 and I think we have added a lot of value to the management of the diagnosis of the disease.
What impact has it had on the site's business line in Catalonia?
The usual hospital routines unrelated to Covid-19 have fallen off tremendously. In the toughest days of April, we had up to 70% less routine activity.
It is now recovering: as the pressure of Covid-19 is dropping a little, treatment on patients who were on standby is restarting, such as heart patients, oncology patients, chronic patients, and so on.
We will keep on ensuring our organization is ready to help manage the disease because although we may have passed the peaks, it will probably continue with a high level of incidence for quite some time longer. Our responsibility is to be prepared and active.
Do you think that as a result of the Covid-19 we will experience a boom in telemedicine?
I think so, we will experience a boom from now on. We are beginning to see that PCR tests, which until now have been done only in hospitals, in emergency care points, will now begin to be done at a primary medicine level.
What will be most important is the digital management of positive patients and the digital control of the epidemic. So far, we have not experienced this aspect, because we have handled the hospital emergency reactively. We will now move on to a “chronification” of the issue where all these tools will be very important.