“We call swissnex our base camp. It was really the foundation of it all.”
Jordi Montserrat of Venturelab talks about the value of having swissnex as a base camp for their Venture Leaders program.
For the past 20 years, Jordi Montserrat has been active in the vibrant Swiss high-tech scene, contributing to the development of innovative businesses and stimulating the Swiss start-up ecosystem. In 2004, he co-founded Venturelab, which supports Swiss entrepreneurs and startups on their path to build successful ventures. One of their flagship programs, Venture Leaders, started with a two-week trip organized and hosted by swissnex Boston. The program has expanded globally via the swissnex Network, bringing Swiss entrepreneurs to global business hotspots like Boston, San Francisco, New York, Barcelona, and Shanghai. Jordi tells us how the Venture Leaders program first got started, and how swissnex Boston became the foundation for it all.
swissnex Boston: how did Venture Leaders begin, and how did you begin working with swissnex?
Jordi Montserrat: swissnex originally had a program in 2000 called the New Entrepreneurs in Technology and Science (NETS), which was supported by the Gebert Rüf Foundation. It was basically organized as a contact point as to illustrate the type of value and content that swissnex could bring and could deliver.
I only came in contact with the NETS program because I was actually invited in 2002 to interact with them as an entrepreneur in Switzerland. That’s how I got in contact with swissnex Boston. In the very early years, I think it was a good illustration of this new up and coming concept of science and technology diplomacy. At that time, embassies had started to have science counselors and technology officers but swissnex was still pushing it one step further.
In Switzerland, Venturelab was launched in 2004. We sprung out as a national entrepreneurship training program deployed in Switzerland in a broad-based fashion. There was a big educational aspect in entrepreneurship, but a lot of it was about changing the mindset.
There were a lot of investors and business dimensions, which were brought into these types of programs. The idea was of course to leverage what had been established as a foundation in Switzerland. So that’s how then in 2006 Venture Leaders was born.
What made Venture Leaders different and innovative?
What was new is that we made it a nationwide competition, creating the “Swiss startup national team”. The Swiss soccer team was participating to the World Cup in the US, and we were there with the Swiss startup team. The goal was to create a very competitive process to select and expose the best participants.
Originally, it kept the foundations from NETS of taking 20 entrepreneurs to the US to strengthen them through an early exposure to an executive education. The main goal of going to the US is of course for startups to gain contacts and exposure to the ecosystem and build the “think big” mindset, because investment was not so strong in Switzerland.
In 2007 we started to launch related programs like Venture Kick and other support mechanisms. I think the key philosophy for us has always been that when you want to have a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem, entrepreneurs lay at the core.
From the chicken to the egg and everything in between, you need entrepreneurs If you don’t have entrepreneurs, you have nothing to finance, there aren’t people transforming and creating value for investors. Investors need entrepreneurs. And that’s a strong ecosystem.
What role did swissnex play in the development of Venture Leaders?
When the program was born, swissnex was the foundation, it was the key partner that really organized the program. The program was originally supported by the Gerbert Rüf Stiftung, and then by the Swiss government through the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI), now Innosuisse.
When that support stopped after a few years, we managed to move to a fully private sponsoring base with a lot of support from swissnex in Boston and China. It wouldn’t have been possible to build such a program without swissnex. The network and individual locations were really crucial in helping us on that front.
We learned to rely heavily on the credibility of swissnex and its network — particularly in Boston, where the network and presence is really strong. It was really the foundation of it all. We called swissnex our base camp. When we came to Boston, I literally had a small google map where the swissnex office was labeled as “base camp.” It was really our home base as entrepreneurs.
Having swissnex as a local partner allowed the entrepreneurs to tap into the network and participate in all the programs in the different hubs. Startups in the program could also then connect to a broader network of swissnex locations around the world to continue their expansion.
How has the program evolved since it began?
We constantly had discussions around the strengths of this program: what was bringing the most value to the entrepreneurs? It’s about putting a team together, which is essential in creating this strong link between entrepreneurs. It’s about exposing them to a new ecosystem, expanding their skills and mindset, and helping them get the right business connections.
Now long term, I think the biggest value-added of the program is the lifelong link that is created within that team. They will tell you that the experiences and memories they make at Venture Leaders moments they will cherish forever. It’s a great time.
During those two weeks, the teams create this unique bond that is hard to recreate in the real business world. It’s almost like entrepreneurial friends. The latest batch that went to Boston in 2019 actually organized a team lunch a few months ago by themselves to have the opportunity to meet again.
In Switzerland, the ecosystem was evolving, education as a whole was strengthening. So we decided to decrease the size of the educational component over time, and strengthened the whole business and investors component. We then expanded to the West Coast to better fit the needs of startups applying.
We saw that with the strengthening of the startups’ quality and maturity, there was the need to have smaller, more specialized teams based on sector. That helped better organize investors’ visits. We decided to split the groups, with Technology going to San Francisco, Fintech going to New York, and Life Science staying in Boston. Then in 2013, we opened a China trip.
Were there key figures from swissnex in the development of Venture Leaders?
For years, we worked with Pascal Marmier. One of the big strengths of the network was when Pascal went to China. That really triggered the implementation of the Venture Leaders program in China. Being a more complex market, we had more mature teams and different topics, such as Cleantech, materials or Medtech. And that’s how the platform evolved.
Today we have five teams. Mobile in Barcelona, Life Science in Boston, one Fintech in New York and one Fintech in Hong Kong, and Technology in San Francisco. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, there was no 2020 trip except for the Barcelona program in February. But we’ve done some very nice online events.
Are there any other anecdotes or a session or something that just stands out?
There are so many. Lunches with Felix Moesner at the Residence, VIP events with Pascal and Felix where we met incredible people, and so much more. We got to meet some really high-level investors where one visit gives you a very strong feeling of the environment.
There was also the visit from Joe von Rickenbach, the founder of Parexel, a company valued at almost $5 billion. For the teams and myself, meeting somebody who built a company from scratch and growing it to more than 20,000 employees is definitely something that you don’t get to do every day.
One thing that has to be emphasized was the events and how extremely nice they were. They harnessed this incredible spirit that you’re able to share one another. It’s a simple moment, but one of my favorite highlights was being on the terrace of the Irving House B&B in Cambridge seeing participants very intensely discussing their businesses. I was witness to discussions in which some of the entrepreneurs literally reshaped their businesses during that week.