Improving lives has always been at the heart of what we do. Equally important is doing it in a way that improves society. Good business means making a better world.
Today, we are over 100,000 people working together across more than 100 countries to deliver innovative medicines and diagnostic tests that help millions.
We are many, working as one across functions, across companies and across the world.
But like everything, it started with a single moment.
As we celebrate our 125-year anniversary, we reflect on just a handful of moments that have shaped our culture.
Remarkably, Roche’s foundation was borne out of a pandemic.
In 1892, Fritz Hoffmann, a young man with a larger-than-life personality, had taken up a new position as a merchant in Hamburg when cholera broke out. The city was placed under quarantine and, in Hamburg alone, 9,000 lives were lost. For Fritz Hoffmann it was a difficult and life-changing experience. By the time the 24-year-old returned to Basel in good health, he had reached a decision: to set up an industrial healthcare company that could manufacture medicines of consistent quality outside of pharmacies and distribute them internationally. This vision became reality with the foundation of F. Hoffmann-La Roche & Co in 1896.
A chemist by the name of Emil Christoph Barell joined the company in the year of its foundation, and his extraordinary talent as both a scientist and businessman soon saw him rise up the ranks. He eventually took over as Managing Director of Roche after the death of Fritz Hoffmann in 1920. Barell was a paternalistic and strict man but he also had a softer, caring side, which particularly emerged after his deeply affecting experience during World War II. His influence at Roche was great. There is little doubt that Barell “invented” key aspects of the modern pharmaceutical industry as we know it today.
Little did Adèle La Roche know when she married Fritz Hoffmann in 1895 that her surname would go on to become one of the most famous names in healthcare.
It was a common practice in Switzerland for married couples to hyphenate their names, so Fritz became Mr Hoffmann-La Roche and the rest, as they say, is history.
After F. Hoffmann-La Roche & Co. was officially founded in 1896 in Basel, the company quickly opened its first affiliates in Germany and Italy, soon expanding into Russia, Japan and other important markets.
But it took two years for the first successful products to arrive. In 1898, Roche launched Sirolin, a cough syrup based on the company’s antitubercular agent thiocol. Sirolin rapidly became a bestseller, and the company was up and running.
A defining moment can mean going against the grain. In 1933, Roche acquired a process for synthesising vitamin C and began to scale it up for mass production. While other companies balked at this approach, fearing bacterial contamination of their production sites, Roche was able to master the challenge. It marked the start of the company’s full commitment to chemical synthesis and a very early foray into biotechnology, both of which have formed the foundation of so much innovation over subsequent years.
The company’s decision to commit to innovative science resulted in more and more breakthroughs for patients. Many of the treatments developed in this era and beyond have stood the test of time. Today, there are 32 Roche medicines on the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines.
A bold decision can be a pivotal moment. In 1966, Dr Adolf Walter Jann, then Chairman of Roche and a brazen and visionary character, launched a diversification programme in the face of a fast-changing world. He recognised that the rapid technological progress of the post-war period, along with the urgent unmet health needs of modern society, would require a more holistic approach to healthcare.
The company acquired several entities, including the electronic research unit of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) and the diagnostics unit of Chemische Fabrik Schweizerhalle. These and other acquisitions formed the core of Roche’s future Diagnostics Division, which is so central to our identity and offering today.
Another key moment of diversification came in 1990 when, to strengthen its biotech activities, Roche acquired a majority stake in Genentech Inc, followed by the acquisition of rights to polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology – an efficient and cost-effective way to copy small specific DNA or RNA sequences, and one of the most important scientific advances of the 20th century. Genentech became a full and vital member of the Roche Group in 2009.
Some of the best moments are ones of recognition and celebration. Like in 1984, when George Köhler and César Milstein – scientists at the Roche-funded Basel Institute for Immunology – collected their Nobel Prize in Physiology / Medicine, alongside a third scientist, Niels K. Jerne.
It was awarded in recognition of their work in the 1970s developing a process for producing monoclonal antibodies.
Since then, monoclonal antibodies have revolutionised biological research and built the basis for the entire biotechnology industry on the use of antibodies as therapeutics, as well as for diagnostic applications.
Therapeutic antibodies have improved treatments of complex diseases such as cancer, viral infections and inflammatory diseases over the past three decades, due to their unique ability to specifically target surface proteins.
Some moments can be life changing for many thousands of people. That was certainly the case with the approval of Herceptin. In the early 1990s, Genentech succeeded in designing a humanised monoclonal antibody – made possible by Köhler and Milstein’s research (see above) – that inhibits the growth of cancer cells.
Designed for a specific form of breast cancer (HER2-positive), and only in combination with an appropriate diagnostic test, the approval of Herceptin marked a turning point in Roche’s long-term corporate strategy towards personalised healthcare.
Roche continues pioneering personalised healthcare to transform patients’ lives with care tailored to the individual, thereby helping to prevent, diagnose and treat patients more effectively and quickly.
All these moments and countless more have led us to where we are today, delivering innovative medicines and diagnostic tests that help millions of people globally.
We are excited by our future, and the opportunity to create many more moments that will define our journey for patients in the years ahead.