Startups: Switzerland’s New Graduate Program

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Swiss students have dispersed for the summer holidays. Among those graduating and entering the job market, a new trend is emerging. More and more young people are founding startups.

Idyllically situated with views of Zurich, the Villa Rigi, a former manor house, has bright rooms and a garden that now serve a new purpose: as a headquarters for Swiss startups. Five startups are based here, among them ElectricFeel, a technology spin-off from the university ETH Zürich, with a focus on urban mobility.

Moritz Meenen, ElectricFeel’s CEO, greets us energetically, despite the fact that he has spent the past two months working seven days a week. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor, either: “If you look at the pay slip, founding a startup is about the most ridiculous thing you can do,” he says. But it quickly becomes clear why Meenen and his business partner Pratik Mukerji put in the effort: They are passionate about their idea.

With its software, ElectricFeel aims to make urban bike-sharing systems more intelligent. Imagine, for example, that you have a mass of student commuters using public e-bikes to ride from the train station to their university. Naturally, at some point all the bikes will be at the university and none will be left at the station. They need to be redistributed. This is carried out at regular intervals by a carrier vehicle, currently in a very inefficient way.

Enter ElectricFeel: With its software, it is able to calculate the optimal redistribution of the bikes in real time. The system already supports the bike-sharing initiatives in Mainz, Germany, and Doha, Qatar.

Was ein Unternehmer so brauch - typische Startup Schreibtisch Utensilien

Flickr / startupphotos

Your typical startup desk accessories

More and more young people in Switzerland have become entrepreneurial at the start of their careers. According to data from the Start Up Monitor, a Swiss initiative that tracks the industry, 33 percent of registered entrepreneurs are 30 or younger.

Beat Schillig is enthusiastic about this trend. “You learn significantly more than through an MBA, and it is more fun at that,” says Schillig, managing director of Venture Kick. It is no surprise that he shows so much enthusiasm. Since 2007, his organization has financially supported 309 promising business ideas, including ElectricFeel.

“The clear benefit of a startup is that you can work on something as your own boss,” says Alan Frei, director of the Start-Up Center at the University of Zurich. However, investing time and energy also carries with it a certain financial risk. Frei explains that only 1 in 10 startups manage to truly succeed in the market. The others eventually go broke. And often it is an all-in risk that entrepreneurs take in this gamble.

It’s a risk that people like Konrad Graber are trying to minimize. Graber is a Council of States representative for the Christian Democratic People’s Party from the Canton of Lucerne. He initiated a proposal to have more money from pension funds used to support startups, an initiative that is currently being discussed in the Federal Assembly’s Council of States.

“In Switzerland, we need to rethink the way we demand 100 percent security from companies,” Graber says. “We stigmatize failure, while at the same time entrepreneurs in the United States are working on the next idea.” With his proposal, Graber would like to see the Bundesrat, Switzerland’s Federal Council, create a market-led “Future Fund” to invest in future-oriented, innovation-promoting investments.

Praised as Europe’s “Most Innovative Country” by the European Union in 2014, Switzerland offers a wide range of support to young entrepreneurs. “There’s a good entrepreneurial culture and a strong interest in venture capital,” says Alexander Stoeckel, a partner in the venture capital company B-to-V. “If you have a good concept, there usually is capital available.”

And this support is not minimal. According to the latest Swiss Venture Capital Report, around 400 million Swiss francs were invested in 2013, half of which went to startups. Capital investments per capita are higher in Switzerland than in Germany. Startups do face challenges, however, when trying to secure greater financing rounds. “With greater investment needs, between 1 million and 3 million francs, say, there is indeed less capital available,” Stoeckel points out.

The startups at the Villa Rigi know these concerns only too well. Nonetheless, “I can’t imagine having a better job,” says ElectricFeel’s Meenen. The entrepreneurs will be pushing forward, whatever the odds.

This text was originally published in German on June 26th, 2014 and republished on The Huffington Post on July 17th, 2014.

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