Christian Simm, founder of swissnex San Francisco and former CEO of swissnex Boston, talks about his 20 years at swissnex and how it changed the way he sees Switzerland.
In 1997, Christian Simm became the first Science and Technology Counselor (STC) in San Francisco, at the height of the tech boom happening in Silicon Valley. In 2003, he founded swissnex San Francisco, and stayed on as its CEO until 2017, when he moved to the East Coast to take the helm of swissnex Boston. This year, after dedicating 20 years to swissnex, Simm moved back to Switzerland to head the University of Zurich’s International Relations Office. We sat down with him to reflect on those years.
swissnex Boston: Let’s start at the beginning. How did you get started as a Science and Technology Counselor for Switzerland in San Francisco?
Christian Simm: It was an interesting moment in time in the mid-nineties. The first internet browser had become available a few years earlier, and all of a sudden Silicon Valley was exploding with activity. In Switzerland, it quickly became clear that if you were young and you had a computer science degree, the best thing to do was to go live and work in Silicon Valley. As a result, the concept of “brain-drain” was starting to become a big discussion in Switzerland. People wanted to find out how we could take advantage of this tech boom in the US and link it back to Switzerland. That’s why under the leadership of State Secretary Charles Kleiber — who was very much a visionary person — Switzerland created the Science and Technology Counselor position in San Francisco. It was actually the first STC position outside of a capital city.
At that time, I was running the Industrial Liaison Office at EPFL and had connections in many different sectors and organizations in Switzerland and in Europe which proved to be very useful in the US. So when the new STC position in Silicon Valley was advertised, I jumped at the opportunity. I think it might have been the coolest and the most exciting job description I ever had, because it was completely open. So that’s how I ended up as the first STC in San Francisco.
How did you develop the concept of swissnex after you started as the STC in San Francisco?
After starting in San Francisco in 1997, I quickly discovered that the US is a very transactional society, and that collaboration would be crucial to properly position Switzerland there. And we had to do it differently from the others to even be noticed. At that time, all the new digital tools had many people dreaming about working remotely and doing everything virtually. I saw it as an opportunity to take the opposite approach of creating a physical place for the exchange of ideas that would be open to the public and could quickly adapt to stay on the cutting edge of science diplomacy.
This concept struck a chord with many people and organizations, a number of which ended up becoming invaluable supporters of swissnex. So in 2003, with the generous support of key sponsors and the tireless efforts of many, I was able to open the swissnex office in downtown San Francisco and it was a hit. In 2016, we marked another milestone by reinventing swissnex SF and moving our location to an innovative and experimental space on Pier 17, along with the Consulate General of Switzerland, the Swiss Business Hub and Switzerland Tourism.
Who were some of the key sponsors in the early days in SF?
There were several: EPFL, the Y. & I. Oltramare Foundation, various companies and individuals offering time and consulting. Another founding sponsor was SwissRe, the big Swiss reinsurance company. They had booming activities in San Francisco and were leading the efforts to link the cities of Zurich and San Francisco as sister cities. We bundled all these energies and ideas: the city partnership was inaugurated the day before swissnex, a symbol of how swissnex would bridge higher education with innovation, science with art, and technology with public diplomacy.
What was the process of developing the brand identity and design for swissnex like?
I was able to create the name, logo, and branding identity with the invaluable help of two key figures: David Placek, founder of Lexicon Branding, and Yves Béhar, founder of fuseproject. David came up with the name and branding and Yves came up with the design.
David’s intention was to find words that defined us well, but general enough to allow for different interpretations. He knew that the word “Swiss” had to be in the name because this initiative was clearly coming from Switzerland. But our name also needed to imply connections and links with the rest of the world, so David took “nex,” from the word nexus, which means central link or connection. Thus, we landed on “swissnex,” and it stuck.
For the design, Yves wanted something that was light, joyful and mobile. In one of his first proposals he used the metaphor of soap bubbles. While that wasn’t the final concept, he did stick with spheres, because as he said it was the only geometrical object that you can connect to without any preference from any side. He then added crossbars between the dots, and that’s where our slogan “connecting the dots” came from. An added bonus was that the Swiss cross was subtly contained within those crossbars, because back then it was actually a white logo on a red background.
How did the branding of swissnex make its way to Boston and the rest?
In around 2007 or 2008, we had SHARE, the Swiss House of Advanced Research and Education in Boston, just “swissnex” in San Francisco, and the Swiss House in Singapore. Charles Kleiber saw three separate organizations with similar objectives, and thus the opportunity for unifying our branding and identity and creating a network. We all agreed, and then he created a working group which determined that instead of reinventing the wheel with the new branding, we should build on the work already done by professionals like Yves and David. So the branding was slightly modified to a red logo with the Swiss cross in it, and now a location in the swissnex name.
As you mentioned earlier when you started in San Francisco, there was no guidebook there was no playbook to do it. But by the time you came to Boston, swissnex had existed for the better part of two decades. What was that transition like?
When I took over as CEO of swissnex Boston in 2017, the swissnex network had grown and matured, while the world was changing at an increasing pace. By being small and agile, nimble and very creative, swissnex had always succeeded to stay ahead of the game and provide meaningful contributions to society. At the same time the techno-optimism of the early 2000 was giving way to techno-skepticism if not techno-pessimism. Very early on, as it is expected from an organization believing that the future is already here, the swissnex network cared about the societal impact of technologies and the way we consume them, and continuously adapted its services. The only constant at swissnex is change, and the fact that we work with so many amazing people all around the world. That’s what I love about swissnex, and that’s why I stayed for so long.
What were some highlights of your time in Boston?
It was another “adventure”, another discovery for me. For instance, a city with a unique concentration of universities and research brainpower. A region in which long and in-depth conversations are more frequent compared to Silicon Valley and its sense of permanent urgency. A strong relationship with state and local governments, and with the representatives of other countries engaging in science diplomacy. The East Coast seasons and their wide range of temperatures. The proximity of New York — where swissnex Boston has an office — and its completely different and very vibrant ecosystem. The activities we did all along the East Coast, from Montréal to DC to the South.
What do you value the most about swissnex?
We truly lived sayings like “Shoot for the moon, because if you miss it, you will reach the stars” or “ask for forgiveness not for permission” or “it is easier to do the impossible because there is less competition.” This attracted out-of-the-box thinkers and doers into the team and all around us, people with passion, favoring the mentality of “Why not?” instead of “Why?” in pursuit of our ambitious mission to create impact. This swissnex spirit created and continues to create a huge community of colleagues, clients, friends, partners, supporters all around the world: a wonderful and amazing human experience.
20 years later — how do you see the impact of swissnex on Switzerland as a whole?
swissnex is often described as a “foresighter,” a connector or a facilitator. Some say we are curators of immersive experiences, guides in co-creation processes or stage directors. In fact, it is all that and more. Hence why I like to use metaphors.
Do you remember how photography worked before it became digital? Images were captured on a film which, in a darkroom, had to be chemically developed before being projected very subtly on photosensitive paper that, in turn, needed to go through a revelator bath. It was a lengthy and somewhat “magical” process requiring deep know-how and creativity.
swissnex is like a modern version of that. With a very specific photographic eye we aim our lenses at faint signals from the future which, taken individually and just by themselves, might be hard to read and to interpret. That is when co-creation with our partners and clients starts in the darkroom. By adding to the revealing bath context and content, creativity and a diversity of perspectives, images emerge from the empty photosensitive paper. Through dialogues with multiple parties these images are then sharpened and become not only guides to better apprehend the future, they show opportunities to act and create impact.