Starting a high technology business in Switzerland is a hazardous venture but Professor Jane Royston at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne is trying to change that.This content was published on December 25, 2000 - 15:53
For the past 18 months, she has been head of CREATE, the Institute's new Chair of Entrepreneurship and Innovation, a unique position in Switzerland.
She says that courses offer a realistic taste of entrepreneurship to those actively engaged in hi-tech ventures or seriously considering starting a business.
The advice on offer is aimed at encouraging people not only to take the plunge to start a company, but then also to survive and thrive.
"The statistics are pretty frightening. About 80 per cent of hi-tech enterprises are dead within the first two years. What we find is that it's basic lack of skills on the part of the entrepreneur that causes a lot of good companies to go under," she told swissinfo.
Royston knows all about the pitfalls involved. Before taking over the Lausanne chair, she had successfully launched a software company called NatSoft, based in Geneva. In 1994, her work was rewarded when she was named "Businesswoman of the Year".
By the time she sold it after 10 years in 1996, the company had grown into the largest IT services firm in western Switzerland.
Since then, Royston has been working with the Swiss government and helping hi-tech entrepreneurs put their ideas into practice.
In Lausanne, CREATE offers a practical programme. "Entrepreneurship is not a spectator sport, so we have put the emphasis on a practical "how to" approach, supported by high quality expert theory," says Royston.
The programme consists of a basic course in entrepreneurship, a set of workshops on tactical subjects and problem-solving sessions for small groups of entrepreneurs.
Subjects cover market analysis and strategy, business strategy, writing a business plan, legal and fiscal aspects, financing, product development and production, communication and PR, sales and customer negotiation, personnel management, and financial planning and control.
Another skill that has to be taught in Switzerland is networking which, she says, really means not being afraid to ask other people for advice.
"Networking is really about daring to ask people a question and daring to admit that you don't know something," Royston says.
"To an Anglo-Saxon, it's really quite obvious that you can go up to someone at a cocktail party and ask a question. In Switzerland and the rest of continental Europe, we're educated to hide our weaknesses and respect other people's sphere of privacy. But we miss a lot of opportunities," she adds.
It's hard to define the success of the courses on offer. One immediate indicator is repeat business, says Royston. "But the real measure of success is, of course, how what participants learned in one of our workshops manages to make an actual impact on their business and that is very difficult to evaluate," she told swissinfo.
Royston has been described as a self-made woman "par excellence" but her career both as an entrepreneur and a professor has not always been plain sailing.
When she started the NatSoft business in 1986, Royston was the only woman to her knowledge who was head of an IT company in Switzerland and for the first two years people did not take her seriously.
"It was a constant battle. You were considered incompetent until you could prove your competence. A man walking into the same situation is considered competent until he proves his incompetence. Fundamentally, there's a big difference" she says.
The move to the Federal Institute of Technology has also had its hurdles. Royston is one of only three per cent of women professors in Lausanne and she does not have a PhD.
"I'm the only professor here without a PhD and that's another prejudice to overcome. I hope I've overcome it. I've been here 18 months and think I've proven that certainly in terms of entrepreneurship, you don't need a PhD, " she said.
by Robert Brookes
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