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High-tech Switzerland reaches out to the world

The Swissnex building in Boston has a prominent glass extension John Hill/flickr

Swiss Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter visits Boston on Thursday for a closer look at the work of Swissnex, a network promoting science, education and art.

Swissnex now operates in five locations around the globe and has become a success that other countries are trying to copy.

It is partly funded by the interior ministry, which Burkhalter has headed for the past year. During his United States trip the minister will also be going to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Swissnex Boston’s redbrick centre is less than two kilometres from these two world-class institutions. This is obviously no coincidence.

It was at MIT that Swissnex Boston director Pascal Marmier met Marilyne Andersen, a brilliant young physics engineer from Zurich who has already received several awards for her work on the use of natural light in buildings.

Andersen serves as a good example: in 2004 before she had even finished her thesis at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), MIT took note of one of her publications and employed her as an assistant professor. Six years later, she returned to Switzerland as an associate professor in Lausanne.

During her stay in Boston, Andersen’s students worked on a glass roof extension of the Swissnex building, which now lets in a lot of daylight.

Swissnex is neither a brain factory nor a classic economic promotion agency. It aims to “connect the dots”, according to its slogan.

“We offer help to young people with talent, whether they are scientists, innovators or entrepreneurs. We help with networking or with their return to Switzerland,” said Marmier.

State-of-the-art Switzerland

But when it comes to encouraging American scientists and students to come to Switzerland at some point in their career, it’s not that easy.

It is of little use that EPFL is considered one of the best schools in the world. “Few people here know it exists,” explained Christian Simm, executive director of Swissnex San Francisco, the other Swiss scientific consulate in the US.

“You have to show them somehow that in Switzerland we have state-of-the-art research, state-of-the-art education and state-of-the-art technology.”

“We offer them a very original picture of Switzerland, far removed from the tourist clichés. And we have created a pioneering model of interaction with other countries in terms of science, technology and innovation,” Simm added.

He says Swissnex is being copied by other countries. Denmark, Sweden Norway and Germany have a new network of “science houses” similar to the Swiss model.


Marmier was even called a “representative of a new approach to international relations” in an article on the front page of the daily Boston Globe.

Last year the former US vice-president and climate change activist Al Gore visited Swissnex and praised Swiss achievements in green technologies.

Trying to attract brains from Switzerland is only one aspect of the work of Swissnex. “You have to practise multi-tasking to be able to do what we do,” explained Marmier, who “receives a group in the city practically every week”.

The visitors can be academics, politicians, industrialists or future industrialists. Among the latter are groups of promising “young talent” sent by the Venturelab organisation to take an accelerated entrepreneurial course in Boston.

“We take advantage of the network of relations that Swissnex has and without it we could not organise this kind of training which has such a marked impact,” explains Jordi Montserrat, who is in charge of the programmes for the western part of Switzerland.

Marked impact

In San Francisco, when asked what he would say to a parliamentarian who might ask him to justify his budget, Simm says that the government supports Swissnex with 48 per cent of the $1 million (SFr970,000) total. The remainder is provided by various private institutions.

Swissnex also has centres in Singapore, China and India. Singapore is the smallest in the network and was opened in 2004. In a city-state which wants to make a name for itself as a centre of excellence for education in south Asia, the Swiss act as a bridgehead for their own academic institutions.

St Gallen University, the Swiss Tropical Institute in Basel and the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich are already working with Singapore and ETH Zurich is to take part in a future technology and entrepreneurial campus where it will be alongside MIT.

Swissnex was set up in Shanghai in 2008. In a country more used to working together with Americans than others, Switzerland is slowly making its presence felt; there are 25 common projects at present in life sciences, biotechnology and in sustainable urban development and there are dozens of student and research exchanges.

As for Bangalore, which will be inaugurated next year, the potential of India’s “high-tech” capital is just like the country itself: enormous.

For the time being there are no plans to expand the Swissnex network further. At the State Secretariat for Education and Research, people are waiting for the results of an investigation into Switzerland’s foreign tasks and government reform, which could bring together education and research in one ministry. The decisions will therefore be political.

United States, Singapore, China and India: These countries play host to five scientific Swiss consulates in the Swissnex network. It is part of Switzerland’s bilateral cooperation concerning education, research and innovation.

Public-private: Administered by the State Secretariat for Education and Research in the interior ministry and with support from the foreign ministry Swissnex operates in partnerships with universities, businesses, associations and private sponsors.

Boston opened in October 2000 and cooperates closely with Swissnex San Francisco and with the Swiss scientific counsellor in Washington. Boston covers mainly New England and the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario.

San Francisco opened in June 2003 and covers the west of the US and Canada.

Singapore opened in 2004 on the Biopolis site, the “science city” that mainly carries out biomedical research.

Shanghai, which is located in the same building as the Swiss consulate general, has been fully operational since 2008.

Bangalore received the green light from the Indian authorities in August 2010. It will be inaugurated in 2011.

(Translated from French by Robert Brookes)

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