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swiss houses span the globe

Since 2000 the Swiss government has been setting up unique science and education representations in North America and Asia.

This content was published on May 17, 2006 - 09:26

These so-called Swiss Houses aim to provide a link between Swiss citizens - academics or innovators – Switzerland and the host country.

The first Swiss house opened its doors in Boston six years ago. Set up in a renovated redbrick supermarket building, it sits between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Our first goal was to be a bridgehead for Swiss science and education in the Boston area, to help scientists and start-ups who had already moved or were considering moving to the United States," said the house's founder Xavier Comtesse.

Today, the centre – which doubles as a consulate for legal reasons – has managed to retain the high profile it had when it was launched, promoting Swiss academic excellence as well as furthering ties

between the US and Switzerland.

But despite this visibility, the Boston house's role is not always understood.

Unusual

"Some people still don't realise what we do because it is unusual," current director Christoph von Arb told swissinfo. "When you explain to them that you focus on science, technology and innovation, they can't really grasp the idea.

"The Americans are used to the idea of trade promotion, something that a foreign representation would traditionally do. So we constantly have to raise our profile to make people aware of what we are doing."

The Swiss Houses represent a unique public-private partnership.

While the government paid for some of the start-up and running costs, each one must find additional funding for its activities.

A private bank, for example, paid for the renovation of the Boston centre.

Swissnex, its counterpart in San Francisco, is no different.

"We couldn't have even considered our project without private sponsorship," said its director Christian Simm.

"The Swiss House advisory board is also representative of this, with government, university and private

-sector members."

Swissnex, to help finance its upkeep, rents out space to Swiss organisations that wish to work in San Francisco. The Greater Zurich Economic Area and the Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology are just two who have set up shop there.

Different environments

Each of the three Swiss Houses have also adapted to their environment. In Boston, the centre is in a residential area, and its design and community-based activities reflect that. Local residents are regularly invited to attend public events.

It also has a more academic outlook

on its work, although this does not exclude business-oriented acti- vities.

In San Francisco, these activities have a stronger business bent according to Simm.

"We are perhaps less interested in straight research, and pay more attention to the research-to- development phase of a product," he told swissinfo. "We are more like a group of West Coast entrepreneurs."

In Singapore, the latest addition to the Swiss House network focuses on the island-state's science priorities that converge with Switzerland's own.

"We obviously have an interest in

biomedical research and nanotechnology development here," said the head of the local Swiss house, Suzanne Hraba-Renevey. "But environmental and digital media research will also be of interest in the future."

The Singapore house, which is located in the heart of the city's Biopolis, is also less focused on Swiss researchers and innovators than its American counterparts.

"There aren't as many Swiss researchers here, so we don't serve as a link for the expatriate community as much as the others do," added Hraba-Renevey.

To a large extent, the Swiss Houses have worked alone in their corner despite being united by a common

concept. This is changing though according to Hraba-Renevey.

"Our board is now insisting we work more closely together, something we have come to realise ourselves," she told swissinfo. "We will have common projects, but we will also communicate together and have a common brand."

The network is far from complete.

The State Secretariat for Education and Research plans to open another house in Shanghai, hopefully within the next two years.

swissinfo, Scott Capper

Key facts

The first Swiss House, Switzerland's original science and technology consulate, opened in Boston in 2000.
Swissnex, the second of the houses, began operating in San Francisco in 2003.
The Singapore Swiss House was opened for business in 2004.
Another house is planned for Shanghai by 2008.

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In brief

Scientific policy is an important component of Swiss foreign policy.

The aim is to raise awareness of Switzerland as an internationally competitive location for scientific research and technological development, as well as promote worldwide cooperation in research and development.

The State Secretariat for Education and Research has created a professional network of science counsellors and science consulates in close cooperation with the foreign ministry.

The establishment and upkeep of the three Swiss Houses are funded from public and private sources.

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