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Wall Street Journal tips hat to Swiss innovation

In its annual search for Europe’s innovators, the Wall Street Journal Europe found gold and silver on Helvetic soil.

This content was published on November 28, 2003 - 17:49

The European Innovation Awards, presented in association with Accenture, awarded a gold prize to Abmi, a silver to SpeedScript, and an honourable mention was given to a team of researchers at the University of Fribourg.

The reason the Swiss stand out among all other European nations this year, according to the WSJ, is that “despite its relatively small population” the country spends a lot on research and development.

It is the fourth-largest European country in R&D spending, according to a scoreboard maintained by the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry (measured both by number of companies and percentage invested in R&D). Such figures are often seen as measuring innovation potential.

“The country is particularly strong in pharmaceuticals and biotech, with its companies accounting for 11.3 per cent of total international R&D in this sector,” said the WSJ.

Swiss industries that are knowledge driven, such as pharmaceuticals, financial services and precision engineering, are sectors from which innovation can arise, said the report.

Getting lucky in Switzerland

The WSJ reported that the Belgian scientist Antoine Weis “got a little lucky” when in 1999, after almost ten years of fundamental research in the field of “biomagnetics”, he was offered a full-time professorship at the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

The university allowed him to bring along five collaborators, with whom he had worked. He received a two-year grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, plus he found a second-hand magnetic shielding chamber for sale at a fraction of the usual price.

His team created a low-cost diagnostic system that relies on laser technology to detect heart disease earlier and at a much lower cost than today’s systems, which rely on superconductors.

Speedscript will be familiar to Swiss Venture readers as a winner of the Swiss Innovation Technology Award earlier this year. The company now employs four people and has a professional public relations company advising it, something it will need given its plans to link up with the likes of Microsoft, Nokia, Siemens and HP.

Today it is selling its first and only product via its web site. The goal is to get its handwriting recognition embedded in new handheld and mobile terminals.

In the past, the WSJ has selected other Swiss companies, such as Glycart Biotechnology (2001), which just closed its first round of venture capital with top tier investors from across Europe this past week.

Past performers

Another past winner, Shockfish, a company that develops telematics products, is also still in business and has increased employee numbers slightly despite a tough economic climate, according to a report in Bilanz, a Swiss business magazine, .

Other firms chosen for the European award have hit some speed-bumps on their path to high growth.

Innovation Wood’s new manufacturing process to make wood out of sawdust and waste wood chips has made great progress with small-scale manufacturing, but scaling up for “big boards” is proving problematic, reports the WSJ.

It is currently working on improving the manufacturing technique.

by Valerie Thompson

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