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Cash prizes sweeten wake-up call to the Swiss

Al Gore is one of the guests at this year's Swiss Economic Forum

Only in Switzerland could innovators in fields as diverse as med-tech, semiconductors, toilet bowls, winter sports, and watchmaking find themselves competing for the same business award.

It is just this kind of juxtaposition that the Swiss Economic Forum hopes will serve as a wake up call to the country’s business community.

Backed by UBS, PriceWaterhouseCoopers and Swisscom, among others, the Swiss Economic Forum each year awards finalists tens of thousands of francs in prize money in a two day conference.

Along with awarding the cash to finalist firms, the SEF’s theme this year is: “Wake up, get up, and go for it!”.

The SEF is making the call in light of the stagnating economic growth here in recent years. And this year, more than ever, the finalists represent a microcosm of the Swiss industrial landscape.

According the SEF, the watch industry in Switzerland employs more than 35,000 people and has a global market of 50 percent.

It is out of this pool that Cadrans Design SA La Chaux-de-Fonds was selected. The four year old company makes high-end watch dials for big-name watchmakers.

Considering that Switzerland is home to some of the largest orthopaedic implant manufacturers world-wide, such as Synthes-Stratec and Zimmer-Centerpulse in Winterthur, it is not surprising that Volketswil-based Hocoma AG’s business is based on helping those recovering from orthopedic surgery to get their bodies back in shape.

The firm’s founders have come up with a new exercise machine that moves “no less than 50 muscles”. The target market is rehabilitation centers and hospitals world-wide.

The selection of two other finalists point to the innovation potential of graduates from the research labs of the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology.

Esmertec AG, based in Dübendorf and Sensirion AG, based in Zürich, founders drew on their skills developed at the university to develop innovative solutions in the field of software and semiconductors.

Esmertec is a venture-backed software firm that is winning market share in the wireless Java market, while Sensirion makes chip-based sensors used in medical devices.

Then there is Urimat Schweiz AG, based in Tann-Rüti, a company that manufactures toilet bowls that work without water.

The entrepreneurial founder Hans Keller, sold the systems from the trunk of his car at the start and now counts the Swiss sites of McDonald’s, Migros, UBS, and Mövenpick as customers.

If he is successful going international his business could follow in the footsteps of another Swiss sanitary technology giant, Geberit AG, based in with sales of SFr 1.4 billion.

Finally, the jury, apparently influenced by the alpine views on their way to work each day, selected Zug-based manufacturer of so-called “airboards”, Fun-Care AG.

Its products look like air mattresses with handles on the side and are already proving popular at certain ski resorts. It is just another example of the country’s fascination for winter sports.

The SEF is not one for taking safe bets, it recognizes firms with high growth potential but along with high growth also comes high risk.

As a result not all previous winners have gone on to great success in the marketplace.

In fact, some of the firms that received recognition turned into flops, such as Opto Speed AG and Concepcion AG.

But it is encouraging to note that out of the assets sold in the bankruptcy proceedings from both those companies, at least four new startup companies have been formed.

by Valerie Thompson

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR