Dee Why
A History of Roche in Australia

November 2022 marked 125 years since Roche was founded in Basel, Switzerland and 68 years since the incorporation of Roche as a company here in Australia.

To celebrate, Roche compiled a comprehensive visual timeline (click here) of the company's global achievments. 

More locally, to celebrate almost seven decades of providing better outcomes for everyone in Australia, we compiled a detailed historical account of the business in Australia, including sourcing photos from the company's archives. 

Humble beginnings 1942 - 1954

Whilst Roche had been exporting products to Australia since the early 1900's, an increased number of the products became available for sale in Australia from 1942, through the Australian pharmaceutical chain Faulding's. British migrant John Traher was one of the key first Australians responsible for bringing Roche products to the Australian market. 

In 1954 Roche was incorporated as an Australian company, as Roche Products Pty Limited. The business kicked off with 3 staff in office premises at Woolfes on Barrack Street, in Wynyard, Sydney CBD (shown in photo).

In 1896, Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche was driven by the idea that "what the world needs, is to turn pharmaceutical compounds that have been studied scientifically into medicine that is standard in terms of dosage and effects."

But all components of a pill must be evenly mixed and sufficiently compacted so that the tablet doesn't crumble, but not so hard that it won't dissolve.

Long serving GM of Roche Products Pty Ltd, Fred Najarian, reflected on this process "You're talking about medicines. It is not just a matter of making a good product most of the time.. every single tablet, every single capsule, has to be the right standard, the right specification, the right quality."

Roche Products Pty Ltd would eventually be required to manufacture pharmaceuticals to meet Australia and New Zealand market demand for pharmaceuticals, such as it's first chemotherapy Fluorouracil (1962) and anxiolytic Valium (1963). Later, pharmaceutical production in Australia included Bactrim, Librium, Leoxtan, and Roaccutane.

In the 1950s Roche began to diversify its manufacturing globally, and there became a need to manufacture products locally in Australia. 

As road freight started to overtake rail and shipping during the 1950s, manufacturing sites no longer needed to be centrally located in the expensive CBD, Roche's search for an appropriate manufacturing site began and they purchased land in Lane Cove and Cronulla.

Roche came to see a need not just for land for a manufacturing site, but a site that could also support the need for an integrated workforce (from production through to sales and administration).

Around the same time, just north of Sydney's Manly beach, the Warringah Shire was seeing significant residential, industrial, and commercial development.

Roche Dee Why 1954 - 1968

In 1966, there was an incredible 645 factories in the Warringah Shire, and the Roche site was chosen in a rapidly growing suburb that was affordable, near the beach, and therefore popular with young people seeking a surf culture.

The Roche factory opened in Dee Why in 1964 with 3 buildings (see aerial photo), ample parking, and spacious grounds. The first buildings resembled the ultra modern 60s architecture, channelling the look of what was then an upmarket retailer, David Jones, at the nearby Warringah Mall Shopping Centre.

The buildings on site grew in line with manufacturing Roche's growing pharmaceutical portfolio and the broadening of its consumer (OTC) division. Now with 170 staff, the site was expanded in 1969 with excavation works, making way for a larger car park outside building 1, a cafe and buildings 4, 5 and 6.

The site grew again over 1972 and 1973 with the addition of the 4-story 'Roche Institute of Research' (building 11) including the iconic Roche tower and the new Givaudan fragrance building. By 1974, the warehouse was completed, and a much needed larger carpark to the south.

From 1960 - 1976, Roche's growth was boosted by a 16 year patent on Valium. Propelled by the incredible success of this medication, Roche diversified across the entire spectrum of healthcare. In 1968, a new diagnostics department was established in Nutley, USA, leveraging brand new electron microscope technology and bringing electronics and engineering into the business.

During the 80s, 22 new modern open plan offices were built and smoking in the cafe area was a sign of the times!

Over a total 53 years, the site saw an incredible 33 buildings built (before the site closed in 2017). Eventually, the manufacturing hub came to have its own shop, its own set of petrol pumps, tennis courts, a squash court in 1978, a full time volunteer fire crew, and even a putting green on the front lawn!

Vitamins and Over-The-Counter manufacturer 1968 - 1978

Before rapid antigen tests, Roche has developed and produced some highly successful pharmaceutical treatments:

  • Sirolin (Thiocol) anti-tubercular cough syrup, pioneered by Roche in 1898.

  • Airol (Iodide), a topical disinfectant powder for wound sterilisation prior to antibiotics in 1899.

  • Rodoxon (Vitamin C) Ascorbic acid synthesis, pioneered by Tadeusz Reichstein, acquired in 1933.

  • Valium (Diazepam) anxiolytic, pioneered by Leo Sternbach, acquired circa 1940.

  • Rituximab, a chemotherapy, pioneered by IDEC, acquired circa 1998.

  • Bevacizumab, a chemotherapy, pioneered by Genentech and Napoleone Ferrara, acquired in 2004.

  • Traztuzemab, a chemotherapy, pioneered by Genentech and Art Levinson, acquired 2009.

In the early 1930’s, scientist Tadeusz Reichstein chemically synthesised the first vitamin C (20 years after its initial discovery).

Roche purchased this mass production ‘Reichenstein process’.  With its international network, this was the beginning of the company's commercial epoch as an industrial manufacturer of vitamins. Roche in Australia manufacturied and distrubuted vitamins that augment a huge range of everyday groceries as well as it's own animal feed supplements division.

During the decades after its launch in the 1960’s, the Dee Why facility manufactured and distrubted many over-the-counter (OTC) products.

Aquasun was an innovative over-the-counter product, pioneered and manufactured by Roche. As a novel and much needed water-resistant form of sunscreen, Aquasun is arguably the most pivotal discovery in reducing Australian skin cancer. Needless to say the product was embraced wholeheartedly by this watersports-loving sunburnt country.

Bepanthen antiseptic nappy rash cream and the analgesic naprisin (naprogesic) were other OTC pharmaceutical products also manufactured on site.

In 1963, Roche expanded into manufacturing fragrances and flavours, acquiring Givauden S.A. and Roure Bertrand Dupont. By 1973, The Givauden fragrance building was built at Dee Why.

In 1970, the Pantene range of consumer products was launched in Australia. This skincare treatment was discovered just after the war in 1945, as one of the derivatives of vitamin B synthesis was found to be effective for hair and skin care.

These products, along with a whole host of other Roche-owned therapeutic pharmaceutical products (including aerosoles and effervescent vitamins), all came to be manufactured, packaged, and shipped from the Roche manufacturing site at Dee Why.

By 1977 machine automated processes began to reduce manufacturing staff numbers. In 1971, it took 34 hours to pack 1000 items across all lines of products. Six years later, it only took five hours. Manufacturing staff numbers at Roche Dee Why peaked at around 350 in 1982, reducing to 280 in 1988.

Roche Research Institute 1973 - 1981

From 1973 Roche ran a marine scientific research institute in Australia for over a decade, producing at least two major scientific reports on local pharmacological and toxicological findings.

The importance of pharmacological discoveries was originally recognised by Markus Guggenheim, Head of Research for Roche in Switzerland. In 1913 he synthesised dihydroxyphenylalanine, which 50 years later would lead to one of the first effective drugs against Parkinson's disease.

Roche began its entry to the North American market via offices in New York. However, as demand grew in 1929, Roche undertook the development of a new plant in Nutley to manufacture a wide range of products.

It wasn't until well after the great depression and the Second World War, that in 1967, Roche was in a position to undertake biomedical research abroad. 

Roche first invested in three major Roche Institutes: the Institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey (1967); the Basel Institute for Immunology in Switzerland (1968); and the Nippon Research Center in Kumakara, Japan (1972).

Australia was a new market and Roche chose to establish a fourth and final research facility, the "Roche Research Institute of Marine Pharmacology (RRIMP)". Expanding the Dee Why factory with new buildings 7 and 11 (including the iconic Roche tower), the RRIMP investigated the commercial potential of molecules in seaweed, blue ringed octopi, stonefish, and funnel web spider venom.

Despite operating productively for 7 years, developing  a Roche-owned seaweed farm in QLD, a salt farm in WA and publishing two research reports in 1978 and 1981, no major commercial discoveries made the RRIMP an extravagance.

Expansion in Diagnostics 1978 - 1990

With reduced sales and expiring patents on Valium, Roche appointed a new Chairman of the Board in 1978 - Fritz Gerber, a business lawyer and financial expert.

"Rigorous cost control and creative market penetration" globally, saw the company begin to systematically develop it's non-prescription (OTC) business areas. This coincided with the launch of Roche's first ever automated diagnostic device, COBAS BIO, in 1978 (black background photo).

The corporate restructure in 1979 saw Roche operate with four core business divisions: pharmaceuticals, vitamins and fine chemicals, diagnostics, and flavours and fragrances. From this point on, the diagnostics division expands vigorously.

Roche Sirius, the diagnostics division in Australia, set up service laboratories across Australia to perform clinical analyses for hospitals and office-based physicians. Products manufactured in Australia included reagents, pathology test kits and hemodialysis concentrates.

In 1991, Roche acquired the worldwide marketing rights to the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) from Cetus Corporation. Consequently, the diagnostics division launched a series of products in the mid-1990s, in all areas of medical testing.

Products included the COBAS INTEGRA®, a clinical chemistry and immunochemistry analyser, COBAS Core II, an immunochemistry analyser; and COBAS AMPLICOR®, an analyser based on PCR technology.

As early as the 1970s, Roche had invested in the research and development of complex medicines, forming the institute of Molecular Biology in Nutley, New Jersey (1967); the Basel Institute for Immunology in Switzerland (1968); and the Nippon Research Center in Kumakara, Japan (1972).

Around the same period, in 1979 a San Francisco start up biotechnology company, "Genentech" was established. Researching a new scientific field called recombinant DNA technology, one of its pioneering medications, a monoclonal antibody was initially used to treat macular degeneration. It was later found to be an effective chemotherapy.

In 1984, the director of the Roche-funded Basel Institute for Immunology, Niels Kaj Jerne (left of photo), collected a Nobel Prize in Physiology / Medicine together with George Köhler and César Milstein for their work on “the principle for production of monoclonal antibodies”. This investment heralds what becomes a major focus of business for Roche in the early 2000's. 

Growth in oncology 1990 - 2008

During the mid-90s, Roche began investing in a number of successful new anti-cancer medications based on the concept of monoclonal antibodies, that would go on to treat what remain two of Australia’s 'Big 5' cancers - breast and colorectal cancer.

As gene recombination and monoclonal antibodies were considered particularly promising for future diagnostic therapy, strategic majority-shareholding acquisitions were made in the companies Genentech (1990), Syntex Corporation (1994) and Corange Group (1997).

In 1990, Roche acquired a 60% stake in Genentech, giving it access to these medicines and a pipeline of other exciting new medicines. The new medication pioneered by Genentech was launched in Australia in 2005 and to treat colon cancer.

In 1992, Genentech began its first clinical trial of another monoclonal antibody used to treat breast cancer and stomach cancer that is HER2 receptor positive. After passing clinical trials, there was pressure on Roche to fast track availability of the medication globally. In 2005, three months before a subsidy was made available to Australians with HER2 positive cancers, Roche provided the treatment for free.

Similarly, another monoclonal antibody chemotherapy developed by IDEC pharmaceuticals, was proven to slow tumour growth. After Roche acquired this treatment, it launched this cancer treatment in Australia.

Around the same period in 1997, Roche was expanding its diabetes and diagnostics technology after acquiring the then world-leading diagnostics company, Boehringer Mannheim. Together with its existing diagnostic brand of "COmprehensive Bio-Analytical Systems", Roche focused its strategic direction on personalising healthcare.

In 2002, in the wake of various issues with vitamins including cost pressures from an increasingly competitive global manufacturers, Roche divesting itself of the vitamin, chemical, fragrance and flavour divisions. Companion diagnostics and precision medicines were adopted as the new long-term goal, of becoming the world leader in genomics, diagnostics and highly targeted therapies.

In 2008 Roche acquired Ventana Medical Systems Inc., pioneered by Dr. Thomas Grogan, with its automated tissue staining instruments (photo).  The automated tissue staining instruments vastly increased the number of people diagnosed with HER2 positive breast cancer, and consequently treated with the Roche cancer medication, Trastuzumab.

Precision medicine and companion diagnostics 2008 - Present

Since the early 90's, worldwide standards for medications had been gradually replacing individual country regulations (such as the Australian Government’s Good Manufacturing Practice code or GMP).

This world wide system made it far more cost efficient for Roche to mass manufacture medications and diagnostic products in a centralised global plant, and then ship these products around the world.

Roche finally ceased manufacturing in Australia in 2007, ending more than four decades of local production of pharmaceuticals and consumer products at the Dee Why site. At the time Australia manufactured some 12 of the 90 Roche products on the market. Consequently, much of the quality assurance process (such as gas chromotography and high-pressure liquid chromatography) had been wound down and roles made redundant.

Roche continued its Australian commercial operations out of the Dee Why facility before the site was sold in 2017, relocating some 300 remaining staff. Logistics were relocated to a new purpose built 10,000 square meter warehouse in Pemulwuy.

The pharmaceutical division was moved to Barangaroo in Sydney's CBD, whilst diagnostics staff had moved much earlier in 1997, to the offices of Boehringer Mannheim in Castle Hill after Roche’s acquisition of this pharmaceutical and diagnostic company. 

Currently the Dee Why site is being redeveloped as a Northern Beaches business park, with the heritage listed iconic buildings being retained, such as the hexagon tower above buildings 7 and 11.

In 2015, it had been some 50 years since Roche established molecular biology and immunology research institutes. Roche adopts a new long-term strategy of personalised healthcare (PHC). Looking to become a world leader in genomic profiling and highly targeted therapies, Roche acquired Foundation Medicine Inc., a world leading molecular insights company. Following this, Roche made similar acquisitions, of immunotherapy and genomic biotech companies like Stratos Genomics, Glycart Biotechnology, and Spark Therapeutics Inc.

In 2020, the World Health Organisation declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, the largest of its kind since the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic. Widespread testing on Roche’s  molecular platforms further consolidates Roche’s position as a global diagnostic player.

Roche has evolved to be the world's largest biopharmaceutical company, thirty-two medicines developed by Roche are included in the WHO's Model Lists of Essential Medicines and is the world leader in in-vitro diagnostics, and tissue-based cancer diagnostics, and a frontrunner in diabetes management.