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Swiss innovation competes for fame and fortune

Thomas Knecht, managing director of McKinsey &Co, is one of the Venture competition's key supporters.

The Venture 2004 business plan competition, the third of its kind, was launched this week in Zurich.

What started out as a place for students to hone their business skills has grown into a nation-wide competition that is also a resource for young entrepreneurs.

Swiss television celebrity Kurt Aeschbacher hosted the event with a keynote speech from life science industry titan, Franz B. Humer, CEO and chairman of the board of Roche.

Also on-hand, the well-known Swiss entrepreneur, Willy Michel, founder of Disetronic, which was recently acquired by Roche for SFr 670 million in cash plus shares.

Other up and coming executives attending included Ronald Vuillemin, founder of Novodex and Felix Mayer, founder and CEO of Sensirion, a Federal Insitute of Technology spinoff firm that now employs some 40 people.

No losers

This year 150 coaches have volunteered to help contestants shape their business ideas. The organizers and coaches work free for various reasons, but mainly in the hopes of getting in on the ground floor of potentially great companies.

As the competition progresses, a jury narrows down the number of contestants finally selecting the top teams, which receive awards totaling SFr 150,000 in cash and prizes.

They can also use the financial planning software provided.

Furthermore, the competing teams can benefit from the various events organized by Venture 2004 leading up to the awards night by making contact with important executives from industry, investors, and other entrepreneurs in the Swiss scene.

The Venture organization says that more than 100 firms have been established and a thousand jobs created thanks to its efforts.

Interestingly, although high tech and science based ideas dominate; a successful vegetarian restaurant chain got its start via the Venture competition, as did a company that makes scooters.

More than 2500 projects have passed through the three Venture contests held to date.

Old guard meets the new guard

Six years ago the efforts of McKinsey & Co, the business consultancy, and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich to launch a business plan competition here met with some skepticism.

It was the height of the dotcom boom and many a grey-haired head was shaking in disapproval, business should be kept behind closed boardroom doors and not be made the subject of contests, and worse, the topic for journalists and television crews.

Luckily, for the Swiss economy, the new idea has taken hold. The spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well. Many of the new jobs created by such firms have withstood an economic slump and a tendency to shift new manufacturing jobs to lower costing countries.

Business plan competitions are now widespread in Switzerland, as are coaching and angel investment networks.

by Valerie Thompson

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