Thai-Swiss Innovation:
Chulalongkorn Technopreneurs visit
Switzerland’s newest Innovation Initiative

About ten years ago, Chulalongkorn university’s “Technopreneurship and Innovation Management Program” (CUTIP) has been launched. Chulalongkorn University is the leading university in Thailand and has a long history of excellence in science, technology and business. CUTIP offers graduate degrees for highly motivated entrepreneurs who intend to apply ideas and concepts to the real world.
Despite CUTIP and other similar initiatives, Thailand as a country is still lacking innovation. On the 2015 innovation index ( Thailand can be found at position 55, behind Vietnam (52), Malaysia (32) and Singapore (7) and ahead of Philippines (83) and Indonesia (97).
At the top of the table is Switzerland, followed by the UK, Sweden, Netherlands and the United States. Singapore (7) is the leading innovation hub in Asia.


Prof. Dr. Somchai Pengprecha, director of the CUTIP is fully aware of the challenges Thailand faces to become a more creative and more competitive country in the future. Over many years of panel discussions and government initiatives, it seems there is little progress.
Prof. Somchai is fascinated by the way Switzerland has been addressing the issue. Even though the country is topping the table, there are new initiatives. “Never rest on one’s laurels” may be the guiding maxim of Switzerland’s newest project: “Switzerland-Innovation”, lead by Swiss MP, Ruedi Noser. The foundation is funded entirely by the private sector, comprising of 19 Swiss companies. The federal government provides the framework with the Research, Innovation and Promotion Act (RIPA). These federal measures include a credit facility of 350 Mio Swiss Francs and land use for the five innovation parks which are operated independently i.e. the government is not involved in their daily activities.
For Prof. Somchai “Switzerland-Innovation” was a strong argument to plan the annual CUTIP excursion in Switzerland. Goal: Smell and feel Swiss innovation.

In the morning of May 18, 32 members of the CUTIP arrived at Zurich airport for an exciting and busy Tour-de-Suisse-Innovation.

Eidgenoessische Technische Hochschule (ETH), Zurich

When talking about innovation in Switzerland there is no way around the Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH), the guiding light of Swiss Academia. Although highly ranked in international university comparisons in terms of scientific publications and research, this knowledge is not optimally transferred to real world applications. Anders Hagström, Director Global Education Affairs presented ETH’s vision on the creation of real value from scientific research. For example the ETH is encouraging creative researchers to start their own companies and support them with access to infrastructure (laboratories, machinery, tools etc.) and financial incentives. At the end of the presentation Anders was available for a Q&A session where the visibly impressed CUTIP team asked many questions.
Moving from the Hoenggerberg to the “Downtown” campus, Earth Science was the next topic on the program. After an hour of introduction and theory, we all could experience a few real “Shakes” in the earthquake simulator. This innovation makes it possible to reproduce actual earthquakes. For example, we all could feel the difference between the recent tremor in Nepal and the Friaul quake back in 1976.
Rounding up a great day in Zurich was the visit at the Library of the Law Faculty, University of Zurich.
The very famous Spanish-Swiss architect, engineer and artist Santiago Calatrava has built this impressive landmark in 1994. A fantastic example of creativity and innovation in architecture.


CUTIP in Front of ETH Zurich

World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), Geneva

Ideas, creations and innovation should be protected. The borderline between creating and copying is becoming more and more diffuse. With today’s information flow and global interconnections the safeguarding of ideas is complex. WIPO is a UN organization addressing issues in intellectual property protection. Two informative presentations by members of WIPO updated the CUTIP students on the latest developments of the world wide patent protection schemes. Many real world examples were actively discussed. For entrepreneurs, a discussion with WIPO on how to protect their innovation before they go public or launch a business could be decisive for future success.


CUTIP discussing Intellectual Property at WIPO, Geneva

Firmenich SA, Geneva

Firmenich is the Fragrance and Flavor House of the world. Whether you eat potato chips, yogurt or brownies, you have consumed molecules coming from one of their worldwide production plants. Research and innovation are key factors in Firmenich’s success story. The CUTIP members could be part of an experiment where Dr. Igor Bodnár, Senior Project Manager Innovation presented two of his newly developed flavors. Each student had to taste two batches of three samples. Two samples were identical. The task was to find the “Odd One Out”  and judge it. All CUTIP members participated and gave their feedback. Three members of Firmenich’s research team presented insights of flavor and fragrance creation. Not only creative chemistry is important. Marketing and packaging have a huge impact on the success of a product. For example, what is considered to be natural? A synthesized compound from the chemistry lab is artificial, whereas the same compound produced by microorganisms could be presented as natural? A vivid discussion followed.

Firmenich is an example of a successful but already established company. Innovation is not the domain of startups only, it is important for all businesses, small and large. For some students, the electric vehicle (EV) park of Firmenich was as interesting as the flavor molecules. It was the first time they have seen EVs in real action. Firmenich breathes and drives innovation indeed.


CUTIP at Firmenich SA, Geneva

Abionic SA, Lausanne

So far CUTIP has seen a few facets of innovation in Switzerland. What is still missing is a real startup. Abionic SA fits this category. After his PhD on nano-fluids and bio-sensors, Nicolas Durand has converted his idea to a real product. He started Abionic SA six years ago and received incentives from the federal government and the Ecole Polytechnique Federal Lausanne (EPFL, with ETH the only two federal funded universities in Switzerland). Abionic has been awarded many prizes in the category “best startups”. While touring their small facility at the EPFL Techno Park, it is clear why they are successful. Combining biotechnology and electronics in this limited space requires out of the box thinking and a high degree of flexibility. For example, proven technology from the electronics industry is converted to the specific needs of the biosensor chip production. The Abioscope, a device to detect allergies from a single drop of blood, has gone through several steps of innovation. Starting from a simple experimental setup, it evolved into a beautifully designed device, which can be used by any country doctor or  pharmacist to detect allergies. The CUTIP team was visibly impressed and an involved discussion followed in Abionic’s small meeting room. Dr. Durand shared his experiences and difficulties in starting up a business from scratch. Most important take home message: Stay focused, do not let the doubters or competitors take you off the path of your vision. Dr. Nicolas Durand, an entrepreneur truly.

CUTIP at Abionic SA,  AbioScope

Innovation Park Biel

The “Switzerland-Innovation” initiative includes five innovation parks which are all under development. The vision of these parks is to convert “university projects” into real products which leads to the creation of new companies and employment opportunities.
Felix Kunz, director of the innovation park Biel and Dr. Michael Sauter, Leader MedTech, outlined the “Switzerland-Innovation” concepts and then showed the vision of the innovation park Biel. The park should be self sufficient in five years i.e. income and expenses are balanced. The park is providing several services which generates income. These are facilities which support innovation and scientific endeavor, skilled manpower and a stimulating environment. In addition the park organises conferences and scientific meetings. In short, the innovation park Biel is home for startups who do not have the financial capabilities to invest in labs, machinery etc. but need access to them to further their development. Having many startups under the same roof will foster new ideas and projects. Good ideas do not fall from the sky but evolve from discussion around the coffee table. The tour through the facilities emphasised on two concrete services. 3D printing is provided where the customers (i.e. the startup companies in the park) can construct devices in an easy and straightforward fashion. The second service shown was the energy storage testing lab where customers have the infrastructure to test new storage designs. Energy storage will be the most important part in Switzerland’s strategy to rely on sustainable energy sources (Energiewende).


3D printing lab at Innovation Park Biel

Innovaare Park PSI Villigen

The name of this innovation park is innovativ. While approaching the park from Biel, it became clear. The ‘aare’ stems from the river Aare which we were crossing several times. This place in Villigen is very special. It is the home of the famous “Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI)”. It is the largest Swiss national research institute with about 1,900 members of staff and is the only one of its kind in Switzerland.
PSI is a User Laboratory, offering access to its facilities to researchers affiliated to many different institutions, and it runs several particle accelerators. The 590 MeV cyclotron, with its 72 MeV companion pre-accelerator, is one of them. As of 2011, it delivers a proton beam of up to 2.2 mA, which is the world record for such proton cyclotrons. It drives the spallation neutron source complex. The Swiss Light Source (SLS), built in 2001, is a synchrotron light source with a 2.4 GeV electron storage ring. It is one of the world's best with respect to electron beam brilliance and stability. An X-ray free-electron laser called SwissFEL is currently under construction and is slated to begin operation in 2016. Niels Gebhardt, Managing director of the park welcomed CUTIP and delivered an interesting one hour lecture sharing the vision of Innovaare. Currently it is just a 400m2 office complex but will be expanded to many thousands of square meters of labs and facilities in the next couple of years. Close collaborations with the PSI and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland provide new potential customers (say new startups) for the park.

New companies at the Innovaare park are likely to be associated with innovations that make use of these various light sources. For example, the analysis of special proteins with neutron radiation. In fact while touring the facilities a research group from Denmark has brought the biochemistry samples for analysis. Having an office at park Innovaare could lower travel expenses and make research more efficient.


CUTIP at Park Innovaare

Innovation in the bus

CUTIP crisscrossed Switzerland for six days. Much time was spent in the bus but was not wasted. After every visit a selected group of student wrote a summary and presented it through the bus’ audio system. Many stimulating discussions evolved. Of course comparisons with Thailand, pros and cons of of the very different approaches to innovation in the two countries. Is it worth to put so much effort to be more innovative? Is innovation the holy grail?

Whatever the answers (in case there are any…), the trip has fueled discussions and triggered creative thoughts about what innovation means and how it could lead to better lives.

Was it Konfuzius who said: “The way is the Goal” ?somcha-inge-eth-jpg