«Young people want to make a difference»

Researcher, Founder, a person of many talents: Roland Siegwart, the Vice President of Research and Corporate Relations at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), has developed some of the essential underlying concepts in the development of mobile robotics. We interviewed the innovation award winner and co-founder of six spin-offs, known for his dedication to research and the transfer of knowledge.


«Roland Siegwart, for several years you were active at the EPFL, which together with the ETH, form the two big startup clusters in Switzerland. What is characteristic of both Universities, what differentiates them, and what can still be done in order to make them even more attractive for startup-projects?»
Roland Siegwart: «We can be proud in Switzerland to have two technical colleges with an excellent worldwide standing. Both are very innovative and thanks to their well deserved reputation, are able to attract the best students, researcher and professors. The EPFL has on one hand, been able to achieve significant growth and has taken major steps in its development during the past decades, transforming the institution from a regional University into an international research University. The ETH Zurich on the other hand, has been able to further develop and consolidate its international repute, and particularly enhance its innovative capacity, further developing its cooperation with the private sector and enhancing the process of technology-transfer. Today, innovation and entrepreneurship, both at the EPFL and at the ETH, have become central components of the ongoing efforts in research and teaching. As a result, we are already very attractive for researchers and upcoming entrepreneurs with visionary ideas. It is essential that we remain focused on these values and stay committed to the autonomy and freedom that we benefit from, in order to be able to continue to successfully transform research ideas into economic success in an efficient and non-bureaucratic manner. In order to achieve this we have to develop even stronger partnerships with the private sector and startup-support foundations, while continuing to inspire and motivate young talents.»

«While a Swiss Silicon Valley in the near future may still appear as wishful thinking, what should be done, to close the gap to the top European startup-metropolises such as London and Berlin?»
Roland Siegwart: «All reputable studies on the innovational capacity of countries, such as the „Global Competitiveness Report“ published by the WEF, show that Switzerland is the most innovative country in the world. We can therefore justifiably conclude that Switzerland is the center of innovation in Europe. Many Swiss are unfortunately not really aware of this fact. I would therefore welcome a bit more Swiss self-confidence, which would further spur on our innovational and entrepreneurial drive. Switzerland as a whole, or different regions within Switzerland, will hardly ever be directly comparable to Silicon Valley. Corporations such as Google or Facebook would never have access to a big enough domestic-market, or to the necessary specialists. Switzerland however, offers an ideal environment for high-tech companies, which combine high levels of precision, quality manufacturing and intelligent motion control, into complex systems. In a more general sense, Switzerland has also been able to showcase itself, as a location where significant innovations which capture international attention in various sectors, can and do take place. This is demonstrated by the fact, that companies which are global players regularly acquire young Swiss startups, examples being Procedural and LiberoVision for the ICT sector, or GlycArt and EsbaTech in the life-science industry. The high-tech which is available in our country is obviously very attractive; a fact that can be used to attract big corporations to Switzerland. In sum, we have some clear-cut competitive advantages as well as the required set of skills to play on the global playing field, the only thing we need to do now, is to mobilize these in an even better way!»

«A recent study has shown that the amount of money which flows into VC-capital in Switzerland is unequaled in all of Europe. However, it also pointed out the necessity of a significant increase of available capital at the important early-stage phase. This, respective shortly before, is where the effects of the venture kick really kick in. How could one help budding startups to overcome this identified financing gap?»
«Roland Siegwart: «I believe that as of now, as is demonstrated by our very successful startup scene, that Switzerland is in a very good position. It is however obvious, that there always remains a potential for optimization in areas such as the early-stage-phase of startups. At the ETH we recently introduced so-called „Pioneers Fellowships“, where we support young people along their first steps of implementing promising research results. We have also been building up the “Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab”, so as to continuously promote an entrepreneurial spirit on all levels at the ETH. The lab will function as a platform where students, researchers and the private sector will be able to interact, and therefore bring research results and visionary ideas faster to market. This enhanced interaction will especially help us to bring promising technologies out of the stage primary research and to develop them with a focus on potential implementation, getting them faster to a state where they are market-ready, respectively where they enjoy significant market confidence. While more money is clearly needed in the early-stage-phase, more importantly, we must find new ways to identify and tap into, the right markets. Better market access enables a startup to stand much faster on its own feet, reducing the necessity of available capital. This is one of the central objectives that we are pursuing in the context of the ETH’s „Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab”.»

«Despite the economic crisis of the past few years, the amount spin-offs has remained at a constant high. You yourself have accompanied several spin-offs in the past decade. Do you feel that there is a growing startup-spirit accompanied by an increased desire to create something new?»
Roland Siegwart: «In contrast to 20 years ago, innovation and entrepreneurship are now an integral part of the ETH culture. Past successes have inspired emulation and given young people the necessary self-confidence to take up the challenge. This change in culture has affected both students and researchers. Young people want to make a difference and are ready to take the necessary risks; one simply has to show them the available opportunities and routes which exist. The right innovational and entrepreneurial culture will almost inevitably result in a widespread desire to start new ventures. It is our job, to continue to encourage, develop and foster this rapidly spreading entrepreneurial spirit by all means at our disposal. These include both the internal efforts of our own, as well as external initiatives such as KTI Startup, venture kick, venture business plan competitions, support by foundations, the technoparks, etc. They have all had, and will continue to have, an essential part in our past and future success. Thanks to the afore mentioned I&E Labs we will be bringing this culture to a new level, further strengthening the innovational and entrepreneurial drive at our institution.»

«In your opinion, what role does venture kick play in the Swiss startup-scene?»
Roland Siegwart: «venture kick is a tailor-suited instrument to support high-tech companies in their first years of existence. The concept of multi-level financial support, complemented by coaching is exemplary for what should be done in the context of fostering startups. venture kick has become one of the most important partners for startups in the early-stage-phase.»

«How do you evaluate the recent success stories of various ETH-spin-offs, which are also often venture kick winners? Do you agree, with the so often mentioned need, for an even stronger focus on global markets?»
Roland Siegwart: «The ideal moment for a young startup to start to orient itself along the world markets, is dependent on the technology used and the identified market potentials and product requirements. Very good support already exists in this area with initiatives such as Swissnex. Strong partnerships with established industry players have proven to be extremely valuable, as has been demonstrated by the experiences of startups such as Dacuda and Optotune. This is also one of the core aspects of the work in progress which is the ETH Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab.»
«You yourself are an expert in robotics. What are the areas that you believe will be of increasing importance in the context of attempting to tackle the challenges that the world will face?»
Roland Siegwart: «The ETH has decided to emphasize research and teaching on the areas of energy, med-tech and complex systems. These are all areas which will be facing great challenges in the near future, which can only be tackled through innovation and strong partnerships between the corporate and academic world. It is of paramount importance to strengthen basic research and to develop intensive ties with the private sector. Investment in basic research is and remains the most important prerequisite for radical innovation.»

«What invention do you wish to see in the future?»
Roland Siegwart: «There are surely a great number of practical innovations to be made which could be useful in my daily life. However, I first and foremost wish to see great progress made in the areas of energy and global food provision, so as to guarantee optimal conditions for happy and fulfilled lives for the generations to come. Unfortunately the forecasts aren’t looking that good and we won’t be able to address all the challenges that we are facing through technological progress alone. At the very least, we must strive to set the stage with our contributions, so as to enable future society to develop effective solutions of its own.»

«Roland Siegwart, thank you so much for your answers.»

Roland Siegwart manages since January 1, 2010, the Executive Board, Research and Corporate Relations at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zürich. He is responsible for the ongoing implementation of research results (technology transfer) and cooperation with the private sector. In his function he oversees the Stab Wissenschaftskoordination, Euresearch Zurich, the technology transfer center ETH transfer, First Lab, the Functional Genomics Center, as well as the Electron Microscopy Center der ETH Zürich (EMEZ). You can find his impressive resume here.

Weiterführende Links

annual report 2015

Mehr als 16 Mio. an Startkapital, über 400 finanzierte Startups, mehr als 896 Mio. an Folgefinanzierungen und 3'434 neue Jobs - dies ist der Erfolgsausweis von Venture Kick seit die private Initiative im Herbst 2007 ins Leben gerufen wurde (Konsortium).

annual report 2015

Eine philanthropische Initiative eines privaten Konsortiums

Wissenschaftliche Innovationen in die Marktwirtschaft zu transferieren und damit nachhaltige Arbeitsplätze zu schaffen ist der Schlüssel für sozialen und wirtschaftlichen Wohlstand. Startups sind besonders in den Anfängen hohen wirtschaftlichen Risiken ausgesetzt, die weder von öffentlichen Geldern, noch von privaten Investoren abgefedert werden. Diese Lücke zu schliessen und Startups in einer sehr frühen Phase zu unterstützen ist wichtig und eine philantropische Aufgabe.