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Inventive Swiss failing to take technology to market

Selling scientific ideas to industry requires talking to business leaders on their own terms.


Switzerland has a lot to learn about commercialising technology, says the Swiss secretary of state for science, Charles Kleiber.

His comments come as a prominent Swiss delegation of scientists and businesspeople is touring the United States to discuss knowledge transfers from research institutions to corporations in the field of nanotechnology, which deals with objects measuring a millionth of a millimetre.

One aim of the week-long trip is to study how the US turns scientific discoveries into profitable endeavours so quickly.

"While the Swiss have a strong tradition of scientific creativity, they have had problems transferring that prowess into marketable products," said Kleiber.

Market research

"The question is are we able to transfer this knowledge into the products which could be exchanged on the market, and make a profit, and create firms and companies?

"The answer is that we are not that good, that we have to learn and create new conditions so that researchers and universities can be more dynamic in that field."

Kleiber said the US was extremely strong when it came to the rapid implementation of scientific findings.

"We have a lot to learn from the United States. First, there is the flexibility that exists in higher education institutions. This allows them to adapt themselves to very quick development in that area. In Switzerland, the universities are a little rigid so it is not that easy to adapt.

"Then there is this very positive entrepreneurial spirit which is still not strong enough in Swiss universities. So we have to change the culture and the example of the universities in the United States are very important for us."

International role model

One Swiss model, at any rate, has attracted international interest. The Swiss centre for electronics and microtechnology in Neuchâtel (CSEM) identifies technological needs in the marketplace and focuses its research activities accordingly.

Market-relevant products are created within a relatively short period of time and spin-off companies of CSEM then market the technologies that are product-ready. Six companies of this kind have been formed over the past six years.

Several countries, including the US, Britain and India are planning to introduce similar models.

"Change has begun in Switzerland," said Kleiber. "We now have a few success stories like CSEM that we can use to show the way. I am sure that young people are more and more interested in developing their own start-ups and making the bridge between science and companies."

Fostering cooperation

Switzerland fosters cooperation between academia and industry via two national research programmes - Top Nano 21 and the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) in nanoscience.

In Top Nano 21, national research institutes in nanotechnology define their skills while industry announces the problems they would like to collaborate on.

Last summer, 180 researchers together with around 100 companies took part in 110 projects. The majority were conducted at the federal institutes of technology in Lausanne and Zurich.

by Vincent Landon

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