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Research institute calls for more risk-taking

PSI is hoping to encourage the entrepreneurs of the future (H.R. Bramaz/PSI) Bilder H.R. Bramaz/PSI

The director of the renowned Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) says that science needs more researchers willing to take new ideas into the commercial world.

Ralph Eichler said that brave decisions and more risk-taking were needed, particularly in Switzerland.

Speaking at the institute’s annual press conference in Villigen in northern Switzerland earlier this month, Eichler said that science and research were all about innovation.

“You need people who have imagination and non-conformist ideas,” Eichler told swissinfo.

“Students and researchers have to be helped so they have some freedom to take the initiative and not just maintain the status quo and do whatever was done in the past,” he said.

Eichler said a good example of long-term thinking at PSI was HY-LIGHT, a hydrogen-powered car.

PSI worked on the hydrogen-based fuel cells in the car, which was a joint venture with tyre specialist Michelin. It was unveiled at the Shanghai Bibendum Challenge last year.

Michelin believes that hydrogen technology could be the best possible replacement for fossil fuels in the future.


Another innovative technology to come out of PSI is the use of a pioneering radiation technique to treat deep-seated tumours. The system targets tumours very precisely causing minimal damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

Hospitals are now starting to use the application, and the first-ever commercial proton therapy centre in Europe will open in Munich this year.

Eichler said that it was important that researchers at the institute felt they could “have the freedom to have crazy ideas and follow these ideas”.

“Then, of course, the difficulty is to find out if the crazy ideas have a future and you can make a new device or product out of them,” he said.

According to Eichler, entrepreneurs are the future of science. But he said that Switzerland desperately needed more innovators.

New ideas needed

He said Switzerland had good entrepreneurs in the past, like the former Brown Boveri, a highly successful electrical company which built power plants. It has now been incorporated into engineering giant ABB.

But Eichler added that older companies were losing ground and new ideas were needed.

“I sometimes wish that there were more of these entrepreneurs – an entrepreneur has to take risks but we are not like that in Switzerland,” commented Eichler.

The physics professor said that young would-be entrepreneurs needed good role models, such as Swatch founder Nicolas Hayek, who is credited with reviving the Swiss watch industry.

“Young students should be encouraged at least to try something out,” Eichler told swissinfo. “Maybe you will be successful. If not, it’s not too bad and you try something else.”

PSI, which focuses on natural sciences and technology, is the largest institute of its kind in Switzerland.

It already has close ties to industry, with some of its large-scale research done in collaboration with industrial partners.

Some of its former scientists have used their know-how to form their own start-ups, such as high-tech sensor company Sensirion and neutron optics firm SwissNeutronics.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson

PSI is active in solid-state physics, materials sciences, elementary particle physics, life sciences, nuclear and non-nuclear energy research, and energy-related ecology.
It is the largest national research institute, with 1,200 members of staff.
Last year PSI had 140 publications, compared with 60 in 2003.

The 2004 annual report also underlined two other areas where PSI had made considerable progress.

There was a world record in photolithography, the process of “printing” tiny electrical circuits on silicon chips. These chips may be used in computers in the future.

Researchers looking into magnetism – which is still not explained – were able to highlight the change in magnetic particles in materials after an external magnetic field was applied.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR