Chemical and pharmaceutical industry

The chemicals and pharmaceuticals industry is Switzerland's leading exporter, generating roughly 50% of total annual exports and 5% of GDP. There are approximately 1,000 industry operators, including two major multinationals.

 Young people working in the research lab
Chemicals and pharmaceuticals account for roughly half of Switzerland's total exports. © Hoffmann-La Roche

The chemicals and pharmaceuticals industry generated 6.3% of Switzerland's GDP in 2020, coming in second behind machinery. However, it is the top performer in terms of exports. Over CHF 116 billion in chemical and pharmaceutical products are sold abroad every year, accounting for almost 52% of total exports. In 2020, the sector employed around 74,000 people in Switzerland and over 338,000 internationally. 

The first chemicals and pharmaceuticals plants emerged in the 19th century and were involved in manufacturing dyes for the textile industry. Later, they would concentrate their efforts on high-value-added products, such as serums, vaccines and drugs. Following the financial crisis and major restructuring in the 1990s, the pharmaceuticals sector has seen strong growth since 2000, significantly outperforming the chemicals industry. Pharmaceuticals exports increased from CHF 8 billion in 1990 to CHF 99 billion in 2020. 

Major players

The industry is dominated by a handful of major players: Novartis, Hoffmann-La Roche, Cilag GmbH and Celgene International II in the pharmaceuticals sector and Chemie Givaudan International, Trinseo Europe and Estée Lauder in chemicals. Hoffmann-La Roche and Novartis are among the world's largest multinationals in terms of sales. However, nearly half of all staff working in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industry are employed by small and medium-sized enterprises. There are roughly 1,000 industry operators, mainly based in the Basel, Zurich, Zug and Lake Geneva areas.