“Switzerland should be perceived as a world leader in important digitalisation topics”


Despite great momentum in the innovation and start-up scene, Switzerland is not yet seen worldwide as a digitalisation pioneer. We asked digitalswitzerland CEO Nicolas Bürer how Switzerland could be better positioned. He outlines the successes, explains the necessary strategy and talks about the most important issues.


Mr Bürer, the Swiss start-up scene has developed very well over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, one hears again and again that Switzerland is not perceived internationally as a start-up hub. What is your opinion? Nicolas Bürer: It is certainly not true to say that Switzerland is not on the map at all. The many delegations that travel to Switzerland to see the innovation ecosystem here attest to that; for example, we have had visitors from Sweden, Finland, France and even Singapore. And the high proportion of foreign venture capital investment is another factor in favour: two thirds of the funds received by Swiss start-ups come from abroad. So how has the impression that Switzerland in terms of start-ups ranks among the also-rans come about? A major reason is that we perform poorly in city rankings. Although the Zurich Greater Area and the Lake Geneva region are hotspots in Switzerland, they are comparatively small by international standards. Switzerland performs better in a country comparison. In addition, we are known in Europe as an innovative country, but less so in Silicon Valley. Digitalswitzerland is trying to change this with other organisations, including SGE, Presence Suisse, Innosuisse, swissnex and also with spectacular Swiss pavilions such as at the CES in Las Vegas. Was the appearance a success? It was a huge success – we had 70,000 visitors to the pavilion. This was due first to the appearance of the drones, which caused a stir, and second to the collaboration of the various organisations. We will try to repeat this success at other fairs, next at the Vivatech, which takes place in mid-May in Paris. In addition, we support proven initiatives such as venture leaders, which takes Swiss start-ups abroad. And last but not least, we are increasingly represented on the panels of important international conferences, such as Slush and The Next Web. What message does this give out? It can not be about positioning Switzerland as the second Silicon Valley. Exactly. As Marcel Stalder of EY, and member of the digitalswitzerland Executive Committee, once said, Switzerland can not be digital everything. Our goal is to position the country as one of the world leaders in three to five important digitalisation areas. What are these areas? They are of course not simply defined by digitalswitzerland, but result from discussions with companies, universities, investors, the startup ecosystem and other organisations. Some fields are eminently suitable, including certainly commercial drones and robotics – Switzerland has a lot to offer here. Then of course there’s blockchain and crypto: the country is already recognised as a leader in this field. Other possible focal points include data centres. Several US companies are opening new data centres to Switzerland because their customers want it. The fields of advanced manufacturing and digital health would certainly be in the running too. A global leader needs an ecosystem that includes start-ups as well as established companies, suppliers and service providers. Is this a criterion in selection of the priorities? Absolutely. In the blockchain area, for example, Switzerland already has a good ecosystem. For all other focus areas, these networks have to be built. Ultimately, the goal is to be so attractive that foreign investors, companies and talent flock to Switzerland. Bringing foreign companies to Switzerland is certainly a good thing, but how do you prevent start-ups with very great potential, such as fintech company Wefox, from emigrating? The framework conditions play an important role and there is still room for improvement here; for example, with stock options for employees, taxation issues and the immigration law. By the way, another hearing will take place in the autumn with Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin to address these issues. In addition, A Swiss unicorn would not only make the location more attractive to foreign investors, corporates and talent, but also to other aspiring unicorns. Unicorns – a difficult topic. Other European countries have companies like Spotify or Booking.com that are valued at several billion dollars but there’s no sign of a Swiss company with a similar valuation. That’s true, but one should not overlook the fact that we have more and more scale-ups, and funding for growth companies is constantly increasing. There are plenty of new funds; for example, from Swisscom, Swisscanto and more, the Swiss Entrepreneurs Fund is also on track. There is enough money to build growth companies. What about the ambition of a founder? A very successful founder, Nexthink’s Pedro Bados, once told me that he would have taken a much faster growth path from the beginning if he had realised that it was possible. Are there more founders today who want to build a unicorn right from the start? Yes. Five years ago, I knew only a handful of founders who wanted to make their start-up a unicorn. There are dozens today. If only a few are successful, these success stories would certainly help the visibility and attractiveness of Switzerland. But this will not happen overnight. The positioning of Switzerland in the digital focus areas is a multi-year process, but the momentum is high. This is reflected not only in the amount of risk capital and the approachable attitude of many politicians, but also in the growing, and now countless, number of events and accelerators. After 15 years of development work, the Swiss innovation and start-up scene has really developed traction.