Interview with Kaspar E. A. Wenger, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Holcim (Schweiz) AG and representative of the company on the Switzerland Innovation Economic Advisory Board
What does innovation mean for you and your company?
Switzerland is not blessed when it comes to commodities. To compensate for this, we boast a great deal of gravel, limestone and many brilliant minds. It is not by chance that Switzerland has topped the rankings of the Global Innovation Index (GII) for a sixth time in succession. For LafargeHolcim innovation means being close to our clients, having a clear understanding of their needs and being able to offer tailored solutions. The most recent example I can give you is our Ductal ultra-high performance concrete, which contains steel fibers and is thus able to withstand extreme stress without reinforcement. This means that entire bridge constructions can be renovated.
What is your company doing in the area of research and development (R&D)?
LafargeHolcim supports two research centers in the Swiss municipality of Holderbank and the French city of Lyon. These centers develop new materials and applications, taking account of energy and cost efficiency, the environmental footprint, aesthetics, health, convenience and well-being.
Holcim (Schweiz) AG has an Application Technology department complete with a laboratory. This department develops and tests concrete mixes and other applications and its most well-known project is the Gotthard Base Tunnel. The development of the concrete mixes took more than two years and the mixes were adjusted to the respective conditions continuously throughout the construction phase.
Your company was among the first sponsors of Switzerland Innovation. What made you want to commit to this project from the beginning, and what do you expect to gain from this commitment?
There is no innovation without research and no progress without innovation. Research is essential for a country like Switzerland that is lacking in commodities. This applies even more given that we are threatened with exclusion from the European Horizon 2020 research program. Participating in Switzerland Innovation is a matter of course for a responsible, multinational company such as LafargeHolcim.
Switzerland Innovation can also perform a valuable role as a link between the worlds of research and business, be this through the sponsorship of professorships or in providing generous support to work in the area of innovation. I include spin-offs of the federal institutes of technology (ETH) here, which benefit from improved start-up opportunities while establishing themselves or during other financing rounds.
ETH Zurich is the only educational institution in Europe to be listed as one of the world’s top 10 universities. This is an affirmation of our efforts, but at the same time also represents a challenge. As a small country, Switzerland cannot afford to fall behind the world’s leading players.
Switzerland has been one of the world’s most innovative countries for many years now. What does Switzerland do better than other countries?
Innovation has a great deal to do with minds and capital. You firstly need to have sufficient resources available, while great value must also be attached to education within society. Only if these two criteria are met, will we be able to remain competitive on the international stage and be successful in attracting and keeping hold of the best minds.
In your view, what is needed to encourage more companies to choose Switzerland as a location for their R&D activities?
Attractive conditions – by which I mean a competitive tax environment, good and efficient infrastructure, free space in which to establish industrial firms, internationally competitive universities, well-qualified employees, unrestricted access to human capital, etc. What certainly won’t help is rampant bureaucracy and restrictive access to international top performers.