Switzerland needs to do a better job of exploiting its innovation potential

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The railway project: Adolf Guyer-Zeller aimed to get from Kleine Scheidegg to th
The railway project: Adolf Guyer-Zeller aimed to get from Kleine Scheidegg to the summit of the Jungfrau, passing through the Eiger and Mönch, but the line ultimately ended at Jungfraujoch (Station Mönch). (Illustration: Die Gartenlaube, 1895)
Switzerland offers tremendous opportunities for technological and entrepreneurial innovation. Thomas Zurbuchen asks, "How can we generate the momentum needed to maintain an edge in the face of international competition - especially when times get tough?"

Whenever I give a presentation on innovation in Switzerland, I like to introduce it by showing a picture of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. I always start by telling the story of Adolf Guyer-Zeller - surely one of the most remarkable and memorable tales of entrepreneurial aspiration and failure in 19th-century Switzerland.

Having made his fortune from a cotton spinning mill and the textile trade, Guyer-Zeller set himself the ambitious goal of building a railway to the summit of the Jungfrau. It took just three years for the Swiss Federal Council to grant him a concession for his intrepid project. Reaching the Jungfrau’s peak proved elusive, however, and the railway ultimately terminated at the mountain’s prominent saddle, the Jungfraujoch. It didn’t officially open until 1912, long after Guyer-Zeller had died. Nonetheless, the construction project he started spawned an engineering marvel, and the Jungfraujoch railway station, also known as the Top of Europe, is now a symbol of ingenuity and a global beacon of the Swiss tourism industry.

Pioneers should be supported, not hindered

I still remember returning to Switzerland after decades in the US and taking a train from Zurich to Interlaken. Two fellow passengers recognised me, and we fell into a friendly conversation. They were adamant that any attempt to do big, innovative things in this country is doomed; this opinion was essentially based on two key points: "We’re too conservative" and "failure isn’t an option here."

Thomas Zurbuchen is Professor of Space Science and Technology at ETH Zurich and heads the ETH Zurich Space initiative. From 2016 to the end of 2022, he was Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, the US space agency.

As you might have guessed, I wasn’t convinced by their arguments! When we arrived in Interlaken, I pointed in the direction of the Jungfraujoch. "Look, that’s Swiss innovation right there," I said.

There are many reasons why Switzerland is such an extraordinarily successful country. Many of the advantages we enjoy today are, in part, due to the courage and foresight of those who came before us. Figures such as Adolf Guyer-Zeller, the Eschers (Caspar and Alfred), Henri Nestlé, Fritz Hoffmann-La Roche, Walter Boveri, and Marie Heim-Vögtlin all played their part in bringing economic innovation and social progress to modern Switzerland.

Of course, there are thousands of others who don’t get a mention in the history books - unassuming individuals who took enormous personal risks to create jobs and help people make a living. To ensure such opportunities can be harnessed in the future, we need to support pioneering endeavours, not hinder them.

Since returning to Switzerland, I’ve visited dozens of companies, and I’ve been impressed by entrepreneurs of all’ages working in just about every industry. My conversations with them have convinced me that they are just as good as, or even better than, many of the managers I know in the US and beyond. In part, this comes down to our superb Swiss education system, which offers young people a broad range of opportunities to develop their skills, from apprenticeships to doctoral studies at ETH Zurich and other Swiss universities.

"Unnecessary delays due to in-house inefficiencies or government bureaucracy are highly detrimental to entrepreneurial success."

I believe that skilled, well-trained, and talented individuals are key enablers of future innovation. As the world continues to change and issues such as climate change become more pressing, we need innovation more than ever, whether in construction, transport or agriculture. True innovators understand that change always presents opportunities.

My first few months back in Switzerland have reaffirmed to me that this country has large innovation potential that is so crucial in many areas of industry - from space tech, deep tech, and green tech to robotics and intelligent systems.

Three priorities

To exploit this potential, especially at a time when financial belts are being tightened, we need to focus on three priorities that are of major long-term significance.

First, we should not accept any erosion of the institutions that produce the innovative individuals we want to encourage - even if budget constraints make this challenging. At the same time, it is reasonable for the government to expect universities, educational institutions, and research institutes to tailor their research and educational programmes in ways that benefit Switzerland and to put a clear emphasis on broad impact. For universities, public authorities and companies, growth inevitably risks spawning an unwieldy bureaucracy and diminishing the excellence and impact of their work.

Government-funded knowledge organisations, such as universities, should be constantly asking themselves whether they are still acting in the best interests of society; they need to be taking active, efficient, and effective measures to help Switzerland and the world overcome major challenges. Depriving them of the funding they need to fulfil these tasks will ultimately weaken Switzerland over the long term in the precise area that currently represents one of its biggest strengths on the international stage.

Second, government bodies should be joining forces with the private sector to promote the effective transfer of research ideas into marketable products and to foster the growth of fledgling Swiss companies. A famous innovator once told me that our country would be a leading light if we were either smarter, more agile or both.

At the same time, we should be continuously reviewing and optimising our processes and procedures in companies and in public administration - any unnecessary delays due to in-house inefficiencies or government bureaucracy are highly detrimental to entrepreneurial success both now and in the future.

We also need to prevent the loss of talent. Currently, we invest huge amounts of time and effort in training young entrepreneurs and talented individuals, only for them to migrate abroad in search of better opportunities. Instead of creating value for Switzerland, other countries reap the benefit. For example, key Google technologies, in daily use today, were originally developed in Switzerland, but were sold off at an early stage. The main reason was that the companies couldn’t grow their business in the ways that they wanted. Now, we see that same risk hanging over some of the world’s most exciting robotics and drone companies, which are just now starting to establish themselves and on a growth path in our country.

There are some fantastic sponsors and supporters of entrepreneurship in Switzerland who have tremendous experience in founding and growing businesses. The question is, "How we can work together as a team to create the kind of momentum that will enable us to outperform international competitors - not only in setting up companies, but also in giving them the space to grow?"

"Success comes to those who think and act the fastest. That’s the kind of competitive edge we need to harness."

Finally, I would like us to show a little more appreciation for Swiss innovation and innovative minds and to celebrate the memory of pioneering figures such as Adolf Guyer-Zeller. We shouldn’t put ourselves down, as we have so much potential just waiting to be exploited. There’s plenty more we can do to make Swiss pioneers more successful - even if that only means encouraging the media to applaud successful entrepreneurs, rather than gleefully pouncing on every mistake they make.

Swiss excellence is acknowledged around the world. Technological change is happening whether we like it or not - and success comes to those who think and act the fastest. That’s the kind of competitive edge we need to harness.

This text was first published as an opinion piece in the external page Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) call_made newspaper on 17 February 2024.
Prof. Thomas Zurbuchen