High share of Swiss Alumni working for start-ups abroad

Out of those alumni from Swiss universities who decide to work for a start-up, 42% leave the country. If more graduates were to stay in Switzerland, this could both lead to more start-ups and alleviate the skills shortage.

Immigration and out-migration are good indicators for the attractiveness of a start-up ecosystem. Due to Switzerland's non-association with the European framework programme Horizon Europe and the Swiss government's reluctance to invest in venture capital, there are fears that the attractiveness of the start-up location has recently deteriorated. At the same time, a bill is being discussed in parliament to facilitate work permits for Swiss alumni who originally come from countries outside the EU and EFTA. In order to provide a data-based assessment of migration movements, we have analysed, on the basis of current figures, how many alumni from Swiss universities migrate to work for start-ups abroad.

Based on data from Crunchbase's global database, we identified a good 700 alumni of Swiss universities who work in start-ups. Most of these people work in management positions or are co-founders. Of these 700 people, 412 work for Swiss start-ups and just over 300 for foreign companies. The exact ratios are 57.4% for domestic and 42.6% for foreign companies.

Lower rate at ETH Zurich and EPFL

The rates vary between the different types of universities. At the two Federal Institutes of Technology the rate is 41.8%, at the cantonal universities 49.8% and at the universities of applied sciences only 8.4%. While the rate at the two Federal Institutes of Technology hardly differs, the differences at the cantonal universities are large. Alumni of the University of Geneva (59.5%) and the University of Lausanne (52.6%) work most frequently in foreign start-ups. The figures for Basel (44.0%) and Bern (42.8%) are significantly lower.

Table Swiss alumni
Alumni of Swiss universities working for start-ups - share of alumni employed by foreign start-ups (%) (Source: Startupticker.ch / Crunchbase / HEC Lausanne)

The lower rate at the two Federal Institutes of Technology shows that there is a particularly attractive environment of start-ups around ETH Zurich and EPFL, so that interested alumni can find suitable jobs. At the same time, proximity to the university is crucial for deep-tech start-ups, so that a relatively large number of spin-off founders also opt for headquarters in Switzerland.

An important reason for the lower rate at universities of applied sciences is probably the lower proportion of foreign students. According to the latest figures from the Federal Statistical Office, 17% of students at universities of applied sciences have a foreign passport, compared to 31% at universities.

Untapped potential

The high proportion of alumni who work for foreign start-ups is thus probably also due to foreign students who come to Switzerland to study and then leave the country afterwards.

Overall, the high proportion of graduates working for foreign start-ups points to a huge, untapped potential. If more graduates were to stay in Switzerland to work for young technology companies, this could both lead to more start-ups and alleviate the skills shortage.

Increase since 2020

Since our last survey, which was based on data from 2020, the rate of alumni abroad has increased slightly. At that time, it was 38.5% compared to 42.6% in the current evaluation. Even though the difference should not be overestimated due to the quality of the data, the increase shows that the local start-up scene has not become more attractive for Swiss alumni, to say the least.

(Stefan Kyora)