12 August 2018

Life and Science in Olten

The Usego building in Olten has already seen a broad spectrum of occupants: a logistics centre, retailers, a coffee roaster. For the residents of Olten, it is very much a part of local history. For Edna Slegers, who works in Development at Swiss Prime Site Immobilien, it is the home of a new neighbourhood and thus a piece of the future. We met Ms Slegers and Asset Manager Reto Felder in the office of Rolf Schmid, whose association, swissbiolabs, hopes to attract life sciences startups to the region.
Spacious rooms, high ceilings, plenty of light. The ideal place to work. All that’s missing is another four or five desks and chairs. The furniture that is in place still has the labels attached. «As you can see, we still need to add some finishing touches, but some tenants have already started working here», says Rolf Schmid as he greets us. Mr Schmid is the managing director of the regional business development association. He created with his team and other initiators swissbiolabs, an association that aims to attract startups in the field of life sciences and diagnostics to Olten.

«It all started four years ago. More and more people were contacting us to ask whether there were labs for startups in Olten.» There weren’t. But the idea stayed with Rolf Schmid. And when Sensile Medical, a pioneer in medical technology, moved into the newly renovated Usego building, the idea turned into a vision: the site would become home to a life sciences cluster. «We wanted to create a community that benefits every single business», explains Schmid. «For example, some companies might manufacture diagnostics hardware, while others work on the software to go with it, or offer consulting services. We want to encourage synergies and build up a network. To make this happen, we are working closely with industry, with professional organisations and with the School of Life Sciences in Muttenz. We’re creating modern workspaces which can be rented flexibly.»

Reto Felder and Edna Slegers, Swiss Prime Site Immobilien, with Rolf Schmid from swissbiolabs.
We want the small businesses who occupy these spaces to be able to grow at their own pace. Swiss Prime Site Immobilien and swissbiolabs offer them the perfect environment for innovation: laboratories, offices and storage that can be flexibly rented and set up. «Above all, a start-up needs a workspace, a meeting room, an address and a supportive environment», explains Schmid. «That’s what we provide, at very attractive rates — and we guarantee that the businesses will have room to grow.» This is one of the most compelling advantages for the new tenants. «The site is going to develop in conjunction with the businesses», says Slegers. «We’re not building everything at the same time, we’re taking it step by step. This means that we can include the businesses in the planning work.» Another advantage is that the new building itself will be thoroughly adaptable. «For example, we’re making the ground floor much taller than usual so that tenants who need more space can add a ceiling to create a second level», says Slegers.

The anchor tenant, Sensile Medical, also has its sights set on growth. The company moved in during the summer of 2017 and now has 130 staff in a workspace measuring 3,500 m2. And there are plans to expand further. «The vacancy level is at 20 percent», says Reto Felder. «And we’ll be delighted to provide this empty space to Sensile Medical and other tenants who will soon be outgrowing their current offices.»

Collaboration, room to develop and the ability to settle long term are the key promises that Swiss Prime Site Immobilien is making to future tenants on the Usego site. But the location has plenty more to offer. «The transport connections are excellent, starting at the bus stop right outside the building, as is the central location between Zürich, Basel and Lucerne», says Felder. And Schmid adds: «This means that the businesses who settle in Olten can recruit qualified and specialist staff from a wide catchment area.»

Usego-Areal: Life and science in one place.

We want to build what’s needed.

There will still be plenty of parking spaces for commuters after building work finishes, as well as bicycle parking spaces with charging stations, assures Slegers. She is looking forward to seeing a diverse neighbourhood emerge out of what is «currently just a car park». Her redevelopment plans for the site will be displayed in Olten town hall until the end of August. «We want to show local residents our vision for the site. Some things will be preserved, but we’ll also be making space for new creations. The historic building will still be visible behind the new build on Solothurner Strasse», says Slegers. The local authorities are expected to give the green light for the project early next year. The first building work to begin will be not for new commercial spaces, but for a Tertianum assisted living residence. «Tertianum spent a long time in Olten looking for a new location for its Brunnematt care facility», explains Slegers. «We want to ensure the area is diverse outside of business hours too. If people of all ages can come together in the cafe, in the Usego garden or for physiotherapy, this will make for a lively, sociable and attractive space.»

That’s what it’s all about. Creating an environment where people want to work, live and spend their leisure time. Life and science in one place, so to speak. «We’re planning an attractive bistro for the ground floor of the Tertianum facility», says Felder. Other gastronomy options may follow. «This is our way of ensuring that our tenants and other people using the area have all their wants and needs taken care of. There’s already a gym on-site, and a retailer too.»
We’re not building everything at the same time, we’re taking it step by step. This means that we can include the businesses in the planning work.
All of this has met with the businesses’ approval — despite the fact that building work could continue for the next ten years. «The advantage for our tenants is that they have a say in development», says Slegers. «We want to build what’s needed. And we’re ensuring that the development work will have a minimal impact on the businesses on-site. We’ve already made contact with neighbouring companies so that we can minimise the inconvenience while work is ongoing.»

As well as establishing a solid, well-balanced mobility concept, Swiss Prime Site Immobilien is keen to make the Usego site sustainable. «Energy usage and generation are important issues for us. We’ll be using geothermal probes instead of fossil fuels», explains Slegers. «We’re also going to ensure that rainwater can flow into the groundwater via infiltration areas.»

Everything is carefully planned, and yet open and flexible. The tenants themselves decide the specifics of how the rooms and workspaces will look. Edna Slegers, Reto Felder and Rolf Schmid all agree: this is what makes Swiss Prime Site Immobilien’s project work here in its hometown of Olten so exciting.

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