Background

Fertile Ground on the Shores of Lake Geneva

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Credits: Alain Herzog

The EPFL Innovation Park in Lausanne is the springboard for many successful Swiss start-ups.

by MARCO BRUNNER

 

When you look at this year’s ranking of the 100 best Swiss start-ups, you will immediately notice something impressive about the location of the top performers. Out of the top ten, seven have their origin in Western Switzerland. And 25 have connections to the Innovation Park at Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). What is the secret of this impressive line-up? How is it that so many Swiss start-ups have found their springboard at EPFL Innovation Park?

Fertile Ground

It must be more than just the resemblance of Lausanne to the city of San Francisco that brings the innovative and entrepreneurial spirit to the “Swiss West Coast.” Since 1992, the Innovation Park has been home to the best and most successful young enterprises in Switzerland.

For more than two decades, big companies like Logitech, Nestlé, Cisco, Merck have committed themselves to forming and bringing excellence out of the Lausanne start-up hub. “At the moment, 171 start-up companies with 1,900 people are installed at the Innovation Park,” says Aurélie Schick, who is in charge of Corporate Relations for EPFL.

The Lake Geneva Region has a resplendent and beautiful landscape, but thanks to its history of many successful and well-known companies being founded here, it is also known for its strong network of entrepreneurs and scientists. Bringing academic excellence to a real world economy is the main goal of the park. “A lot of our young entrepreneurs here are EPFL alumni or are still involved with research projects,” says Aurélie. The proximity to the EPFL campus is an advantage when it comes to applying science to real world problems.

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Credits: Alain Herzog

Leaving Academia 

The close connections to EPFL, and academia in general can also be a stumbling block. Academic language is not necessarily the best tool to sell your idea and your start-up. “We tell them: try to explain what you are doing to your grand-mother,” smiles Aurélie. According to her, one of the main challenges is to transform the highly technical and academic mindset of the young founders into an entrepreneurial spirit that also speaks to non-technical, non-academic thinkers. “We are here to help with this transition.”

Additionally, a network of coaches and mentors are there to support the start-ups and to strengthen their entrepreneurial skills. The know-how of at least 20 big companies from many different sectors is at their disposal. The work conditions for the start-ups are comfortable. Thirteen buildings with spacious offices and development facilities are found at the core of the Innovation Park. “We are almost at full capacity. Around 96% of the space available here is occupied,” says Aurélie.

Another advantage for the founders, besides the pleasant environment: the first six months are rent-free, which is an important criteria for young companies as they decide where to open their offices. Benjamin Beh, co-founder and product developer of Protopidea.com, a mobile application for collaborative value creation, says: “We have been here since this April. To have an office at Innovation Park is certainly an advantage when you want to gain credibility and increase visibility.” Once a year, a demo-day is organized, where all the start-ups can present their ideas and products. This is an important event if you want to get to know investors and take the next step: leaving the Park and succeeding with your own business model.

The unicorn has left its stable

One current example of a company that has successfully jumped off the Lausanne springboard to conquer the world is Mindmaze. The medtech start-up, founded in 2012, is now partly based in the US. It is valued at over 1 Billion USD, making it, what is referred to in the scene, as a Unicorn. Up until this point, it’s the one and only Swiss Unicorn. “Even though they have left the Innovation Park, ties are still strong,” says Aurélie Schick. And Tej Tadi, founder of Mindmaze confirms in an interview with Le Temps, his lasting commitment to Lausanne as a homebase. So, the EPFL Innovation Park is not only a springboard, but is also an opportunity for the whole region to further develop its sustainable economy.

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