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Swiss back business training for boffins

Remi Walbaum, who co-founded a number of tech firms, is now managing director of CREATE. Remi Walbaum/CREATE

The Swiss Federal Office of Professional and Technical Education (BBT) believes that engineering, research, and classes in entrepreneurship are what lead to a thriving high tech sector.

The BBT is sponsoring courses aimed at teaching business skills to technical students across the country.

Called CREATE, the program is an outgrowth of a successful set of courses running at universities in Lausanne and Geneva, the brainchild of former entrepreneur, Jane Royston.

The first two courses begin this week in Zurich. A seven-day workshop is meant for those who have already started to build a business, according to Remi Walbaum, managing director of CREATE.

The 14-week programme is for engineering and science students considering a business of their own.

Students of the University of St Gallen and the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (Lausanne and Zurich) and University of Geneva may sign up.


Eventually all the universities of applied science and polytechnics here will also benefit, once CREATE has hired local managers. It will also coordinate efforts with what already exists in each region.

Then the regional sites, planned for Zurich, St Gallen, and Basel, in addition to Lausanne and Geneva, will act as hubs where students from different fields of study meet in the classroom.

“We hope that the best graphic artists, engineers, designers, marketing students and so on, will meet each other in these courses and go on to perhaps work together in the future,” says Walbaum.

The next Bill Gates?

Courses in entrepreneurship are only one part of what it takes to build a thriving high tech sector. Other factors also influencing the trend, as was recently reported by the think-tank Avenir Suisse, are things such as the number of patents filed and licensed, plus plenty of funding for research and technology transfer.

A risk-taking culture also needs to exist too. “You don’t have to have entrepreneurs in the family, but top sportspersons or other successful business types are influential,” says Remi.

Can an entrepreneur be created by a course like this? “You probably cannot make a Bill Gates or a Daniel Borel, but you could certainly inspire someone to build a small five person company with a course like this,” says Edoard Mounier, who recently opened a consultancy in Canton Vaud to provide consulting for startup technology firms in Europe.

“You cannot bring to life an entrepreneurial spirit, but you can certainly encourage those that have a vision — especially now it is important to provide the right environment,” says Volker Jantzen, co-founder and CEO of SVOX AG, a university spin-off.

CREATE’s founders are under no illusions about what their courses can and cannot do. “What we do is give those with a pre-disposition for entrepreneurship, the business tools to get them going on the right track,” says Walbaum.

He says the courses are currently aimed at someone who has discovered or invented something in the lab and now wants to commercialize it.

Because all CREATE teachers are experienced entrepreneurs they can bring real life examples to the classroom – not just theories. “After 10 years of working over a laboratory bench, running a company is a something entirely different,” comments Walbaum.

The reason high-tech jobs are seen by the BBT as desirable is their perceived positive impact on the economy. Skilled jobs pay better than service jobs and they impact the wider economy, says conventional wisdom.

Similar efforts in the US have mushroomed in the past thirty years. In 1970 there were only 16 courses on offer. By 2002, more than 700 programs were on offer across the country, according to Entrepreneur magazine.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR