Christoph von Arb, former Director of swissnex Boston/SHARE, recounts key moments in the organization’s establishment and development.
In a way, Christoph von Arb’s swissnex experience began in 1990, when he first was appointed as a Science & Technology Counselor at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, DC. After his time in Washington, von Arb served as the Head of International Affairs at SERI from 1995–2002, during which he helped expand the presence of Science and Technology Offices abroad and helped establish SHARE, the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education, which would eventually become swissnex. In 2002, he moved from Switzerland to Boston to run SHARE as its Director until 2008.
swissnex Boston: You spent some time as a Science & Technology Counselor in the United States and then oversaw a rapid expansion of the field from Bern. What was the motivation behind this expansion while you were Head of International Affairs at SERI?
Christoph von Arb: After I came back from Washington as a science counselor, I worked at the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) under Charles Kleiber. My time in Washington had shown me that there was not a great enough emphasis on science and technology. I knew that had to change, because it was far too important for Switzerland to not include science and technology in our diplomatic work and relations. In 1995, when I returned to Bern, there were only three science counselors: one in Washington, one in Tokyo and one in Brussels. So my first approach was to expand the network of Swiss Science and Technology Offices in various embassies, which required a lot of goodwill from Foreign Affairs (FDFA).
Since there was never enough money for anything, we had to get creative to finance the expansion. For example, the ETH board sponsored the science counselor position in San Francisco, of which then Christian Simm was the first to receive that posting. He was at EPFL in those days, and then I hired him to go to San Francisco and he stayed there for a long time. After a few years, we had expanded to about 15 science counselors across the world. It was a very important first step.
After expanding the network of Science Counselors came something bold and new. How did you contribute to the founding of SHARE and swissnex?
After expanding the presence of science counselors in the late 90s, I knew we needed to do more. We wanted to have our own platform, our own consulate under the jurisdiction of SERI. It could be a place to not only foster high-level relationships, but also to broaden and widen the scope of our work to include a larger community, from students to professors, to executives in government and others. The idea was to bring these diverse groups of people together, sparks would fly, and perhaps something different and new could emerge from those gatherings.
At first, there was a significant amount of resistance, both from the diplomatic and university communities in Switzerland. It was seen as a waste of money that could otherwise go towards research. I pushed back, underscoring the enormous potential of such a platform. At the Federal level, I was able to secure the tentative support of the Federal Councillor, Ruth Dreifuss, but without any promise of funding. So we had to look elsewhere for the cash to support this venture. With the help of my colleague Xavier Comtesse — who was my successor as science counselor in Washington — we negotiated a deal with Lombard Odier, the private bank in Geneva. They had recently celebrated their 200 year anniversary and wanted to give back to Switzerland. They gave us a generous grant, but on the condition that the money would not be used for operational costs, and that the consulate would stay running for at least 10 years.
Fast forward to setting up this new initiative in Boston, what was the local reception of SHARE when you first established it?
As soon as we bought the property in Cambridge and began the process to establish SHARE/swissnex, some of the neighbors immediately went to court against us. They didn’t want a foreign consulate in their neighborhood, with people standing in the streets applying for their passports. And so we had to fight them in court. That was the first roadblock before we could ever get anything accomplished. Fortunately, the mayor of Cambridge liked the idea of having a consulate in his city, and so he supported us. We made our case to the judge, and he ruled in our favor and allowed us to establish our location.
After the ruling, I thought maybe we could find a way that we can settle with those neighbors, because I wanted a good relationship with the community. So we settled and all seemed well. But on the day of the inauguration, after we had finished renovations and unveiled the transformed space, there was a demonstration on Broadway. People had banners saying, “Switzerland go home.” When I saw the demonstrators outside, I went outside, offered them food and drink, and we were able to talk through things with them. I think things kind of calmed down after that.
While all of this was happening you were still in Bern at SERI. How did you then become Director of SHARE/swissnex Boston?
After our first Director, Xavier Comtesse, moved back to Switzerland, I decided to take on the role myself. This was a pilot project, and I wanted more Swiss Houses across the world. I knew that if it failed in Boston, we’d never have a chance again. I wanted to do everything I could to get this solid on the ground and get it airborne. And so on very short notice, my wife and I decided that we would sell our house in Switzerland and go move to Boston.
We understand that fundraising was a big part of your job when you arrived. What was the importance of public-private partnerships for SHARE/swissnex Boston?
When I left for Boston, Charles Kleiber told me that we needed to raise money to keep the project running, and that swissnex would need to be made possible by public-private partnership. So in my job description it stipulated that 50% of our expenses and expenditure would need to be raised from third parties. The federal government would fund 50% of our budget, which would basically pay the salaries of 3 people and some of the operations. So I had to develop strong relationships with key individuals, institutions, companies, and even universities to keep swissnex running. For me it was an opportunity to prove our success, because if clients liked our work, then they would support us financially. And over time that developed quite nicely. We got to more than half of what the running costs were.
What were some of the highlights of those partnerships?
Because of our government status, we did not position SHARE as a place to promote or advertise Swiss businesses. We offered SHARE as a place to conduct R&D, technology development, and take part in the innovations taking place in Boston. Some of the first partners that came on board were related to or were companies that had subsidiaries in the Boston area already. They were interested in taking advantage of the platform, the location, and hosting something.
One of the partnerships was with Lindt and Sprüngli, which was north of Boston in New Hampshire. When I asked them about getting chocolate — because we had a high need for chocolate at our events — they sent us a package with several thousand pieces of chocolate every so often. The FedEx delivery man couldn’t believe it was all chocolate. It came in handy. The chocolate would disappear very quickly. People would come, and then you’d see them fill their pockets.
We had 30–40 private partners that would pay us for our work, including major Swiss universities. I would go to Switzerland five or six times a year just to see people, sit with them, and listen to what they wanted and what their interests were. That helped me understand where their needs were, and then try to embed them in the community in the Boston area.
What was your favorite part of working at swissnex?
I really enjoyed the networking and interaction with people that happened there. It very quickly became a hub and a gathering place for Swiss professors and scientists in the area. Many of the topics and events that we organized were so fascinating and interesting, it really contributed to our success. For me, it was a continuous education because I learned new things all the time, and never ceased to discover fascinating topics and trends people were working on. That was really what made this one of the most pronounced experiences in my entire career: that I had an opportunity to be there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.