“We were seeding relationships that very often grew into successful partnerships”

Pascal Marmier, former CEO of swissnex Boston, on entrepreneurial beginnings and key partnerships.

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Marmier at swissnex China (credit: SwissRe)

When Pascal Marmier began working with Xavier Comtesse on what would become swissnex Boston, he didn’t know it at the time, but it would be the start of a lifelong journey. From one of the first employees to CEO of swissnex Boston and then CEO of swissnex China, Marmier’s swissnex experience speaks to the possibilities that come from working at the world’s first science consulate.

Marmier is now SVP of Strategy, Life and Health at iptiQ by SwissRe and is a member of the swissnex Committee, which advises the State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation on strategic issues relating to the swissnex Network. This is our conversation with him.

swissnex Boston: What is your swissnex story and what different phases did you live through?

Pascal Marmier: Getting involved with swissnex from the beginning was a life-changing experience. I grew up in Switzerland, went to law school, and thought that I would simply go back to work in Geneva or Lausanne after a year in the US. Then, my wife got a job here in Boston and wanted to stay a bit longer, so I had some time on my hands. Right at about the same time, my grandmother sent me a little newspaper cutout in the mail that basically said that the Swiss government was opening a science consulate in Cambridge. So I called their number, thinking it was a big organization, and met Xavier Comtesse. To make the story short, he offered me a job, I joined the team, and off we went, hungry for success. It was all about building, trying, experimenting and creating what swissnex is today. That was how phase one started.

My role was heading the innovation and entrepreneurship desk at the time. It took all kinds of efforts to try to create a business angle in Switzerland for folks who wanted to sponsor companies and wanted to come here. We started this tiny program, New Entrepreneurs in Technology and Science (NETS) which was financed by the Gebert Rüf Foundation, and the office wasn’t even open yet. We were in Harvard Square, literally Xavier and I in front of a blank sheet of paper calling a couple of Swiss people. So just a lot of entrepreneurial, startup-like mindset and activity. We continued with that mentality for a while until Christoph Von Arb took the helm.

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Marmier at SHARE in 2003

Was that the beginning of phase two?

I think so. Coming from Bern, Christoph naturally came with more formal structure and processes to guide swissnex and ensure stability. During that time, I was working on exploring the ecosystem and how to develop our network and community in Boston and Cambridge. Thinking about how to work with MIT, the Mass High Tech Council, and others. There was a real focus on being a community organization. We tried to create events and activities with whomever we could. Sometimes we would have high level visits with government officials. We became pretty good friends with a lot of the Cambridge officials for example, and slowly transitioned to becoming more traditional in a sense about our structure and presence.

How did you become CEO of swissnex Boston?

I was navigating through different things. I was working the innovation desk and I decided that I wanted to explore MIT. So I got the blessing of the State Secretary, who said, “Hey, why don’t you do a bit of education, we’ll help you out with a tiny stipend,” and I obviously went for it. This was the launch towards getting access to the CEO job at the time. I actually didn’t think it was possible, but State Secretary Charles Kleiber appointed me as CEO before he retired. As CEO, I don’t think I dramatically changed the model, but rather went about consolidating academic partnerships, recruiting a strong team, and beginning to look more into offering services.

What was the reception like at Swiss universities?

I think Patrick Aebischer, the President of EPFL, was one of the first people to come here and be wowed about what we were trying to build. We needed people like him. Ambassadors for swissnex to bring our voice back to Switzerland. An iconic example I like to share is one of a complete 180 turn. At the time of our founding, universities in the Deutschschweiz (the German-speaking region of Switzerland) saw us through the lens of what is called the Röstigraben, which refers to the divide between the French and German speaking parts of Switzerland. They felt that our activity at the start was not fully reaching the German speaking part. There were even articles in the press that criticized us and called into question the legitimacy of the “Swiss” aspect of our mission, as they felt that we were only interested in serving the interests of Suisse Romande (the French-speaking region of Switzerland).

But interestingly enough, some of the same skeptics on the German side eventually changed their minds. The reason for it was that they couldn’t find value in something they didn’t understand. swissnex was a completely novel creature of an entrepreneurial nature. This image of us lingered until professors at Harvard and MIT would come to swissnex and be blown away by what the Swiss government had done. The element of surprise was tangible when people realized that a small quiet country like Switzerland was able to build something like this. They were ecstatic to come over, meet interesting people, experience great content, and get a feel of Switzerland. These professors would go back to their friends at Swiss universities and say, “wait how come you never mentioned this place? It’s right next door to us!” That was when we reached a turning point with the Swiss universities. They ended up becoming the core of swissnex’s support network.

How did the Venture Leaders program start, and what was your and swissnex’s role in its creation?

Early on at swissnex, I started getting into technology transfer. It was really something on the rise at that time, especially in the Boston Area. The first real position I had after having been an intern and entrepreneur was sponsored by the Swiss network of innovation, which paid me to study developments in technology transfer.

Within this context, we realized that one of the key elements of technology transfer was entrepreneurship. We had to ask ourselves, “how do we take science leaders and transform them into technology leaders who will then create startups and spin-offs?” The answer was the aforementioned NETS program, which later evolved into the Venture Leaders program that still exists today. It was a smart use of money, and we didn’t have much trouble finding partners.

Any big milestones for you as CEO?

There are many that come to mind. The 10 year anniversary was a lot of fun. My wife even got involved in the planning. It was a massive undertaking. EHL, the hospitality School of Lausanne came for a whole week, and it was the first official visit of the former federal Federal Counselor, Didier Burkhalter. So that was great. Another milestone was certainly when we celebrated the second floor addition. We had Al Gore come to speak at the ceremony and brought in many interesting people on the Swiss side.

Another special moment was right before I left for China. We started working with the Universities of Applied Sciences, who were underrepresented internationally in the Swiss education system. Although it wasn’t vocational by design, it certainly wasn’t supposed to be international, but yet there was a group of nurses, physical therapists dancing in the middle of swissnex residence because my son, who at the time was probably five or six, decided that he wanted to plug in his iPod and DJ during their visit. It was unforgettable moments like this that stick out to me. You couldn’t have planned or engineered it even if you wanted to.

What are you most proud of in your time at swissnex?

What always stood out to me was the quality of the exchanges and the relationships I developed at swissnex. When you have some of the brightest entrepreneurs, artists, and academics from the US and Switzerland coming through your doors, great things are bound to happen. In a way, we were seeding relationships that very often grew into successful partnerships.

That being said, for me the metric number one was always within the team: “did we create a team that goes on to do great things and use their time at swissnex as an experience to kind of grow and develop?” To me, the answer is a resounding yes. Without fail, spending time at swissnex changed the mindset and sometimes even the career trajectory of many people.

So really, my proudest achievement was having had the chance to work so closely with so many amazing interns, colleagues, and leaders. It’s been so nice to see the growth of that community throughout the years. Collectively, I know that swissnex had an impact on all of us. I’m confident that will continue for the next 20 years and beyond.

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

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