Senior Project Leader for Innovation and Entrepreneurship
What we're missing is really this ability to sell ourselves. We're really conservative and modest. We don't want to oversell ourselves. And the Swiss don't forgive you if you fail. That makes it hard to take a risk.
by Heidi Legg
The Harvard, MIT and Kendall Square corridor has long been a place of lore and in the past decade we have seen many nations setting up camp for idea and tech transfer the way top shelf brands might flock to set up storefronts along Rodeo Drive, in LA, or Bond Street, in London. The Swiss doubled down early on in 2000 when they built the sleek, modern building across from the Cambridge Public Library Main Branch and local high school Cambridge Rindge and Latin (CRLS) and began brining over entrepreneurs. Today, like the Canadians we interviewed for our last interview, they are bringing industry leaders and 20 plus entrepreneurs a year over for an in-depth tech transfer. In a time when Brexit, NATO, NAFTA are being questioned for their relevance on political stages, entrepreneurs and progressive nations are quietly going about ensuring the transfer of ideas, trade and technology are being pushed and acquired in a global marketplace where Cambridge seems to be somewhat of a magnet. I sat down with Niccolo Iorno to learn why the Swiss have been focussed on Cambridge and what they see happening next.
The Swiss Consulate is very active in Cambridge. What are you trying to solve?
I think the biggest objective is to create a culture of exchange. swissnex is actually a Science Consulate. Our stakeholders back in Switzerland are universities, entrepreneurs, scientists and researchers. You have to imagine Switzerland – it's a really small country. We're only eight million people, comparable size to Massachusetts alone. In terms of surface, it's one percent of the entire United States. We are speaking about a really small, small, small market.
Is swissnex worldwide?
Yes. It actually started right here in Harvard Square in the year 2000. It's a network of structured Science Consulates, which are spread around the globe in places where we assume that there is innovation happening and an opportunity for our stakeholders back in Switzerland to establish valuable connections.
Where are the other swissnex locations?
We started here in Boston in the year 2000 and then we expanded to San Francisco in 2003, and then to Asia with Singapore, Bangalore and Shanghai. We closed Singapore last year but we opened a new swissnex in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 2014.
Are you also privately funded?
The model is the one of a public private partnership. We really only receive one-third of our funding from the government. For the remaining amount, we actually fundraise. We look for those stakeholders back in Switzerland who have an interest in the activities we are carrying out and then we put togethercustomized programs for them. We work with a number of institutional stakeholders who are part of the government or part of the public sector, but at the state level/cantonal level. We also work with a number of large corporations that want to get inspired by what's going on in these innovation hubs that we have selected around the globe. For example, we often have boards of directors sent here to anticipate what the market is going to look like in 15-20 years from now in their specific vertical. They want to tap into the pool of key opinion leaders that we have in San Francisco, in Bangalore, Shanghai, Rio or Cambridge.
Was biotech the impetus for creating your group here in Cambridge?
Actually, everything happened a little bit by serendipity. Of course Cambridge is all about biotech … but the founder of swissnex, Xavier Comptesse, also the co-founder of the Swiss Creative Center and the former director of the Think Tank Avenir Swiss, was here in the late '90s to try to understand how technology transfer was carried out in the United States. His focus was to better link academia and industry, to create continuity in the value chain of technological developments. I'm a tech transfer guy and in Switzerland, we were really decades behind. In the '80s the U.S. implemented the Bayh-Dole act that started a new era of technology commercialization within the academic sector. MIT was actually a pioneer in establishing those types of structures and policies to really commercialize technologies and work closely with the private sector.
Comptesse started out in Washington, D.C. but there wasn't much going on… He came to Boston and studied the MIT model and came up with the swissnex concept. He's definitely an influencer and one of those crazy Swiss thinkers ... he's by the way a good friend of Elmar Mock, who you met, the co-inventor of Swatch. He's a visionary and looks ahead … that's how swissnex came to life, a side product of a field study, which was aiming at something else.
Switzerland seems so advanced when we see how you treat food, the planet, and your trains! How can you be so behind the U.S. for Tech Transfer?
Well … food, planet and trains are one thing, when it comes to Tech Transfer I think it’s a matter of attitude and philosophy … keeping basic research unbiased, separate from applied research – keeping academia separate from industry. I agree that academia needs to be pretty independent but there are many, many fields in which closer collaboration with industry actually fosters innovation.
What do your stakeholders want to see when they come to Cambridge?
Cambridge and Boston are really the Life Sciences mecca. The Swiss entrepreneurs, those stakeholders I work the most with, want definitely to explore that space. There are a number of startup companies we work with, which are striving to enter the U.S. market and might have a good prototype/product but, of course given our population, their market is small and for technological products, it's natural to go abroad. The U.S. is our second export partner after Germany, making it a natural place to start. Cambridge is the best gateway to access the US Life Science market. All major players are here ...
Which programs do you see as being most successful?
We have a number of programs for startups … The most established one, which has been running now for over 10 years, is the Venture Leaders Program. It's a program that brings together 20 early stage startups in various fields and it's a business development bootcamp for what we call the Swiss National Startup Team. This year we are using a different format than the previous years, in that Boston will only be about life sciences, which I think makes sense. It has been pretty impactful and we’ve already had over 300 entrepreneurs coming through and some pretty successful stories.
How long do the 20 entrepreneurs stay here?
Two weeks and this year the Life Sciences entrepreneurs are only going to be in Boston. In the past, we have also gone to New York and Philadelphia with the entire team. This time in New York, it is only about tech entrepreneurs.
Is this an in-demand program?
Yes. There are around 100/150 applicants and during the selection process, we take a closer look at 40 of the cases and we select 20.
Have any participants sold their product and established an office here?
Yes, a number of them… Recently, in 2010, the startup Insphero, they do 3D bio-printing for the pharmaceutical industryestablished a presence here … we are also currently working with a startup called Creoptix, they develop devices for drug screenings. In the course of the past year, they employed five people locally.
How else do the Swiss entrepreneurs profit of their experiences in Cambridge?
With the startups, there are all these set programs, where the major aim is really to give Swiss entrepreneurs the American spirit of thinking big, getting rid of the risk aversion that we have in Switzerland and learning to sell and pitch.
I know you are a “diplomat” but what do the Swiss think of Americans? What do they shake their heads at and what do they wish to acquire?
They're definitely fascinated. There is a drive here that you don't find in Switzerland. Switzerland is very strong in technology with excellent academic centers …we come up with really cutting edge technologies. If you look at the rankings in innovation, we have been number one or two for the past five years or so. But what we're missing is really this ability to sell ourselves. We're really conservative and modest. We don't want to oversell ourselves. And the Swiss don't forgive you if you fail. That's a really bad thing. That makes it hard to take risks … and find the guts to fundraise again.
You need to move carefully in Switzerland and here it is actually the opposite. You go and you try out and if it doesn't work, it’s fine. You try again and you learn from your mistakes. That's a process Swiss entrepreneurs come here to learn. They metabolize it and they bring it back. They come here as a group with the Venture Leaders Program and then they go back as a group, there is a special bond between them and a community effect that iscreated all across the Switzerland once they return.
How do the Swiss adapt once they're here?
I think it's an easy country because people are extremely open here. There is a big difference with Switzerland, where everything is really hierarchical … There is a rigid structure back home and in order to get to customers, you need to knock at so many doors and climb the hierarchical ladder. Here, you can have a meeting with whatever Professor, Nobel Laureate, and they're pretty open if you manage to fascinate them with your story.
Which are the sectors which are gaining momentum in Switzerland right now? Who are some of the Swiss entrepreneurs you think we should know about?
There is a really big drive right now in robotics and drones. Energy is also a big topic right now. We're trying to step out of nuclear power and the government is investing in fostering technological advancement in that space. Bertrand Piccard, the balloonist who travelled non-stop around the world, is a good example. Piccard is the entrepreneur behind Solar Impulse. I don't know if you heard about it. It's this solar-powered plane that is circling the globe. They're flying around the globe to show that renewable energies are possible and they want to foster that and do research and send out a strong message that it’s possible.
Once a Swiss entrepreneur gains success, are the two countries so different for them?
I guess Swiss entrepreneurs are then prepared to face their American peers….
Even if they have been successful and recognized globally, do they need to be prepped on how to sell in America?
A little bit, but I think some of them know their way around. When you talk aboutpersonalities, for example Sarah Marquis, the Swiss adventurer, who you interviewed about her new book and travels around the globe, I had a blast. While it was a little bit out of the scope in terms of industry I am used to working within, no one else this year … no biotech, no medtech entrepreneur had more entrepreneurship ingrained in her DNA than her. It was amazing to witness. She goes on these crazy solo trips for three years throughout the most remote and the most dangerous places on earth and then she tells the world about her experiences. Why is she doing that? … She's one of these very creative minds, where adventure, storytelling (selling and marketing) all come together in one person.
Yes, I interviewed her at the Cambridge Public Library with you about her book “Wild by Nature”. Sarah is wild by nature. Elmar Mock, co-founder of Swatch Watch, was similar. You've produced some crazy characters in Switzerland. They seem fine!
Yes, but with Elmar Mock’s story you can understand how the Swiss market is structured in terms of the stiffness I was telling you about earlier. Swatch became a huge corporation, they that implemented procedures and rules and the structures to face the growth … it became too stiff became too stiff for him, with too many boundaries to his creativity.
Are there are many big institutions in Switzerland?
Switzerland is really dominated by large corporations.
Sometimes I feel like Boston is similar…
It's different, though. I think here you have so many startup companies that are sprouting up in Cambridge. Large corporations are here because of them. You have to imagine that in Switzerland I think I have the figures correct: 99% of the companies are small to medium size companies and they employaround 60% to 70% ofthe entire workforce. That means that the 1% which is left, represents the large corporations who employ 30% to 40% of the population. This shows how prominent the large corporation is in Switzerland … and it absorbs a big chunk of the talented workforce, which could, in another context, start new businesses.
Meaning it stagnates?
No, I wouldn’t say so… When Elmar Mock left Swatch, two years after he made his great invention, he left with $2 and he started his own design thinking company. … I actually visited him recently when I was in Switzerland and he has turned an old soap factory into his offices with around 40 or 50 employees. It’s like an IDEO or Continuum type of company, where the team is highly interdisciplinary and they bring together knowledge from diverse fieldsand come up with solutions that the market needs. The Swiss creative minds find their way around to continue in their creative process.
Is it similar to the MIT Media Lab?
It goes in the same direction with really interdisciplinary and diverse profiles of people working there, but it is a company … they offer innovation services to the corporate world.
We have heard a great deal in the news about NATO and Brexit and these old alliances changing. Europe seems to be going through an enormous geopolitical moment in time. What does the future of the Swiss/U.S. relationship look like going forward?
It's a tricky question. This is a science consulate and I’m a scientist and on top of that we are a neutral country.
I was waiting for the neutral card! But the truth is some of our biggest issues are ones that are very important to Switzerland and ones where you have often led the way like climate change and energy. How can it remain neutral?
I think energy and NATO are two different beasts. We're strong in the promotion of human rights. The International Committee of the Red Cross and other important international organizations are headquartered in Geneva. We are aware that the geopolitical situation is changing and we want to contribute to make this world a better place. At swissnex we're trying to do it with technology and innovation. Also International organizations are more and more seeing technology and innovation as an important tool to really improve conditions in those areas where there is conflict or pandemics. That’s why they are starting all sorts of conversations with academic and innovation hubs.
For example, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recently launched its Global Humanitarian Lab, by integrating a crowd-sourcing of ideas type of element. They are sourcing the problems from the staff working in conflict areas and spreading out those issues in places such as Boston or San Francisco, where bright minds can come together to find appropriate solutions. It would be great to be a part of it and help them out to have a greater impact by tapping into the local brains.
Will swissnex continue to grow in Cambridge?
I think swissnex has been doing an excellent job. I see that some of the institutions that we were working with have found their way. We're really upstream initiating collaborations. It’s actually a good sign. The ecosystem became mature and the relationship between Switzerland and the greater Boston area is mature but there is still a lot to be done. There is so much innovation that is going on here and the Swiss presence is becoming stronger and stronger. We're seeing the Novartis campus in Cambridge expanded. Nestlé is coming…
I suspect somewhere around Kendall Square, although it is getting really crowded over there …
Maybe by the Swissbakers in Allston?
The Swissbakers made a good move.
What does your day look like?
Hard to say … It's really diverse in terms of people you work with. It can be working with entrepreneurs, and it can be working with politicians. You find really entertaining characters because Switzerland is a very diverse country itself. We have four languages and the mentality of each part of the country is different.
You have to bring these people content and business opportunities, of course … that they can bring back to their teams, but then when the intense day of work is over you have the Italian speaking Swiss, who are more into sports. They're really used to soccer in the Italian culture … and here they want to experience an NBA … They all want lobsters here in Boston. I have eaten so many lobsters in the past couple of years, can’t see them anymore!
What event do you look forward to in the science/tech community?
The next two months will be filled with venture leaders for me. It will be focused on Life Science/biotech and that's where I can contribute the most. That's my field. …
Our pitch fest is the week of June 13,, 2016. At the end of the business development boot camp, the entrepreneurs pitch their ideas. A number of investors and a number of industry experts join us and we have the Swiss National Startup Team pitching against the American entrepreneurs. That's real fun. You see all the clichés coming out.
Favorite cocktails and favorite spot for a cocktail?
Negronis. That's my Italian side coming out. The best Negronis in town are at Sportello in Boston. I have to leave Cambridge.
What do you always bring back to Cambridge from Switzerland?
Here in the consulate we're supplied with chocolate. You’ve never seen our basement, but we truly could swim in chocolate. But chocolate is never enough … When I go home I go to my favorite chocolatier in Zurich, Spruengli, which has a branch also at the terminal of the Zurich International Airport, where I take off to come back to Boston.
What is your news source?
I check the Swiss ones and the Boston Globe. The ones from my region, from Ticino, and then for international news, the newspaper from Zurich, the NZZ (Neue Zuercher Zeitung.) It's in German. It makes everything a little bit more laborious to absorb and metabolize.
How do you take your coffee?