Roche was founded in Switzerland, Germany and Italy in 1896 as one of the first companies specifically set up to manufacture scientifically researched pharmaceuticals. The quick international expansion was a result of Roche’s bold and daring founder Fritz Hoffmann, a merchant from Basel.
Ever since, Roche has been harnessing innovation and novel technologies to evolve the practice of medicine and help patients live longer, better lives. This purpose has never changed, but Roche as a company continuously reinvented itself to meet this aim.
F. Hofmann-La Roche & Co was founded on 1 October, 1896, in Basel, Switzerland. Its founder, Fritz Hoffmann, vows to help transform healthcare after witnessing first-hand the devastating effects of the cholera outbreak in Hamburg. He is convinced medicines ought to be produced industrially and distributed internationally.
Roche expands worldwide, employing more than 700 people. By 1912, the company has affiliate offices across three continents and in nine countries: Switzerland, Japan, France, Russia, Italy, Germany, England, and the US.
Roche’s non-prescription cough syrup is an almost immediate success. Launched in 1898, it quickly becomes Roche’s first bestseller, remaining in the market for 60 years and setting the company on the path for future medical breakthroughs.
The First World War and the Russian Civil War plunge the company into a deep financial crisis. Roche becomes a limited stock company to stay afloat. A year later, Roche mourns the death of its founder Fritz Hoffmann. He is succeeded by Emil C. Barell, who upon taking over, reinforces the scientific orientation of the business.
Alice Keller, a 30-year-old Basel native, is Roche’s first female general manager. In 1925, she boards a ship to Tokyo where Roche possessed a subsidiary. Alice proceeds to rise through the ranks and, upon her return to Switzerland in 1939, becomes a senior executive – a sensational achievement for the times.
Hilde Pfaltz joins Roche’s pharmacological institute, which she eventually comes to lead. It was here that she introduces a number of innovations, most remarkably the standardised testing of new drugs for teratogenicity. In 1940, Pfaltz becomes Roche’s first official doctor.
Tadeusz Reichstein, a Polish-Swiss chemist, discovers a way to synthesise vitamin C after five years of research. They are some of the first mass-markets medicines produced in a sterile environment, safe and properly dosed as well as affordable. Roche becomes the leading supplier of vitamins and it is one of the company’s earliest forays into biotechnology.
After designing a trailblazing oncology screening programme, the company embarks on a journey that forever changes the course of oncology treatments. The groundbreaking research of Roche scientist Robert Duschinsky (pictured) and biochemist Charles Heidelberge further position Roche as a leader in oncology and the fruits of their discoveries eventually reshape the battle against various types of cancer, including colon, breast and stomach cancer.
Initially started in the 1920s, Roche’s small business with diagnostic reagents was laying dormant when the company takes the decision to set up a proper division for the manufacturing of diagnostic chemicals and apparatuses in 1966. In 1968, a string of new acquisitions brings much-needed expertise in areas like electronics and engineering into the business.
Between 1968 and 1972, Roche expands its capacities in independent research by opening several research centres: the Roche Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey in 1968, the Basel Institute for Immunology in 1969 and the Nippon Research Centre in Kumakara, Japan in1972.
In 1979, Roche continues to expand. Roche Nutley partners with Genentech, a biotech company based in San Francisco, to help with the production process development of interferon, used as treatments for major diseases such as hepatitis, multiple sclerosis and cancer. At the same time, the diagnostic division continues to expand.
Niels Kaj Jerne, the first director of the Basel Institute of Immunology, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1984 for his seminal work in immunology.
Susumu Tonegawa, a researcher at the Basel Institute for Immunology from 1972 to 1981, is awarded the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1987 for his work on antibody gene segments. His fundamental discoveries pave the way for the production of humanised antibodies.
To intensify its commitment to healthcare, Roche shifts strategies. It divests two businesses – fragrances and flavours in 1999 and vitamins and fine chemicals in 2002 – to further develop and focus on the company’s Pharma and Diagnostics divisions. By combining the strengths and expertise of both divisions, Roche prioritises the innovation of solutions that span the entire healthcare journey. The company begins to play an increasingly important role in shaping the future of personalised healthcare.
A series of innovative breakthrough drugs for cancer treatment are developed in the mid-1990s, revolutionising the field of oncology and giving patients new-found hope.
Throughout the 1990s, the diagnostics division launches a series of revolutionary products in various areas of medical testing. Amongst them is the world’s first automated laboratory diagnostics device, an instrument that allows users to do several tests in parallel – a revolution in diagnostics. In 1997, Roche acquires Boehringer Mannheim and becomes a world leader in invitro diagnostics as well as a major player in diabetes care.
Roche and Chugai form an alliance to build a research-driven pharmaceutical company in Japan. The new enterprise – named Chugai Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd – is a merger of Nippon Roche and Chugai. It specialises in prescription pharmaceuticals with strengths in biotechnology.
After purchasing a 60% stake of Genentech in 1990, Roche acquires Genentech’s remaining shares in 2009, officially merging the two pharmaceutical giants. Their combined portfolios turn them into the world’s largest biotech company that focuses on using human genetic information to develop medicines for patients with serious or life-threatening medical conditions. The merger also gives Roche access to a pipeline of new medicines and scientific research while providing Genentech with Roche’s long history of scientific prowess, along with broad monetary support and global market partnerships.
After three decades of focusing predominantly on cancer therapies, Roche uses the quick advancements in molecular biology to broaden its portfolio and develops therapies for diseases areas such as neuroscience, multiple sclerosis, ophthalmology and haematology.
Confronted with ever increasing amounts of data, novel ways of structuring and making use of them, and the rise of Machine Learning and AI, Roche teams up with specialists in the field. In 2018, Roche acquires Flatiron Health, a leader in clinical data processing, as well as Foundation Medicine, one of the world’s largest cancer genomic databases and a genome profiling specialist. These acquisitions allow Roche to further understand precision medicine, bringing us ever closer to the promise of personalised healthcare.
Roche acquires Philadelphia-based Spark Therapeutics, a company founded to challenge the inevitability of genetic diseases. Together, they can further their understanding of the human genome and genetic abnormalities to develop tailored breakthrough therapies to patients suffering from very specific genetic diseases by targeting root causes.
The global outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020 is a new challenge for Roche. Ensuring the safety of its employees is paramount, but maintaining production of essential medicines is critical to ensure patients receive life-saving medicines and solutions. The company manages to develop reliable tests for COVID-19 at breakneck speed while it continues to develop new innovative medicines targeted at a wide array of diseases.
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