Switzerland needs more courage to think big, says ETH board president

A biochemist and biologist by training, Michael Hengartner became president of the ETH Board in February 2020. © Keystone / Walter Bieri

The head of the board of the federal institutes of technology - Switzerland's two top-ranked universities internationally - wants a culture of innovation in Switzerland that moves faster and thinks bigger.

This content was published on August 16, 2020 - 13:06

“Our knowledge should flow even faster into innovations that are brought onto the market,” Michael Hengartner told the German-language paper NZZ am Sonntag in an interviewExternal link.

A biochemist and biologist by training, Hengartner became president of the ETH Board, which oversees the two federal technology institutes in Zurich and Lausanne, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic in February.

Switzerland invests a lot in education and basic research and is very good at experiments and pilot projects. However, it “often lacks the courage to think big,” said Hengartner.

ETH has developed a start-up taskforce to help in this respect but Hengartner says there is more to do to compete with the likes of Tesla CEO Elon Musk in bringing discoveries to market.

“Today, the survival rate of our startups is 90 to 95%. You can interpret that in different ways. The negative view would be that we wait too long to be completely sure - and as a result miss opportunities,” he said. “We need more Musks in Switzerland.”

He believes a kind of Marshall Plan is needed in areas like climate and digitization and to bring solutions to market quicker and to scale them.

Hengartner told the paper that the coronavirus has reinforced the importance of science but also some of the challenges in deploying the science to get the pandemic under control.

He acknowledged that politicians have to consider many factors, not just scientific facts, when making decisions.

“Our job is to provide facts. How politicians decide is their responsibility.”

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