Understanding Switzerland’s impact ecosystem

9 min read
20 Jan 2020

Startup Guide has come a long way. We started out in 2014 on a mission to guide and inspire people to start their entrepreneurial journey anywhere. This is still our mission, but we’ve also shifted our focus. 

Until now, we’ve talked about startups that have developed a good product, achieved sizeable growth and secured funding, but we haven’t talked enough about the businesses that are solving the world’s most pressing challenges. That’s where the newest addition to our guidebooks comes in.

Startup Guide Switzerland is a mammoth project that has taken a lot of time, energy and talented people to get to print. Contained in its pages is an introduction to five of Switzerland’s main impact ecosystems – as well as some of the region’s most innovative startups, spaces, programs and schools – that are all united in their purpose to create sustainable change on a global scale.

So how do we choose who and what goes in the book? 

Well, first of all, Startup Guide uses its own criteria to assess the ecosystem based on startup purpose, vision, transparency, profits and value, all of which is rooted in the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals. Then, local city and community partners help us to fairly evaluate our selections. 

We’re going to be unveiling Startup Guide Switzerland very soon. Until then, we thought we’d give you a taste of what you can expect from the region, as well as a closer look at some of the most impactful Swiss startups. 

Switzerland has traditionally been fertile ground for entrepreneurship, thanks to its excellent infrastructure, liberal culture, and good governance

Switzerland: An overview

Located at the intersection of several countries and home to some of Europe’s foremost universities and research centers, Switzerland is an irresistible destination for impact-driven businesses.

In addition to its well-educated talent pool, Switzerland boasts a generous funding landscape (in 2018, venture capitalists invested more than €1 billion in Swiss startups) and a high quality of life. With significant investment being channeled into research and development, the country is also one of Europe’s greatest producers of deeptech, biotech and fintech.

“Switzerland has traditionally been fertile ground for entrepreneurship, thanks to its excellent infrastructure, liberal culture, and good governance,” Isabelle Moret, President of the National Council, told Startup Guide. “Our entrepreneurial ecosystem can be enhanced to promote people, sustain the planet and generate profit – all at the same time – while creating world-class startups and companies.”

Switzerland is already on the right track. For decades, the country has prioritized sustainable business practices at both regional and national levels: In 2001, Switzerland unveiled its green tax reform from the Federal Council. In September 2012, the country announced its investment in a Cleantech center in Geneva and, in 2017, laid out an "action plan" for the Swiss Biodiversity Strategy. 

Startups in Switzerland are also stepping up to tackle problems from climate change and housing shortages to the increasing need for urban mobility. In recent years, different regions in Switzerland have developed their own areas of expertise.

Basel: The pharmaceutical mecca 

Basel is Switzerland’s pharmaceutical hotspot, with many international biotech and pharma companies – including Actelion and Polyphor – calling the region home. The Basel region also has the highest production volume in life sciences in the world and is home to 700 companies in this sector. 

Startups such as biotech company Anaveon are taking full advantage of Basel’s robust innovation ecosystem. The company is developing next-generation IL-2 therapeutics to enhance the human immune response to tumors and other diseases. If Anaveon’s IL-2 is successful in clinical trials, cofounders Andreas Katopodis and Onur Boyman hope to improve the efficacy of their formula by inventing more cytokine therapeutics.

“We have a vision that the company will be a cytokine company, using the power of cytokines to treat diseases that have immune etiology,” Andreas told Startup Guide. 

Basel by Vincent Ghilione

Bern: Medtech takes center stage

Bern is best known for being the site of many groundbreaking scientific and technological discoveries – it is, after all, the hometown of Albert Einstein, the founding father of the theory of relativity. Technology developed by Bernese scientists even contributed to a discovery on Mars in 2011.

In recent years, medtech companies have been moving into the spotlight. The canton of Bern has 280 medtech companies that employ more than 7,000 people, according to a 2016 report by the Swiss Economic Development Agency. Annual turnover in the region for medtech is 2.7 billion CHF.

Old Town Of Bern by Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Companies such as Retinai are using artificial intelligence to identify macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy and glaucoma. Meanwhile, digital health startup resilient inc. are developing an artificial cloud intelligence platform to help people analyze their unhealthy stress patterns. The idea is to inform users when they are approaching burnout and give them actionable steps to improve their wellbeing. 

“Right now, we are seeing an explosion in mental healthcare costs and many people are unable to access therapy,” says Max Grossenbacher, cofounder of resilient. “Large companies are also reluctant – or perhaps just poorly equipped – to support the mental health of their employees. Both of these factors have opened up opportunities for e-therapy solutions.”

Bern is also spearheading innovation in the country’s energy industries: The canton currently produces over half of Switzerland’s heat pumps and was the brains behind the Minergie standard for low-energy-consumption buildings. 

Geneva: The leader in life sciences

Geneva has a certain air of majesty about it. Encased by the Alps and the Jura mountains, with dramatic views of Mont Blanc, the quaint, French-speaking city is a sight for sore eyes. More than this, Geneva is the global epicenter for diplomacy and banking: The city is the headquarters of Europe’s United Nations and the Red Cross and is often referred to as the “peace capital.” 

The finance industry is a key player in Geneva’s startup ecosystem, but its purpose extends beyond making a profit. Intent on making finance more ethical, the city plays host to FC4S Network, the sustainable financial-centers network, and in 2017 it hosted the WealthTech conference

Additionally, Geneva is home to a sizable life sciences cluster. It was ranked in the top ten for life sciences patents, research and policy, alongside Bern and Lausanne, according to Startup Genome’s 2019 Global Ecosystem Ranking. 

Eco startup La Corde à Linge is a prime example of how scientific innovation can help people to live more sustainably – even when it comes to the mundane task of washing clothes. 

Since 2016, founder Anne-Julie Beroud has been on a mission to reduce pollution in lakes and rivers in Switzerland with her biodegradable, hypoallergenic and 100 percent plant-based laundry detergent – the recipe for which was bequeathed to her by her grandmother, Dora. 

“Ecology is my priority,” she told Startup Guide. “And I feel it should be everyone’s priority.”

Lausanne: The hub for healthtech and clean energy

Lausanne, the capital of the Vaud region of Switzerland, has a lot to brag about. The city was the first to be awarded the European Energy Award (EEA) gold label and is now commonly known as the “City of Energy.” What’s more, the Vaud region takes the title of “Health Valley” for its contribution to scientific research and its quality of life.

For startups, the canton of Vaud provides a strong, supportive ecosystem and is a goldmine of opportunities. Fifteen percent of all startups in Switzerland come from Vaud, thanks in part to the large number of spinoff companies emerging from its major universities such as EPFL. The canton is also indebted to its three innovation parks (EPFL Innovation Park, Y-Parc and Biopôle) that not only sustain the region economically but provide space for more than 400 companies.

Lausanne’s universities are key drivers of innovation in the realms of clean energy and healthtech. 

According to EPFL’s first-ever Sustainable Development Goals report, more than half of the research labs at the university incorporated the SDGs into their research. Their focus? Health and wellbeing (SDG 3), affordable and clean energy (SDG 7) and industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG 9).

So, what are startups up to in Lausanne? Bloom Biorenewables is converting biomass into a sustainable fuel source, agritech company Gamaya is making farming more efficient by providing useful data and analytics to industrial growers of crops and Insolight are improving upon existing solar panels in order to maximize green-energy production.

Zurich: Switzerland’s startup center 

Zurich is the largest and best-known city in Switzerland and the most international. Located in the German-speaking part of the country on the shores of Lake Zurich, the city is home to 548,000 foreign residents who make up 43 percent of the canton’s total population, according to 2019 statistics from the Swiss Federal Statistical Office. The city also accounts for 30 percent of Switzerland’s total number of startups.

The reason? Zurich is unchallenged in terms of quality of life and economic opportunity. 

Second only to London in the 2019 Global Financial Centres Index for Western Europe, Zurich is one of the most important financial centers in the world. Its influence (and cash) are far-reaching: According to the 2019 Swiss Venture Capital Report by startupticker.ch, an independent news site reporting on Swiss innovation, over 500 million CHF was invested in 100 Zurich-based startups in 2018. 

It goes without saying that Zurich is a hub for fintech (10 percent of European fintechs reside in Switzerland, with 45 percent of them located in Zurich). Still, this hasn’t stopped companies cropping up in sectors such as AI, connectivity and mobility, among others.

“Zurich is a very interesting city for startups because it’s kind of a big living lab,” says Anna Schindler, director of Urban Development Zurich. “The important element is the fusion between the different players in the ecosystem.”

Zurich’s ecosystem has produced the likes of GetYourGuide, a travel-experience company that is on track to becoming a unicorn, as well as debt-capital-market platform Loanboox, which was named the Growth Stage Startup of the Year at the 2018 Swiss Fintech Awards.

Emerging startups to watch include Eaternity, which is providing restaurants with analyses of their food’s environmental impact, and Yova, an impact investment firm dedicated to helping customers invest money in alignment with their ethics.

Zurich by Claudio Schwarz

Improving entrepreneurial education for young people, financing startups in their early stages, and removing barriers to entrepreneurship for women are all key to creating the conditions for a sustainable future

What’s next for Switzerland?

In 1996, 25 startups across Switzerland were created, according to the 2018/2019 Swiss Startup Radar report by Startupticker. Today, over 300 are launched per year and the country is set to continue on this trajectory, with a little help from the Swiss government.

“Our aim is to create the most favorable conditions for innovative businesses to make the SDGs a reality,” says Isabelle. “Improving entrepreneurial education for young people, financing startups in their early stages, and removing barriers to entrepreneurship for women are all key to creating the conditions for a sustainable future.”

For an inside look into Switzerland's startup ecosystems, grab a copy of Startup Guide Switzerland here.

Don’t forget: As part of our partnership with One Tree Planted, the purchase of this guidebook contributes toward the planting of a tree.