Jump in at the deep end
With her Master’s in Biochemistry still warm in her hand, market analyses, pricing strategies and product launches were already waiting for her. Gabriela Güntherodt, at that time a product manager, dared to jump in at the deep end, acquiring the additional necessary skills on the job and later with a MAS in Marketing Management and Business Administration. Since then she has been wearing two hats –which has greatly benefit her career. Today she is Director for North America of the economic promotion agency BaselArea.
You began your career as a product manager at the medical technology company Synthes. Would you call it a jump in at the deep end?
One of my tasks was to scientifically explain to medical doctors and clients what effects the bioresorbable products, that I was responsible for, have in patients. My background in biochemistry, of course, helped me a lot in doing so and I was able to fill my lack of marketing and managerial know-how on the job and with further training. Synthes was very supportive in this. It would have been considerably more difficult to have done this the other way around and try to acquire the scientific knowledge myself.
You later became a product manager at Cochlear. What attracted you to this kind of work?
Product management is very interdisciplinary and stimulating. You work together with all the departments of the firm, accompanying a product from the idea to its development and finally to its launch on the market, in brief, over the entire value chain and beyond. I also enjoyed the international aspect, not only in terms of personal contacts but also because of the challenge of understanding diverse markets and responding to them accordingly.
Working at an economic development agency, you now promote a whole region instead of a simple product. What’s the difference?
An economic region is certainly much more complex. However, I promote a product which I’m passionate about, since I grew up in Basel and know this city inside out. And this, compared to some abstract product, makes it of course much easier for me. One big difference, though, is the fact that I cannot adapt this product to meet market requirements but have rather to find the right customers for my product.
A vital strategy in marketing is to establish the unique selling proposition for the product. What is the most important USP of the Basel region for the USA?
It's clearly Basel’s life sciences cluster. And this brings us back again to my studies in biochemistry (she laughs). This includes the university, leading research institutes, top class pharmaceutical companies and of course the high density of life science companies and the correspondingly large talent pool in the area. Further pluses are its location in the Switzerland-Germany-France border region in the heart of Europe and the fact, particularly important in America, that Basel has a long tradition of being a life sciences hub that has not just emerged in the last few decades. It is also well worth taking a closer look at the investments made in the region ‒ to name only the most prominent examples, the Roche Tower, the Novartis Campus or the Swiss Innovation Park – because they all clearly show: We believe in the future of Basel. And when I point out that one-tenth of the worldwide turnover of the pharmaceutical market is generated here, people are pretty impressed considering the size of Basel.
How do you increase the awareness of Basel as a business location in the USA?
We don’t run widespread image campaigns, which our resources could never support. Instead, we specifically target potential investors. I regularly attend conferences directed at life science companies and investors where I try to make personal contact with them. We also organize road shows and visit various companies to familiarize them with Basel. Here, of course, we proceed in a very selective way. We clarify in advance if a company has a basic interest in expanding internationally and whether Basel could be this place. And naturally, it is an advantage if a company’s CEO or CFO has worked at some time at Roche, Novartis or as a postdoc at the Biozentrum and already has an emotional connection to the city.
Which companies have you already brought to Basel?
The latest were very exciting companies in the fields of biotechnology, venture capital and bioinformatics. But success in economic promotion takes its time. An investment decision may take up to four years and is influenced by many factors, including taxes.
In setting up companies, does the strong Swiss franc cause you any problems?
In doing business with the United States, this is less important, since the parent company continues to report its results in dollars and very few firms establish their production here but rather their headquarters. However, the added effects of the strong franc, the result of the Swiss “mass immigration” initiative and other regulations, in short the framework of economic and political conditions, don’t make the business any easier. And even if Basel is a great product, one shouldn’t forget that the competition is steadily increasing. More and more players try to attract the companies and each would like a business like "Google" to settle in their region.
Does it make any difference to you whether you are dealing with a life sciences company or one from another industry?
Yes, it does. We often deal with highly innovative life science companies and it’s a help to me, and the company is also naturally pleased, if I understand what they do. I can also sell the product “Basel” better if I know, for instance, whether there is the potential for collaborations with a research group at the Biozentrum or which firms are already active in the field. I can simply advise the client more individually.
You also assist them in real estate matters. How do you find a suitable object for each customer?
We have a real estate network of around 200 partners, to which I pass on my client’s requirements. These range from a small office to laboratory spaces or even a large building site. We also have a reasonable idea of where we can find what they are looking for.
What do you enjoy most in your current job?
As previously mentioned, I like the product “Basel” very much and I am pleased that I can contribute to Basel maintaining its high standard. And while earlier, as a product manager, I gained a detailed insight into the various departments of a single company, I now deal with many very diverse businesses, cultures and forms of technology. This is extremely enriching.
After studying biochemistry you moved directly into business and later completed a Master of Advanced Studies in Marketing Management and Business Administration. Why did you originally choose to study biochemistry and are you happy with this decision?
Science has always fascinated me. At the time, Biology II was already a very progressive course of studies with its finger on the pulse of research, not only in lab work but also in the lectures. We learnt about highly topical issues and not what stood in 10 year old books. And the tools, the way of thinking about and approaching science that we were taught, impressed me a lot. Biochemistry provided me with a basic understanding of medicine, pharmacy and the life sciences generally, which proved to be an enormous help throughout my whole career. I later acquired my expertise in marketing and business administration on the job and through a second course of studies. Biochemistry, on the other hand, would have been much more difficult to pick up along the way. And to wear two hats is something that I appreciate very much, because it enables me to translate and to move back and forth easily between business and science. So, for example, one may develop a different understanding of why, in a pharmaceutical company, certain processes take so long. Or, on the other hand, one may now and again need to remind researchers in a company, that the application is the goal. In short, I would choose this path all over again.
Gabriela Güntherodt has been at BaselArea since 2013 and is responsible for the market in North America, where she promotes the economic development of the cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Jura and the Fricktal region. She has previously held the positions of Senior Product Manager at Cochlear, an international company for hearing aid implants, Program Manager Nanotechnology in the private banking sector of Credit Suisse, as well as Product Manager at the medical technology firm Synthes. In 2002, she completed her Master’s in Biochemistry at the Biozentrum. This was followed, in 2011, by a MAS in Marketing Management and Business Administration, also at the University of Basel, where she later held lectures, teaching in product management at the Faculty of Business and Economics.