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“Launching an innovation project in Switzerland? You have come to the right place!”

Author: Interview with Raymond Cron, CEO of Switzerland Innovation

In 2016 a new organisation, Switzerland Innovation – the Swiss innovation park, started operating in Switzerland. It is a platform that unites five innovation parks in different parts of the country. It helps high-tech companies to establish links with the scientific community, experts and financial institutions to launch and scale up their business. We have talked with Switzerland Innovation CEO Raymond Cron about the infrastructure of innovation, the chances of success and measures to support innovative companies in Switzerland.

– Please tell us about Switzerland Innovation. Why did you need to create a new link in the Swiss innovation infrastructure, which is already quite extensive?
The Switzerland Innovation platform is a typical example of a public-private partnership born at the juncture of the interests of federal and cantonal authorities, the business sector and the academic and educational community. Simply put, officials, entrepreneurs and scientists agreed on the need to work together – and launched Switzerland Innovation to better coordinate the relationship with each other. Our board includes representatives of businesses and heads of cantons, as well as chancellors and presidents of leading Swiss universities. Today, Switzerland Innovation unites five innovation parks: two sites are based at the Swiss federal institute of technology in Zurich (ETH Zurich) and Lausanne (EPFL), three more in the cantons of Aargau, Basel and Bern. Within the framework of this platform, research groups from Swiss universities on the one hand and innovative companies on the other, can meet, establish contacts and launch joint projects. As a result, a transfer of ideas and technologies takes place: scientific ideas are turned into commercial products and services required by the market. And with our help this process swings into high gear.

– What opportunities for resident companies are offered by innovation parks that are part of Switzerland Innovation? In what way are they different from ordinary business accelerators or technology parks?
They are created specifically for companies whose business is based on a new scientific idea, technology or development. We try to attract as residents businesses that have already established connections with the academia or have an acute need for joint projects with Swiss universities. Currently, about 80 companies pursue scientific projects in our innovation parks. Not only start-ups: there are also large international corporations such as Nestle, Logitech, Siemens, Credit Suisse, etc. among them. As far as young businesses are concerned, we work mainly with university spin-offs - companies founded by students or graduates. Sometimes they become our residents immediately after passing the laboratory stage. All innovation parks are located in the neighbourhood or directly on the campus of the largest Swiss universities. This also fosters closer cooperation between business and academia. When a yesterday's student can call at any time at the office of his favorite professor, this facilitates communication.

For example, one of our residents manufactures industrial drones designed for inspection of hard-to-reach buildings and structures. The company was founded within the walls of EPFL and is still engaged in joint scientific and technical projects with this university.

– Can a company from any country become a resident of an innovation park?
– Yes, this year we began to attract foreign business as well. Today every fifth resident company is founded by foreign entrepreneurs. We help foreign business starting from scratch to figure out which Swiss university and even which scientific team needs to be contacted, where to locate research facilities, how many resources it will need, how best to monitor progress, etc. Our network enables us to choose highly qualified experts from the scientific environment, depending on the specifics of the project. Say, if a company is engaged in robotics and it needs to solve a particular issue, we will help to find a laboratory that is leading the way in this area. Or, conversely, we will help to put together an interdisciplinary team. We put a high priority on the subject of research or development.

In addition, we contribute to solving issues related to the organisation and development of a business as a whole: obtaining work permits, opening a bank account, applying for grants and financial guarantees, building laboratories and production lines, etc. Our innovation parks are equipped with all the necessary infrastructure for research and commercial activities; they have office premises and laboratory spaces. So, let's say, if a foreign company wants to transfer its research and development or a part of it to Switzerland, it is most likely ‘our client’: it's more logical to turn to Switzerland Innovation to understand where to start. If you are an entrepreneur and are planning to launch an innovative project in Switzerland, then you have come to the right place and you can contact me directly. As Switzerland Innovation is a non-profit organization, you will not have to pay for consulting services. Our residents pay only for renting premises and some additional services they may take advantage of.

– In June 2017, the Global Innovation Index was published, and again Switzerland came out on top. What, in your opinion, allows the country to remain a world leader in innovation for the seventh consecutive year in a row?
– The most important factor determining the success of Swiss innovation is a very high level of science and education. Innovation happens only when business and science work hand in hand. Accordingly, to become a leader in innovation, you need to provide academic leadership. Switzerland covers a small area and has no natural resources. Historically, we have had to aim for high quality education making it a pillar of the national economy. The first university in this country was established back in the 15th century. Today, two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH Zurich and EPFL) are among the twenty top universities in the world. Our universities, on the one hand, supply highly qualified staff to the labour market, and on the other – attract brilliant, talented students from all over the world. Many of them remain and work in Switzerland after completing their studies or obtaining a degree. They are attracted by a stable political system, an innovation-oriented and business-oriented economy, high living standards. Switzerland is also home to the headquarters and R& D centres of many large international companies. This ensures employment and professional growth opportunities and creates favourable conditions for innovation and development.

– What exactly does Switzerland do to ensure a smooth transfer of technology?
– The roots of our technology transfer system are, again, in the education system. In Switzerland, education is of an applied nature. Most tutors and, probably, every second student participate in research. There is also a system of vocational education outside universities, which allows you to master some kind of craft or profession without having to obtain a higher education degree. If, for example, you want to work as a computer scientist or a laboratory technician, you can sign up for an appropriate training program (they can be quite lengthy, up to 3-4 years). Two days a week you will attend lectures and seminars, and another three or four days - work in the office or the lab and learn through practical training. This combination of theory and practice creates a unique set of knowledge and skills.

Innovation is always born at the intersection of theory and practice, science and business. Therefore, for a business to succeed both components are required - an intellectual environment with a breakthrough idea and entrepreneurial vision capable of assessing the prospects of commercialising this idea and its market potential. The task of Switzerland Innovation is precisely to foster a combination of these factors as much as possible and ensure that sufficient resources for further development are in place.

– Talking of resources, what financial instruments are available to innovation companies in Switzerland?
– On the federal level, the country has three main sources of financial support for innovation companies. The first is concerned with the grants of the Commission on Technology and Innovation, such grants may be won by joint research projects between business and Swiss universities. It provides up to 50% financing of the cost of R&D. The second source is federal guarantees, which Switzerland Innovation helps to obtain. They facilitate the financing of innovation and research infrastructure and equipment. In addition, you can apply for funding of a research project to a variety of European funds. In this, we are assisted by Eurosearch. At the cantonal level, an innovation company can also receive preferences and benefits – from tax holidays to exemption from rental payments.

– What areas of knowledge have the best chance of success in Switzerland in terms of innovation?
– In the areas that are traditionally strong in our country. These are health and life sciences, including pharma, biomed and medtech, this is fintech, as well as everything related to information technology: robotics, artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, industry 4.0. The good news is that companies engaged in these areas can easily find venture financing, as there are a lot of venture funds and private investors in the country. As regards the chances of success, I would note that in Switzerland as a whole, the statistics of successful start-ups are higher than the global average: approximately 2 out of 10 new companies survive and become profitable (on average this figure is 1 out of 10). At the same time, the approach of the Swiss government consists in creating framework conditions, an ecosystem for the existence and development of innovations. And innovation itself is born organically, at the initiative of entrepreneurs and scientists, and is not imposed from above. Such a business-friendly atmosphere free from excessive regulation is exactly what lies at the heart of the famous Swiss leadership in innovation.

– Would you please tell us more about your cooperation with Switzerland Global Enterprise?
As part of a two-year pilot project for 2017 and 2018, a collaboration between Switzerland Global Enterprise (S-GE) and Switzerland Innovation has been established. In close cooperation with the Swiss Business Hubs in three pilot markets (i.e. USA, UK, China), we are organizing B2B events for targeted R&D-driven companies. These events are part of Switzerland Innovation’s international marketing activities. We focus on technology-driven companies interested in performing some of their R&D activities in close collaboration with a Swiss university at one of the parks of Switzerland Innovation. In general, Swiss Business Hubs around the world can be an entry point for any foreign company willing to cooperate with us.