Filming the rocky road to start-up success in Switzerland

Michela Puddu (in orange), CEO and co-founder of Haelixa, appears in the documentary Manuel Stagars

What does it take to be a successful entrepreneur in Switzerland? Manuel Stagars, director of the three-part miniseries Start-up, explains how he followed several Swiss-based entrepreneurs as they attempted to convert their cutting-edge “deep tech” innovations from university research into viable businesses.

This content was published on July 17, 2020 - 16:02
swissinfo.ch

Along the way, Stagars filmed young entrepreneurs at work with intelligent drones, neuromorphic computer chips, 3D silicone printing, vanadium flow batteries, DNA fingerprinting and green chemistry. The brains behind the projects and their teams want to make the leap from science to business, and the audience gets to be part of it.

All three parts of Start-up were released online on Thursday. Each part lasts 30 minutes and is free to access. The main language is English, and there are English and German subtitles.

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swissinfo.ch: What is the specific focus of Start-up?

Manuel Stagars: The documentary is about the journey of six start-ups in Switzerland who want to make a big impact in the world, make it a better place, so to speak. They work in deep tech, which includes AI, automation, biotech, clean tech – having to do with renewable energy, new materials, these kinds of things.

The documentary follows the start-ups on their journey for about half a year. It shows them working in their offices and labs, hashing out their business plans, pitching to investors, looking for spaces to work in, hiring people, and their struggles along the way. All those things we rarely see, because usually the media talk about the successes of start-ups and how great everything is – the end of the journey. I wanted to show the journey and give the audience an unfiltered look behind the scenes from the front-row.

swissinfo.ch: Why did you make this documentary series?

M.S.: My films are about people who do something special and feel deeply about it. I was fascinated by these young entrepreneurs who want to make a big difference in the world and spend many years of the best time of their life doing this, basically when they’re young. I spent about a year researching and developing the miniseries. When I was 21, I also founded a start-up in Switzerland. So I have an affinity with entrepreneurship.

Manuel Stagars

Zurich-born Manuel Stagars is an award-winning Swiss film director. Since 2005 he has made films about science, innovation and technology and their impact on society. His documentaries have been screened at film festivals around the world.

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swissinfo.ch: What were the most interesting things you learnt about Swiss entrepreneurs while making Start-up?

M.S.: Well, there’s the cliché about start-ups working in their bedroom, in their basement or garage. In this case this wasn’t true – from very early stages deep-tech start-ups in Switzerland are super-professional, working in high-end labs at universities with good funding and coaching. The whole infrastructure, the whole ecosystem, was much, much better than when I founded my first start-up in 1996. Back then almost nothing existed in Switzerland when it came to start-up infrastructure. Now a lot exists, and entrepreneurs from all around the world benefit from it. That was a great positive surprise.

Container offices in Zurich, in a still from the documentary Manuel Stagars

Still, the essence of entrepreneurship and innovation is always the same: you make a leap of faith, tinker, and fail forward, regardless of your surroundings. In Switzerland, the start-up stage has had many upgrades, but the essential play is always the same.

swissinfo.ch: What do you hope to achieve with the miniseries?

M.S.: Entrepreneurs, innovators, artists – and in general anybody who works on something creatively – are usually hidden from the public eye when they are at work. They’re invisible unless they are already famous or until they have a big success. I was curious about the journey itself, and I want to show that journey, not just the success at the end.

What does it look like when someone invents a new drone or chemical process? What does it look like when people work on artificial intelligence? What are start-up entrepreneurs doing the whole day? Sometimes people say the process is more important than the result. Start-up is all about this process. I hope it engages people in the process of trying to make ideas work with its ups and downs. This is a conversation that is also a necessary part in the narrative about Switzerland being a start-up and innovation country. In the mainstream media we get to see the end result. The mindset, the courage and the effort that it takes to get there, that’s what I wanted to make visible with this series.

swissinfo.ch: Was it an easy shoot? What were the main challenges?

M.S.: Well, a shoot of an observational documentary is never easy. The camera is present with the entrepreneurs for many hours while they go about their business, without directing or interviewing them. You have to think on your feet, improvise a great deal and adapt to ever-changing circumstances. And in this case the topic of the film – start-ups – was already super-volatile and complex. They had to change plans, for instance, and make last-minute arrangements for client presentations where we could also film them. So the logistics of it was not easy at all. I shot about 100 hours of material and sometimes you lose the overview. But when we looked at the footage in the editing room, the scenes fell into place and started to make sense. You go through the footage and your notes again and again, until the documentary becomes the story that is hidden in the footage. I’m happy with the result.

swissinfo.ch: And the subjects were happy to be filmed?

M.S.: I try to make people feel comfortable in front of the camera as far as that’s possible. So maybe the first shooting day was a little bit awkward and people said things like ‘oh, I think this will look bad on camera’. But after a few days it became normal. People spoke openly, and some of them told me they didn’t even realise I was there filming. We reviewed all the material with them so that we didn’t show anything confidential.

There were moments I felt like I was part of a team and part of their journey. Everybody on set was super cool, and some people felt like they had done this all their life. Whenever I’m in front of a camera, I can’t help feel self-conscious. Some of the entrepreneurs turned out to be natural actors.

swissinfo.ch is a media partner of ‘Start-up’




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