“It was an example of public-private partnership before the term even existed.”
World Economic Forum Executive Committee member Paul Smyke recounts his time as an advisor to swissnex in its early days.
It’s 1998, and Paul Smyke, a key figure at the World Economic Forum (WEF), had just moved to Boston after spending most of his adult life living in Switzerland. By chance during a meeting with the Swiss Ambassador in Washington, DC, Paul met Xavier Comtesse when he was cooking up the idea for the Swiss House of Advanced Research and Education (SHARE).
After hearing Xavier’s pitch, Paul knew this was going to be a game-changer for Switzerland, and quickly got on board the swissnex train. It would start small and scrappy, but 20 years and a long partnership later, Paul knows that it was a winning idea. Paul is now Head of the Regional Agenda North America and Member of the Executive Committee at the WEF. We spoke with him earlier this year to hear more about his journey with swissnex.
swissnex Boston: How did you find out about swissnex?
Paul Smyke: It was the late 90s and I had just recently moved to Boston. I went down to Washington to meet with the Swiss Ambassador at that time, and he told me about the new science attaché, who was cooking up some kind of idea for Switzerland in Boston and that I should speak with him. That attaché was Xavier Comtesse.
While I’m pragmatic and rooted in reality, I feel like I can recognize a good idea when I see one. And this seemed like a really good idea. It takes a crazy person like Xavier usually to come up with an idea like that, and you combine that with the vision and financial backing of Thierry Lombard and Patrick Odier, and it becomes reality.
Thierry told me that when they were thinking about their 200th anniversary, they felt a need to build something that would be an investment in the future of Switzerland. His and Odier’s support of this project says a lot about them. Xavier of course was the disruptive and driving force intellectually and energy-wise that was needed.
So when you combined Xavier’s energy, Lombard and Odier’s vision and resources, and former State Secretary Charles Kleiber’s support, the result was incredibly powerful. swissnex couldn’t have happened without them. It was an example of public private partnership before the term even existed.
In the WEF context, we’d long been proponents of public-private partnership. So I was happy to see that embodied with swissnex. I give credit to the bankers but I also have to give credit to the government for saying yes, and going along with it because that took courage on their part.
So the government just said yes, just like that?
Well not exactly. Of course there was hesitation. There was always a tension between the amount of disruption and just how disruptive this was compared to traditional diplomacy. While there were people inside the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA) who were excited, there were others who were more reticent.
One moment I will never forget: the eyes of some of the senior officials from Bern who showed up for the inauguration 20 years ago. When one official in particular walked in the building, his eyes went wide — and not necessarily with excitement. I could imagine he was thinking, “wait, where’s the guard desk? Where’s the glass barrier?” You could tell that it was a bit of a shock for him. Some of us considered that a plus, but there were definitely currents within traditional government where it took a lot of adjustment.
What’s a fun fact people don’t usually know about your connection with swissnex?
I was the acting director of swissnex for about six months between Xavier and Christoph von Arb. It’s a little-known fact. At that time, Pascal Marmier and the others were all 20 somethings and I had the merit of being a 30 something with a legitimate connection to the WEF.
So when there was a six month period where they needed an interim director, they had me step in. Nobody gave me a mandate, it was basically don’t let the place burn down and make sure that things go smoothly. I think I signed some checks a couple times a month. It was very much a caretaker function, a figurehead if you will.
What was the rest of your involvement like?
Beyond my brief stint as acting director, I was an advisor for a few years, which gave me a bit of an internal perspective. I was able to weld together a connection with the WEF and create some networks. Together, we hosted a lot of social things, and then post-Davos Summit briefings with Boston area participants. All in all, the conditions were created in those first few years where the rest of the story could unfold over the next 20.
I recognize a lot of parallels between life at the WEF and what swissnex was trying to do. There was a notion of trying to gather people together, break down barriers, break down silos, and create conversations that previously weren’t being had. That was some of the experience and perspective that I could bring to the table. I think that explains in part the enthusiasm that I had when I first heard the idea for swissnex.
What was the building process like?
The renovation of the building was a huge undertaking. You can’t underestimate the legal and financial costs of it all, given how strange the architecture was in transforming the laundromat and grocery into that space. I think the architects Jeff Huang and Muriel Waldvogel deserve a huge amount of credit. They were really a visionary husband-wife team.
I must say, I don’t really consider myself visionary. I’m sort of a highly pragmatic guy. My feet are firmly entrenched in reality and I tend to live my life that way. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have big thoughts, but Jeff and Muriel were clearly futurists and thinking on a different level.
Some of the design elements they proposed in the building process were pretty bold, to put it lightly. Jeff would hand out a slide-deck and say, “this is what we’re gonna do.” There were some pretty wild ideas in there. The end result was a bit tamer than some of the proposals, but it was still quite disruptive.
Can you walk us through some of the memorable activities, projects or situations that you lived through in that time?
We’re talking about 15–20 years ago, but the ones that jump to mind are the ones that I was most involved in, which are those Davos events I had mentioned. We would get some pretty prominent people from the Boston area to show up to those. They were very popular. We’d sometimes pack 150 people in the building for those events. Those were always highlights because it was basically like holding a little Davos seminar, but inside swissnex.
The thing about those seminars though, is they sometimes are more valuable at a smaller scale. I fairly quickly became a convert to having smaller handpicked audiences rather than sending out an email blast to the general public. To me, it was more how do we get a handpicked audience maybe, you know, one third the size of those Davos events, but where the conversation may be more valuable.
Xavier used to make a really fascinating point. He would say: “if Switzerland has 500 postdocs in the Boston area working at different institutions, each of those cost on average a million francs to educate. That’s half a billion francs of Swiss taxpayer money that’s sitting in the Boston area. How do we create the return for Switzerland?”
In many ways, swissnex was his answer to that question. It’s not only a bridge between that pool of Swiss talent in the US and Switzerland, but also a platform for elevating that talent and creating a tangible return on investment for Switzerland.