Every second franc in Switzerland is earned from export, they say. But a lot more is also being exported that cannot be calculated in francs and centimes and registered in the regular accounting, because bookkeepers tend to discount grey matter entirely. Swiss Style found out more from swissnex’s Christian Simm, who handles Swiss know-how in San Francisco.
Does size really matter in a globalized world? Switzerland, small, landlocked and with less than eight million people would most probably disagree. For even though it still entertains a large and idle army – whose most effective function is chiefly serving as a network for the nation’s managerial class – the country’s true strength lies in its know-how and industriousness. And to carry those qualities beyond its borders into far-flung regions, it has swissnex, a network of science and technology outposts run by the State Secretariat of Education and Research in close cooperation with the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs.
This network, which connects innovation hubs around the world with relevant partners in Switzerland, is a key component of the nation’s strategic policy on the promotion of fields in which the Confederation excels, such as education, research and innovation.
This is no idle boast: In 2006, the World Bank tried to measures the “total wealth” of nations, Switzerland topped the ranking thanks to its immense “intangible capital” made up of its skilled labour force and its top-notch institutions.
It all began in 1958 with the establishment of the Swiss science counsellors’ network. With the rise of the Internet in the nineties and all the transformations that brought, swissnex had to rethink the way it promoted science, technology and higher education. “The Internet was fundamental for the establishment of our network in the late nineties,” says Christian Simm, founder and Executive Director of swissnex San Francisco. It is now composed of five regional offices strategically located in the innovation-oriented clusters around Boston and San Francisco and at gateways of the glittering Asian markets in Bangalore, Shanghai and Singapore. Their core activity can be summed up easily: to promote Switzerland’s expertise.
There is something of a diplomatic corps in swissnex, but without all the tricky rhetorical baggage and the etiquette. swissnex is involved in an activity known as “science diplomacy”. “We are diplomats in the sense that we create links between countries and their people through the exchange of knowledge and by facilitating technological and scientific collaboration,” Simm clarifies. “As diplomats, we try to make the world more peaceful and more prosperous, but not by wheeling and dealing politically.” Another important fact that sets this organization apart is that swissnex is not entirely state-funded. Rather, it is a public- private partnership that has a contract with the government; which is where its seed money came from, except now there is some real accounting to do. “We run on a model where all of our funding is tied to results,” Simm explains.
Showing the ropes
What swissnex does in San Francisco is very eclectic: “We do not fit in a single box,” says Simm. “We may work with very small companies, or help Swiss start-ups in the high-tech area looking to start operations in the United States every year to understand the local market, get to know the local ambience and learn how to present themselves, how to get funding, clients or investors and become successful in America.” swissnex has just launched a programme with a name that fits the location: US Market Entry CAMP. Companies that want to reach out across the pond can go through a three-month total immersion process aimed at giving them the background to make educated decisions regarding the US market.
Attracting Swiss know-how abroad, however, may seem counter-productive for the country in light of the need for highly skilled people inside the country. “Our goal is not to brain-drain Switzerland,” says Simm reassuringly. For him, the U.S. represents a market of 300 million people and if Swiss firms can set foot in it and sell products, it will create high-paying jobs in Switzerland, mostly in research. “We have many examples of this,” he remarks. There is, for instance, the case of SVOX, a spin-off of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETHZ) that released with Google a text-to-speech technology for Android 2.0 now installed on over a million mobile phones. Another success story is Amazee, a Zurich-based start-up that developed a successful online platform to manage long-distance collaboration projects. “None of them has become a Google yet, but we do not give up!” he adds with a touch of latent hope.
World of waffles
On the other end of the spectrum are very large companies that swissnex would like to assist in picking up those peculiar, yet brilliant ideas developed in the garages of Silicon Valley or the Boston area that could impact our society ten or twenty years from now. Simm points to Nestlé as an example: “They have a group of scouts looking for the really bright minds and we help them identify the right people by organizing seminars, discussions and various other events,” he says. “At the initial stage, these ideas do not circulate in the media, so you have to be part of the ecosystem to tap into these bright minds and these very innovative projects that are taking place in the innovative regions of the world.”
In the somewhat overly technologised world, where interaction has become virtual and humans literally invisible, Simm believes that there is true value at being present, at seeing and meeting people, talking to them and dreaming about a project face to face. Paraphrasing Alan Friedman, who famously claimed that the contemporary world is flat, Simm describes a world that looks rather like a waffle. The culinary metaphor is somewhat ironic, but the point is a strong one. “There are clearly places where innovation is buoyant these days, because they have attracted a concentration of minds, talent, universities, knowledge and venture capital, and these ecosystems exist thanks to a number of very special conditions in that particular place,” he posits pragmatically. Switzerland is in the club, as it were, but to stay there, it must also stay connected to the other members. “We continuously share latest trends and innovation to our partners back in Switzerland so that they can remain competitive and on top of what’s new.”
Out of lockstep
Markets today are not easy to break into, and it is difficult to know what will appeal to a broad public. At times, it seems, even the most seemingly banal ideas make the grade, like Facebook and Twitter. Simm believes that success in business continues to depend on some seriously creative, even off-the-wall thinking. “We do intellectual experimentation,” he says, “we consider ourselves diagonally or transversally positioned at the intersection between fields and domains, as well as between different countries, of course”. Having a certain scope when it comes to approach, swissnex is able to think outside the box and to bring together people who often do not talk to each other: scientists, artists, and entrepreneurs, for instance. They might discuss a common theme, identify synergies and discover new areas of collaboration. Having this freedom of action and being able to test new approaches is a crucial asset for Switzerland, but it is one, Simm admits, that must be preserved and nurtured, even in times of crisis such as now. “While other countries are reducing the budget for research and innovation, Switzerland can really get an advantage and stay on top of things,” he points out. “We have to stay edgy and itchy.” In other words, bury the panic button and keep on building bridges. At some point they should reach terra firma.
Article by Andrea Bonzanni