For the ninth successive year, Switzerland was named as the world’s most innovative country by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a specialized agency of the United Nations. How does a nation of fewer than nine million people consistently see off economic superpowers like China and the US to earn this global recognition? We investigate…
This week sees the winning students set off on their European Tech Tour, the culmination of a competition designed to encourage innovative and disruptive thinking among last September’s Bachelor intake.
But the tour actually starts much closer to home, in Switzerland. And that’s not for logistical reasons. It’s because if you want to get close to world-leading innovation, Switzerland is very much the place to be.
“Its solid strong performance translates to excellent innovation outcomes including patent applications, IP receipts and high-tech manufacturing products.”
And don’t just take our word for it either. The UN’s World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) has ranked Switzerland number one in its Global Innovation Index for nine consecutive years. Announcing its 2019 index, WIPO said of the country, “Its solid strong performance translates to excellent innovation outcomes including patent applications, IP receipts and high-tech manufacturing products.”
The secrets of Swiss success
How has Switzerland become such a globally-renowned hotbed of innovation? Who better to answer that question than EPFL, one of Europe’s most vibrant and cosmopolitan science and technology institutions; and hosts for day one of the Tech Tour.
“There’s a variety of factors that have come together to make Switzerland so successful in this area,” says Lan Zuo Gillet, who is Program Director for entrepreneurship training in Western Switzerland and several vertical start-up acceleration programs. Lan is also leading workshops focusing on partnership between the start-up and large corporate ecosystems.
She adds, “Historically, you can point to the country’s political neutrality and stable social environment, which has long attracted talented individuals who’ve been forced out of their own countries by wars, revolutions or persecution. Albert Einstein is just one example of this, but throughout academia you can find a high proportion of foreign talent; and for me this is an important factor.”
“It invites individuals with innovative ideas to come forward, and backs those it considers to be the best and potentially most impactful.”
More directly, generous government support – at both federal and local levels – is also a major part of the equation. As Lan explains, it’s also the way this support is offered that makes a difference.
“In Switzerland the approach is very ‘bottom up’, which means the government doesn’t dictate where it thinks investment should be made. Instead, it invites individuals with innovative ideas to come forward, and backs those it considers to be the best and potentially most impactful. In this way the initiatives come from the people, not the government,” she says.
Driving industry and academia closer together
The funding process itself is also cleverly geared towards fostering collaboration between the corporate sector and universities. Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, has a policy of giving its funds directly to universities, which drives companies to seek a university partner with which to develop new products and innovations.
“This means the university can subsidize the research support it provides to companies, plus this collaborative approach ensures the research departments stay plugged in to the continuing evolution of the markets and wider economy,” says Lan.
Another important factor, and one that’s close to our hearts at Les Roches, is the applied, professionally-focused nature of Swiss education. Lan notes, “Swiss higher education is very practical and professionally oriented. It has helped us to build a highly skilled labour force, and this is important if you’re looking to turn a patent into a product that can be industrialized.”
EPFL leads the way
And, of course, there are world-class academic institutions like EPFL which are devoted to driving innovation.
To give these efforts a physical focus, The EPFL Innovation Park was created around 25 years ago. The Innovation Park is a non-profit foundation run separately to the university, but with full access to its research labs and other facilities. It hosts around 150 high growth start-up companies, as well as 26 large corporates, and it’s this cross-fertilization between the start-ups and large corporates that is a key part of Lan’s work.
“The relationship is a triangular one, between the start-ups, the larger companies and the EPFL research lab,” she says. “If you look at the population of start-ups in the park, just over a third are in the biotech/life sciences/medtech area, roughly another third are in IT/telecoms, with the rest split between a range of other sectors.”
And the park has already spawned some hugely successful businesses. Among them is AC Immune, a company that develops precision medicines targeting neurodegenerative diseases. AC Immune is now listed on the US Nasdaq exchange, and is still headquartered at the park.
Another ground-breaking success story is MindMaze, which builds intuitive human machine interfaces and has the distinction of being Switzerland’s first tech ‘unicorn’ with a $1 billion+ valuation.
“In future I see a lot of innovation coming from the cross-fertilization between all the areas that Switzerland is strong in,” says Lan. “This mean pharmaceuticals, life sciences, precision manufacturing, ‘technology for trust’ (i.e. cybersecurity), banking and others. It’s a very exciting time for innovative minds to come here to study and work.”
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