By Jo McIntyre
Small Times Correspondent
Feb. 1, 2002 – Swiss small tech entrepreneurs, research institute executives, government officials and venture investors will visit three major U.S. cities in May to learn from their American counterparts — and possibly even lure some Swiss scientists back home.
Switzerland, long known for its precision machine enterprises, is dedicating an increasing amount of public and private investment to small-tech projects, and the May road show is part of that effort.
Government funding for Swiss nanotech projects runs at about $19 million annually — low compared to U.S. funding of about $422 million, but the highest in the world on a per capita basis, according to a Swiss Technology Consulting Group study completed last year.
The group will be in Boston May 8-9, Chicago May 10-12 and the West Coast on May 13-15. The tour is sponsored by the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education in Cambridge, Mass., an entity established by the Swiss federal government and billed as the “first consulate in the world that is exclusively dedicated to science, research and education.”
These groups conduct activities aimed at creating relationships between the United States and Switzerland, according to Pascal Marmier, the Cambridge consulate’s adviser for high tech and business relationships.
In Switzerland, basic research is done mainly at two institutions: the Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology (ETH/EPF) in Zurich and Lausanne.
“Solid, government-sponsored research in micro and nanotechnology is going on there,” Marmier said. Applied research is taking place at the Paul Scherrer Institute, based in Villigen, which has a lab for molecular nanotechnology applications, and Geneva-based CSEM, where research activities include polymeric nanostructures.
Marmier divides Swiss nanotech efforts into three categories: basic research, applied research, and spinoff and industrial activity. Of most interest to investors are spinoffs and current industrial activities, which include components and systems, materials, and handling and production.
The Swiss small tech industry is strongest in components and systems, with several dozen companies already up and running, including startups like component maker Mimotec SA of Sion.
Mimotec creates molds for metal parts for items like watches. The company also uses MEMS lithography tools to build plastic master micromolds for mass production of components for the watch, medical, pharmacological and bioscience industries.
Among several Neuchatel-based spinoffs from CSEM is Colibrys, which manufactures MEMS and micro-optical components. The company has received $12 million in venture capital funding. In November last year, Colibrys and Coventor of Cary, N.C., teamed up to develop MEMS for optical communications.
The first demonstrations of their common design and technology platform will be mirror arrays and optical shutters, which can be used in optical switches, channel equalizers and attenuators. Low-volume production is expected by the first quarter of next year. Colibrys also announced it will use Coventor’s design software to develop custom MEMS devices for optical systems, as well as for diffractive optics, accelerometers and sensors.
Another Swiss small tech company is NanoSurf AG, of Liestal, which is developing scanning probe microscopes and positioning devices. It is a spinoff from the University of Basel. The company’s activities concentrate on R&D and marketing while the production of series parts (mechanics, electronics) is subcontracted to companies in and around Basel.
SWISS ‘BRAIN CIRCULATION’
The Swiss want to study how the United States turns scientific discoveries into profitable endeavors so quickly, compared to European countries, Marmier said.
To that end, they foster projects related to knowledge transfers from research institutions to corporations, provide information about Swiss technology and attempt to lure young Swiss scientists back to their home country, or at least get them to phone home once in a while.
There are many reasons that Swiss scientists and businessmen live abroad, especially in the United States. Scientists in the United States benefit from a more liberal university tenure track system, Simm noted.
With a doctorate in engineering physics from Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Christian Simm, who heads the Swiss Science and Technology Office in San Francisco, has not only studied the Swiss brain drain, he is also an example of the phenomenon.
“I helped a Swiss foundation to prepare a study of what I call ‘brain circulation,’ not brain drain,” he said. “We spent hours discussing how to define it. Until I’m dead or retire, no one can say I’ve ‘drained’ to the U.S.”
He said that Europeans in general, and the Swiss in particular, have to understand and embrace the concept of business risk-taking. “You can’t go bankrupt in Switzerland. If you do, you are marked for life,” he said. Admiration for risk-taking is not as widespread in Switzerland as it is in the United States.
Another reason many Swiss choose to live in the United States is its well-established venture capital community. Swiss money managers have lot of money available to invest, but they are not experienced in management of high-risk investments, Simm said.
On the other hand, specific clusters like Silicon Valley and the Boston area are hard to replicate, Simm said. There are 3.5 million people in the Silicon Valley, he noted. That’s half the entire population of Switzerland. And in such clusters, even landlords are up to speed. “You don’t have to explain to them what a T1 Internet line is,” he said.
Simm has founded and runs the 2,000-member Web directory SwissTalents, an outreach effort to Swiss high tech workers living outside of their home country. “We don’t have exact statistics, but given that most live in the U.S., there may be 3,000 to 5,000″ Swiss scientists and engineers in the U.S. out of the total 500,000 Swiss living outside of Switzerland, he said.
The consulates have high hopes for the Swiss expatriates. Returnees can become future leaders in all fields, Simm notes — in industry, academia and politics.
“We can certainly hope many have been for some time abroad, wherever that is — not just the U.S.,” he added. “The more places you have seen, the better you can think about what is good to do at home.”