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Swiss start-ups to learn from American experience

The centre piece of the Swiss House is a video conferencing arena.

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Switzerland's new state-of-the-art consulate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, aims to help Swiss entrepreneurs establish themselves in the Boston area, one of the world's most vibrant centres for research and the high-tech industry.

The consulate, known as the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education (SHARE), is being billed as the first in the world devoted to science and technology.

It hopes to establish fruitful links between Swiss universities and their equivalents in the Boston area, such as Harvard and MIT.

But it is also interested in encouraging creative thinking in business as well as education, and is involved in a series of initiatives aimed at helping start-ups.

One important spin-off from the Swiss House is SEND, or Swiss Entrepreneurs Network Development, a commercial venture whose mission is to help small start-up companies in Switzerland reach the American market.

"When you have a small company with only a handful of employees, you haven't got the resources to open an office in the US. We will help them to read the market and find their first clients here," Xavier Comtesse, the Swiss consul and driving force behind the Swiss House, told swissinfo.

"Times are changing. When I was young, I started a band playing music, but today young people start companies," Comtesse said.

SEND, a kind of virtual incubator, will give young Swiss entrepreneurs the necessary tools and contacts to make their way in the American market.

Another Swiss House spin-off is BEAM, the Boston Economic Advancement Messengers, which emerged from regular think tank meetings of Swiss expatriates. Its objective is to study what makes Boston successful in terms of entrepreneurship and innovation, and to try to transfer that knowledge to Switzerland.

"Before we find the answers, we have to ask the right questions," says BEAM's co-director, Max von Zedtwitz. "But we have identified a few key points."

One is legislation which has revamped the mechanisms for the transfer of technology from educational institutions to industry.

Switzerland may be a world leader in banking, biotechnology, pharmaceuticals and engineering, but it has yet to establish itself as a major player in the high-tech sector.

Nor does it have a reputation for encouraging start-ups, mainly because private banks are loath to throw money at high-risk ventures. But von Zedtwitz believes things are changing, and fast.

"I left Switzerland two years ago and then it was relatively conservative. But when I went back two months ago, it was not the same country," he told swissinfo. "The mindset of the Swiss people has changed. There are so many young people starting up their own companies, based on ideas they had when they were at college."

One Swiss city that is a potential growth area is Lausanne, which is the third most active area in the field of biotechnology after the Oxford and Cambridge in Britain.

"Switzerland has changed. It's our obligation to support that from here in Boston, which - along with Silicon Valley - is one of the hubs of entrepreneurship and innovation," said von Zedtwitz.

But he warns against trying to turn Switzerland into a second Silicon Valley: "Too many other governments have tried and failed. This is not something you can direct - you have to support and facilitate it."

The message from the Swiss House this week has been that political neutrality doesn't have to mean economic neutrality.

by Roy Probert


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