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Practice meets theory

Logitech founder Daniel Borel and Martin Vetterli, president of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), talk about entrepreneurship in Switzerland, the founder gene, and the changes Alfred Escher would probably want to make in Switzerland today.

Mr. Vetterli, Mr. Borel, you rank among the major players in the world of Swiss entrepreneurship …

Martin Vetterli (MV): … Well, he does!

Daniel Borel (DB): What are you talking about, you’re still active! I’m just a retiree who lives in Silicon Valley and has a certain interest in technology and entrepreneurship.

People often talk about the "founder gene." Is there such a thing? A new Credit Suisse study* says "yes" – do you agree?

MV: Definitely. It’s the same as in art. People can take courses and try really hard. But in the end, there are outstanding painters or dancers – and then there are the rest of us. It’s like that for entrepreneurs as well.

Mr. Vetterli, before you became president of the EPFL, you were involved in a successful startup. But you gave up your career as an entrepreneur. Why? Do you lack this gene?

MV: My father was an entrepreneur, so my DNA surely contains some of that trait. At some point you recognize where you can have the greatest impact. I believe that for me, this is in academia, not in a startup. But I feel a strong connection to entrepreneurship. Many of my students have chosen this path, and I strongly support them.

Mr. Borel, what was it like for you? Was your path always clearly marked?

DB: No. I believe that everyone looks for something in life that sparks their passion. When I was 27, thanks to a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation, I went to the United States, where I met many people who were excited about computer science. It was in the late 1970s, and the IT revolution was taking off . I plunged into an environment that wanted to reinvent the future. It would have been hard not to become passionate about it. But if I had stayed in Switzerland, things might have turned out quite differently.

MV: Does entrepreneurship run in your family?

DB: My paternal grandfather, who brought me up, built two factories and fi led 70 patents. My maternal grandfather was Parisian and a director at Saint-Gobain, a large corporation.

At some point you recognize where you can have the greatest impact

Martin Vetterli

Alfred Escher was one of Switzerland's greatest entrepreneurs. Next year is the 200th anniversary of his birth. What makes him so important for Switzerland?

MV: Escher accomplished three incredible things, each one alone would have been enough to earn him a statue in front of the main railway station in Zurich. He made crucial improvements to Switzerland's infrastructure by championing the construction of railroads and the Gotthard Tunnel. He introduced risk capital to Switzerland by founding the Schweizerische Kreditanstalt [editor's note: now Credit Suisse] to finance the new infrastructure. Railroads were something like the startups of that time. And then came the true stroke of genius. He said that we needed a new training facility for the emerging issues: science and technology. He founded the Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, ETH) in Zurich.

When you look at Switzerland now – what would Escher probably do?

DB: He would step up support for the technical universities. When you as a society invest in the training of engineers, you can't go wrong. Too many engineers? There's no such thing.

MV: In the ambitious 19th century, there was a real danger that Switzerland would fall behind and remain stuck in agriculture. This scenario is a threat again now. We are about to miss the boat for the key technologies of the 21st century. Perhaps Escher would found an entirely new institute of technology focused on the promising technologies and business models, or at least completely transform the ETH and the EPFL.

Are you talking about information technology?

MV: We call it information technology, and that says it all! In the US, this field is called computer science – which has a totally different status. In Stanford and Berkeley, where I studied and worked, the most sought-after fields are electrical engineering and computer science. That's where you find the most students, the toughest selection process and the most money. In our academic environment, by contrast, people tend to turn up their noses at students and professors in these fields. Daniel is a physicist – I would never say anything against them. But computer science is now the most relevant field in the 21st century.

Right now, an era is beginning that could become the golden age for us

Martin Vetterli

Most of the companies in the Swiss Market Index (SMI) are more than 100 years old. Is that a danger, or perhaps even an opportunity?

DB: The industrial landscape in Switzerland is in urgent need of renewal. Look at how fast the world is turning today. The GAFAM [editor's note: Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft] aren't even 40 years old. Not one company from Europe is involved! As a result, we have missed the opportunity for many new jobs. And our traditional companies are increasingly under pressure.

MV: More than half of Swiss men and women work in the service sector. This is where the greatest digital disruption is taking place. Escher would warn our insurance companies and banks: “Pay close attention!”

You're both very critical. Do you currently also see opportunities for Switzerland?

DB: You have to look at history, understand who we are, and then invest heavily in the right things. Information technology is not embedded in the Swiss DNA. We are good at slow things, but the computer world spins very quickly. We are good at things where you really have to dig deep, such as biotechnology or medical technology. These are fields that suit our DNA.

MV: Right now, an era is beginning that could become the golden age for us: Pure information technology is reaching its limits. Much has been fully explored. Now we need to combine it with other fields, with engineering, computer science and physics, as well as with products from the consumer sector. This is known as the Internet of Things. There, we could beat the Americans. But I stand by what I said: The prerequisite is a broad layer of computer scientists. If we only cultivate the traditional disciplines, we will fall by the wayside.

DB: Because of its small size, Switzerland has an enormous opportunity. This is particularly true for the EPFL, which is much smaller than its counterparts in the US. The individual departments are supportive of each other and work together. This closeness is unparalleled and amazing. Precisely there, in the transition from one field to another, huge potential lies fallow – for example, between robotics and nanotechnology. Likewise, we survived at Logitech because we brought different things together, without being the best in any one discipline. In Stanford, which I otherwise praise so highly, they live in silos. Each department has its stars, but there is little interaction.

I plunged into an environment that wanted to reinvent the future

Daniel Borel

Mr. Vetterli, you don't consider Silicon Valley a role model for Switzerland. Why not?

MV: Don't misunderstand me. Silicon Valley is great. Entrepreneurs are respected, the best engineers in the world are there. It's very easy to start a company and find talent. It is – at least so far – very international. But as a social model, it can only go so far. Broad sections of the population do not have access to education. I was recently in San Francisco – the social divide is alarmingly wide. In Switzerland, every man and woman has access to an education of very high quality. We must pay heed to this, because here too a demographic divide is beginning to open.

DB: My enthusiasm for Silicon Valley is strongly related to the fact that I find things there that don't exist here, though I would very much like to see them here. In any society, there are only a handful of people who can actually create jobs. They should be treated very carefully. America can do this. At the same time, it's important that the general level of education is sufficiently high – even department store employees need to know something about digital products, or they'll be out of a job. When it comes to education for all, Switzerland certainly does it better.

Send young people abroad for two years – that would dramatically enhance their competitiveness

Daniel Borel

Speaking of internationality, many successful startup founders come from immigrant families. Steve Jobs (Syria), Elon Musk (South Africa) or Jeff Bezos (Cuba) are just a few examples. What's your explanation for that?

DB: They have to fight harder to succeed. That's Darwinism. We see this here as well, at the EPFL: Foreigners win 60 percent of the prizes for the best graduation results.

MV: Also, the startups formed here are often founded by foreign students. By the way, when Escher founded the ETH, he started with 60 or 70 percent German professors, and that didn't bother anyone. It's part of Swiss tradition to be open to the outside world.

DB: I personally think it's a pity that Swiss politicians, for example, often lack international experience. Few of them have lived abroad for very long. How do they intend to position Switzerland in the EU or in America, or manage our foreign relations? I think, send our young people abroad for two years instead of military service – that would dramatically enhance their competitiveness.

Mr. Borel, Mr. Vetterli, what do you see as "the next big thing"?

DB: Artificial intelligence. It will be used everywhere. To be honest, though, I don't know as much about this as Martin does. Do you agree?

MV: Yes, that's true, but artificial intelligence is already in use. However, I prefer to call it data science. That term is broader, and ultimately it covers everything that we can do with data – much that is good, but also some that is dangerous. We will be facing many ethical questions, and they will become major societal challenges in this century. However, you asked about the next big thing. I would say: quantum computing [Editor's note: computers that function according to the laws of quantum mechanics and are intended to solve certain information technology problems very efficiently]. This is going to shake up the world, change everything – but I'm not going to tell you just when this will happen (laughs).