“A two-way exchange for innovative ideas between Switzerland and the US.”
Dr. Felix Moesner, former CEO of swissnex Boston and current CEO of swissnex China talks expansion, acceleration, and key partnerships.
Dr. Felix Moesner has a full backpack of professional experiences. Before starting his swissnex journey, he worked in top-tier academia, at a startup, and one of the largest financial institutions in the world, to name just a few of his endeavors. He eventually made his way to the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo, where he established and ran Japan’s first Swiss Science & Technology Office. Nine years later, he came to Boston to become the fourth CEO of swissnex Boston and was instrumental in expanding and accelerating swissnex’s presence and partnerships in both Switzerland and Boston. Today, Felix lives in Shanghai where he is the CEO of swissnex China. We had a chance to chat with him and hear about his journey that has taken him across the globe.
swissnex Boston: What you were doing before joining swissnex Boston?
Dr. Felix Moesner: It’s been quite the journey because science is at my heart. I was in academia in the robotics’ field, but shifted to the private sector for a couple of years after my postdoc at ETH Zurich, working for a startup and then several blue chip companies. I had been running the IT department of Credit Suisse Life Japan, when I saw there was an opening as Science Counselor at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo. I was ready for a change back to my curiosity-driven roots and so I seized the opportunity. One of my first accomplishments in Tokyo was launching the Science and Technology Office. I stayed at that job for nine years, very closely linked on the science side with the government, but also experimenting with new formats.
How did you wind up going from Tokyo to Boston?
I saw what swissnex was doing in Boston and SF and found it really cool. Unfortunately though, there was no swissnex in Japan, but there was an opening in Boston. Mauro Moruzzi, the head of the swissnex network, called me and said, “How about Boston?’’ I naturally jumped at the opportunity. For me. Boston was kind of a dream destination, because it’s full of science and home to some of the brightest minds in science, innovation, and academia. Within a 90 minute drive, you have 200–300 colleges, universities, and research institutions. It’s simply a hotspot.
And of course New England is an extremely charming part of the United States. When I arrived it almost looked like a part of Europe in a way. What fascinated me the most, however, were the people. They were very open, but also serious. It’s a very unique corner of the United States.
What were the priorities that you tried to set in your time and the opportunities that you tried to go after?
At the most basic level, it was simply creating a lasting impact for Switzerland in Boston. This was actually my main task: to raise the visibility to the max. When I came to the team, I often said that the team members were one of the most important resources we had. Each person fit their position incredibly well, and there was a huge diversity of skills within the team. The only thing I needed to do was say, “the sky’s the limit.” We ramped things up, expanding the team, increasing the number of events and delegations, and we even remodeled the office space. I really tried to make the team as efficient as possible, while maintaining good communication amongst the team. After having laid the groundwork for success, we were then ready to achieve a few goals.
Are there any milestones and key moments that stand out to you?
One was organizing the first-ever Swiss-US Energy Innovation Day in 2014. It was the beginning of a very nice series that is still going strong on both sides of the Atlantic. That year, we were extremely lucky to have Federal Councillor and Energy Minister Doris Leuthard visit with a very large delegation. While she visited, we also took the opportunity to introduce her to MassChallenge, which she liked so much that she wanted a MassChallenge location in Switzerland. Today, there is a thriving MassChallenge location in Lausanne, and I think that was a big achievement for swissnex, because we wanted to create a two-way exchange for innovative ideas between Switzerland and the US.
Were there any partnerships between universities that swissnex played a role in?
The MIT — ETH partnership is the first that comes to mind. It was a much easier sell because MIT already considered ETH and EPFL as its peers. When we began focusing on the energy sector, it gave MIT and ETH an excuse to begin working together. MIT was very clear that ETH could bring a lot to the table to proceed with this agreement. Of course there were many discussions, but I think from the beginning there was a mutual understanding that collaboration should happen. I think the solidifying moment came when Doris Leuthard gave a speech at MIT about the activities in the fields of energy and energy innovation. It really set the mood for that partnership.
Another big initiative under your tenure was the establishment of the swissnex in New York office. How did that come to fruition?
We established the New York office in 2013, and I’m really glad we did. We began to notice a large amount of demand for swissnex programming in New York, so we first tested the waters with startups. We sent out a questionnaire to 200 Swiss startups that had come to our office in Boston, asking if they thought it would be useful to do programs in New York. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. It really was the right place to be. It is the financial epicenter of the United States, #2 for venture capital, and home to more than 100 universities.
It was obvious that if we could create opportunities for startups and universities there, it could only succeed. As such, our first two major activities in New York were the Innosuisse startup camp and to support the Swiss universities. When we were planning the opening, Susan Kish, who at that time was Head of Cross Platform Initiatives at Bloomberg told me, “if you start in New York, you have to set the tone at the right level.” So it only made sense to celebrate the opening of the New York office in the headquarters of Bloomberg, with high visibility and a lot of momentum.
What are some of the memorable projects or activities that you remember most fondly?
One that is really close to my heart is the founding of the Science & Technology Diplomatic Circle of Boston. I have to say it was kind of an experiment, because I wasn’t sure if there would be enough diplomatic staff dedicated to science in the Boston area. The diplomatic circle started small, but it quickly expanded to include more than 50 diplomatic missions. I think it’s something that really improved our relationship with the diplomatic community in Boston and generally contributed to our positive reputation in the region. Governor Baker actually gave swissnex a letter of commendation for our work in forming the diplomatic circle. That meant a lot to me. In meanwhile, new S&T Diplomatic Circles were set up in Shanghai, Singapore and New York, all following the Boston pattern.
Another was when we helped launch the ICRC Collaborative Platform in 2017. UN Secretary General emeritus Ban Ki Moon actually came and gave the keynote address at the launch event at Novartis. He was doing research at Harvard at that time, and we reached out to him to see if he would be interested in the platform. He immediately accepted. From the start, he was very passionate about supporting this initiative. The project as a whole was a great way to foster collaboration and exchange with people in Geneva. It was a perfect example of us connecting the dots.
What made Boston so special for partners and stakeholders back in Switzerland?
Well, geographically it’s a no-brainer. Boston is the closest place in the US which you can reach from Switzerland. Luckily, it’s also one of the most innovative places. That’s why I think it’s obvious that you have frequent and repeat visitors coming to Boston and swissnex. There’s a lot of value in this region and stakeholders want to be connected to it. Take university alumni for example. We launched something like 12 alumni chapters and maintained them as much as possible. I think there’s a lot of joy and warmth in these groups and I think that definitely radiates back to Switzerland. We always wanted to welcome visitors from Swiss universities, startups and organizations and make them feel at home in Boston.