The 2021 Global Innovation Index of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) ranked Switzerland as the world's most-innovative economy for the 11th time in a row. Inspiring! But what makes Switzerland such an innovative country? We wanted to know more and interviewed Yannick Heiniger, acting CEO of Swissnex in San Francisco, California, for some insight.
Heiniger, who was born in Geneva Switzerland, has a background in non-profits and international development. He has worked at the intersection of technology and humanitarian action with several organizations, including the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), before moving to California to head the Swissnex in San Francisco. Swissnex is the Swiss global network connecting Switzerland and the world in education, research and innovation. In the Bay Area of San Francisco, their vision is to empower up-and-coming innovators to better collaborate and create more impactful changes in the world and to solve some of the common challenges we face as a society. They do this through hubs all over the world such as Bangalore, Boston, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and Shanghai.
In the San Francisco branch, Heiniger works to bridge the gap between Switzerland and the West Coast of the United States. For instance, he leans on his background to engage the technology sector on key social and human considerations in his area. “Silicon Valley tends to think technology can solve any challenge,” he elaborates. “This view does not translate well into the realities faced by all end users, for instance in the humanitarian field. At Swissnex, we get to create an environment where people connect dots directly from different perspectives and industries, and change how they view a problem, a solution, or an opportunity. I love to see the “aha” moment.”
So, what’s the scoop? Why has Switzerland been at the top of the charts for innovation for over a decade? According to Heiniger, Switzerland is a highly industrialized technology location, where innovators have first-hand access to new technologies and research. New applications can be quickly introduced to the entirety of Europe, because of Switzerland’s central location.
Switzerland doesn’t necessarily have more tech geniuses per capita, but there are a few points that set it apart from other tech ecosystems. Small and middle size enterprises, including startups, play an important role in the economy, and the proximity between higher education institutions, research, and industry is a contributing factor. “Interestingly,” says Heiniger, “we can find some of these elements in the secret sauce of the Bay Area as well, even if we remain far behind when it comes to venture capital investment.”
There have been some interesting startups coming from Switzerland over the last few years; what can we expect from the Swiss tech ecosystem in 2022? “We are witnessing the rapid development of industry specific startup ecosystems in different regions,” Heiniger explains. There is a Crypto-Valley in Zug, Trust-Valley in Lake Geneva region, Cryptocurrency bubbles in Lugano and Neuchâtel, along with a few more. “The question remains, though, of how these ecosystems will relate to investment and how they will funnel entrepreneurial successes back into the ecosystem.”
So, it’s not always easy going in the Swiss tech sphere. In fact, some of the challenges that Swiss startups face are unique. “Switzerland is a diverse country with four national languages, and important cultural differences between customers. This means that startups often have to think internationally from the get-go, and finding their right market segment can be hard. This is where the internationalization camps offered by the Swissnex Network in partnership with Innosuisse can help entrepreneurs validate their products and ideas early in over 11 countries across the world.”
Going international is a tricky and elaborate process for any business. Swissnex, collaborating with other parts of “Team Switzerland”, such as the Swiss Business Hub and Switzerland Global Enterprise, has been empowering Swiss internationalization since its inception over 20 years ago and the San Francisco branch has helped over 130 startups in their international process. Their programs connect startups to high-level experts to receive feedback on their business. “We encourage them to dream big ‘Silicon Valley style’ - something that doesn’t come naturally to Swiss culture,” says Heiniger. “This is a small and yet meaningful way to bridge the gap between our location and Switzerland.” Swissnex’s role in the Bay Area has evolved through the years from a strong focus on academics to include startups, the arts, design, gaming and other emerging technologies and in turn offers a place where different disciplines and divergent perspectives can come together. So, what’s in the cards for the next 20 years? Heiniger hopes to see their role evolve even further to address issues such as sustainability, climate change, and how to make technology work for society.
In 2021, we welcomed twelve Swiss startups at Viva Technology in the swisstech pavilion. How does Switzerland's participation in VivaTech influence the Swiss tech ecosystem? “VivaTech is a great opportunity for different parts of the Swiss government to come together and leverage this event as a visibility and engagement opportunity for Swiss startups, through the swisstech campaign,” says Heiniger. The 2021 swisstech pavilion had a focus on space, cleantech, and robotics and even had a special host - Galactic Chloe, an up-and-coming scientist who spent a summer at Swissnex in San Francisco as part of a residency program.
Yet why do Swiss startups attend VivaTech? “Many Swiss startups see the French market as a priority market in their internationalization.” Heiniger emphasizes. “In addition, the reputation of Vivatech as Europe's biggest startup and tech event, makes it inevitable as it attracts people from around the world.” For VivaTech 2022, we are expecting some exciting startups as well. Heiniger informed us that there will be a focus on food tech and agritech. “The startups we will showcase at the swisstech pavilion in 2022 are eager to connect in person with relevant stakeholders and continue their internationalization journey.”
While new exciting startups come from Switzerland every year, we will be keeping our eyes out for the next top emergers and can't wait to see which innovations will be at VivaTech in June!