What I learned at Lift13 about the Swiss startup scene


swiss startupsLast week I attended Lift13 in Geneva, which was a great experience, offering all kinds of interesting insights, debates and experiences around technological innovation. Although innovation and entrepreneurship have always been at the core of Lift’s DNA, this year saw a particular emphasis on showcasing Switzerland’s startup scene. It was interesting seeing how the tech scene of a country that is  often known more for its fondue, chocolate and banking than its startups is evolving. Lift13 in general and my discussions with various people at the heart of the Swiss tech scene more specifically left me with a few main impressions:

1. Switzerland has some pretty impressive, global startups that you may not realize are Swiss.   Doodle, House Trip, Memonic, Paper.liQuest.li, Poken…what do they all have in common.  You guessed it! There are also some interesting up-and-comers, including Lift13 Venture Night finalists Stablish.Me and Faceshift (the big winner at venture night). Finally, another great thing that the Swiss startup scene has going for it is that they have several English news tech blogs and info sources such as Startup.ch, the recently launched Techstartups, Swiss Start-up Monitor, and the always entertaining Startupolic, making it really easy for those outside of Switzerland and/or those that don’t speak French, German, or Italian to follow what’s going on there.

2. They have a very impressive mapping of their tech ecosystem.  I actually heard a little while back about this really great project called the Swiss Start-up Monitor, which is essentially a mapping and directory of Switzerland’s tech ecosystem. Hearing good things about their work, I was intrigued to check-out exactly what they’ve developed.  What they’ve done, in my opinion, is something that is sorely lacking at a European level – a single, comprehensive cataloging of all startups and other key players in Europe’s tech ecosystem.  Obviously there are efforts at this in places and some general sources (i.e. CrunchBase) exist, but a visual mapping of all startups across Europe with an overview of each company?  To my knowledge, this doesn’t yet exist. As I told them when I met with them, this is definitely a model that should be replicated at the European level. To improve the Monitor they could certainly add more depth to the startup level data, but it’s certainly a great start.

3. Is the (perceived) schism between the French and Swiss-German (and Italian) tech communities a problem?  I am obviously not Swiss nor have I ever lived in Switzerland (although I did work there quite a bit several years back), but this was a concern that several people raised about Switzerland’s tech scene.  As an outsider, I don’t pretend to know if this is truly the case or not, so I’ll just have to take their word on it.  So, assuming this is the case, I’d think that this siloed approach is probably holding their tech ecosystem back from reaching its full potential. Given the depth of talent and resources across Switzerland, capitalizing on opportunities to fully collaborate cross-region / cross-language could be a real boon for their tech ecosystem.

4. The cost-of-living in Switzerland (particularly the Geneva area) can make launching and growing a startup there challenging.  As everyone knows, Switzerland has two of the most expensive cities in the world, Zurich and Geneva. This obviously presents a dilemma for startups. Continued development of and investment in incubators, affordable coworking spaces, and accelerators, which as I understand are now progressing well there, should be a big help in addressing this problem. Perhaps looking to Paris, who have successfully utilized this approach to address this issue, could be a potential model of inspiration. And, of course, one can’t forget tax incentives and subventions which can also go a long way in helping to tackle the problem head on.

5. It would be great to hear more regularly about what’s going on in Switzerland’s tech scene and see more collaboration with other markets.  Lift13 offered some great examples of this.  Firstly, they hosted Venture Night in conjunction with various other Swiss associations, offering Swiss startups from around the country the opportunity to showcase themselves in front of a global audience. They also added a bit of an international flavor to the Venture night program this year with jury member French eBuzzing founder Oliver Chappaz and a presentation following the competition from Berlin-based startup Helloclue. Another element of the conference that illustrated effective collaboration between cities and countries was the Urban data challenge, launched in conjunction with Swissnex San Francisco, US-based Gray Area Foundation For The ArtsVBZ (public transport of Zurich)TPG (public transport of Geneva) and Fusepool.  The challenge draws on transport data from Zurich, Geneva, and San Francisco, and will run through end of March (if you’re interested, you can still sign-up to participate here). Geneva, with its strong international organization and NGO presence, and Switzerland, more generally, with its philosophy and policy of neutrality, makes it a natural fit for the open data movement. There is likely to be several examples of disruptive innovation and new ventures that evolve out of the movement, which adds another argument for the potential of Switzerland’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

This is all, of course, just some observations from my very short time there.  My first trip definitely piqued my curiosity to learn more about the Swiss startup scene.  I’ll definitely be keeping an eye on the news coming out of there and very much hope to return soon to get an even closer look.