“swissnex was a breakthrough idea”

Xavier Comtesse, the founding Director of swissnex Boston/SHARE, talks with us about building the project from the ground up, its relevance 20 years ago, and what still makes it special today.

In 1996, Xavier Comtesse was a Science Counselor at the Embassy of Switzerland in Washington, DC when he and a few other individuals came up with the crazy idea for creating a science consulate in the Boston area. It could serve as a hub for scientists, researchers, entrepreneurs, and students to gather and create new, innovative ideas. In those years in the diplomatic community however, that kind of idea would only get you raised eyebrows and shaking heads. But Comtesse was stubborn, and made it his mission to bring that vision to fruition. And so in October of 2000, SHARE, the Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education — which would eventually become swissnex Boston — opened in Cambridge. Twenty years later, some of us at swissnex Boston spoke with Xavier about that time, and what made swissnex such a disruptive force in the diplomatic world.

swissnex Boston: How did the idea for swissnex come about?

Xavier Comtesse: It started in 1996, when I was working at the Swiss Embassy in Washington. At that time, it was mostly diplomats in charge of science and technology affairs, and so Heinrich Ursprung — the State Secretary for Education and Research at that time — sent me to Washington to rethink what it meant to be a scientific attaché.

I quickly discovered that Washington really wasn’t the right place for Switzerland’s scientific attachés. It was a hub for policy, not research and innovation. I reported back to Heinrich Ursprung and informed him that our science and technology representation shouldn’t be in Washington, but rather in San Francisco and Boston, where cutting edge research and innovation was taking place.

After I had sent this letter to Heinrich Ursprung, he was interested and asked me to come up with a concept. It took me a while, but I eventually developed a narrative around brain drain. At that time, there were many Swiss scientists who left Switzerland and didn’t return. There were more than two thousand post-doctoral students of Swiss origin conducting research in the U.S., and at an estimated cost of CHF 1 million per Ph.D. grown in Switzerland, that was more than CHF 2 billion in underutilized Swiss assets.

My idea was that we could combat Swiss brain drain by creating a position in San Francisco and Boston that would be responsible for helping Swiss scientists and researchers come to the United States for exchanges and then also incentivize them to return to Switzerland so that the Swiss government might see a return on that investment. This narrative was primarily to sell this idea to the Swiss government, because nobody wanted swissnex at that time.

So how did you take this from idea to reality?

Well, it was a pretty unorthodox idea to present to Swiss diplomats, so I first had a discussion with some people at the US State Department to gauge their interest in the idea. They were very enthusiastic about it and offered their support if we opened a science consulate in Boston. Although we would have consular status, we wouldn’t need to be responsible for diplomatic services. I had them draft a white paper with the details, and then sent it to Bern.

The Swiss government liked the idea, but they had reservations. Christoph von Arb, the head of international affairs at SERI at that time, was instrumental in getting the formal approval from the Swiss Government. One of the other obstacles was getting funding, so I went to Geneva to see my friend Thierry Lombard, a prominent Swiss philanthropist. He was very enthusiastic about the project, and we received a generous grant. If you talked with him today, I think he would say that it has been one of the best experiences in his life.

Let’s take a step back. Can you tell us how you first got involved working with the Swiss government?

When I moved to the government in 1992, they hired me because I was a startup guy. I had started three companies in Geneva in the 80s. One of my objectives was to work with the universities and the private sector to help universities to open their minds to civil society and to the economy. Our approach was to promote startups coming from universities in Switzerland, because then the professors and the universities would be invested in tech-transfer and to open up to the economy.

Today, Switzerland has made a lot of real progress in innovation, and is ranked number one in innovation in the world now. But it’s more that we have gotten better at talking about innovation. In 1992, Switzerland was in the 15th rank on the World Economic Forum’s Innovation Index. Finland was number one. The State Secretary wanted me to find out how the indicators worked and why Switzerland was so low, despite being such a formidable hub of scientific research and discovery. I went to the WEF in Geneva and soon figured out that there were something like 150 indicators that comprised the index on innovation. Forty percent were quantitative indicators, and an astonishing sixty percent were qualitative indicators. I realized that in order to get a boost in our innovation ranking, we just needed to improve the qualitative indicators: our perception. swissnex was part of improving that perception.

When we opened swissnex, we had 57 countries who sent official delegations. Many of these delegations said that Switzerland was excellent in innovation, and as such, we went up in the rankings! Something I discovered while in the States is that there are always two temperature readings: real and perceived. I think that applies in life and in business as well. Perception is often more important than reality. When you realize that, you can write your own story, but with proof. swissnex was part of this story. Switzerland may not have been designed to have breakthrough ideas, but I think swissnex was a breakthrough idea.

Let’s jump to swissnex Boston’s building: what made the physical space of swissnex so unique?

One element was the architecture and interior design. The very young Swiss architects I chose, Waldvogel + Huang, elected for a lofty open office design. There was no guard desk, there were no metal detectors or protective barriers. It was very much a departure from the layout of a traditional consulate. A crucial element of the space was that we wanted to not only create a physical space for people to gather, but also a virtual space too. And that’s where our video conference wall came in. In 2000, there was no zoom, and video calling was not a widespread thing. So for us to have it at swissnex was fantastic, and a big sell for partners looking to utilize the space. The building actually won an award from the Associated General Contractors of Massachusetts for the combination of innovative building materials and integration of technology.

You clearly accomplished a lot in those days; what are you most proud of?

Starting it. There are more than 600 young Swiss people who one day worked at a swissnex. That was not my vision at the time, but it was the most important result. It means 600 people have had an adventure like that. Before swissnex, when people in Switzerland wanted to have adventures in science, there was no structure of support. It was a really lonely experience. swissnex made it a collective experience.

I’m always proud to find out that some people who jump into the swissnex adventure have crazy lives after that. It gives them so much opportunity. This freedom of choosing, doing, thinking, especially breakthrough thinking. It’s very powerful. People would come to swissnex and be inspired by the atmosphere. And 20 years later, that atmosphere is still there. It’s a place where you can think differently. I’m very proud.

What were some funny moments for you while at swissnex?

In the beginning, a lot of people and companies came to visit swissnex. A big Swiss bank was one of those visits. One of their directors came and visited us in December of 2000. During his visit, I pitched the idea of an internship program to him. The bank would fund an IT intern to work at swissnex for six months, and in exchange, we would arrange for them to take courses at MIT or wherever they wanted.

He liked the idea, so I told him I’d send him an email with the details. He told me that his secretary would read the email to him. That took me by surprise and I gave him a hard time about it. At that time in 2000, most leaders of Swiss companies were still very old fashioned when it came to the internet, and viewed emails as letters. They dictated what they wanted to say to their secretary, and the secretary typed the email in a very formal manner, like a letter! But the next day, he personally sent me an email, telling me it was his first ever email he had written himself. It gave me a good chuckle.

Did you have any moments with partners that were a sort of engineered serendipity?

All the time. One very important thing with swissnex was the contact — the physical contact. Anytime somebody traveled to Boston or San Francisco, we set up meetings. We had the right contacts, we spared time and money for everyone in science — from startups to big companies.

At that time when we started, Novartis was not established in Boston. Everyone was still focusing on San Francisco and Silicon Valley. But after a visit to swissnex and Boston, Novartis’ director of R&D mentioned to me that they had overlooked Boston, and that they had to establish a presence there. So one of my first tasks during that year was to help Novartis come into Boston. They of course knew people, but we had the connections to the administration, and many of the big players. Now they have a big presence here.

For all these reasons we talked about, I think Boston was the best place where we could’ve started this. It’s a land of promise.

Connecting the dots between Swiss and North American innovators. www.swissnexboston.org

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