Call for Collaboration: Swiss and Boston Startup Ecosystems Ripe for Cross-Pollination

Fady Saad is an Advisor at Rewired, a 2017 Boston Business Journal 40 Under 40 Honoree, and co-founder of MassRobotics, the first and largest robotics/AI startup escalator in the world.

I spent the past seven years in Boston completing my graduate studies at MIT, engaging with startups, working at local robotics companies, and founding MassRobotics. I can confidently say that the Boston startup ecosystem has evolved to encourage risk-taking, and to embrace a culture that appreciates the positives that can come from failure. The local community has grown to acknowledge that building a company is difficult and that it can very easily take multiple failures before achieving a successful exit.

I have been also very fortunate to be closely engaged with and aware of the Swiss innovation ecosystem both through Swissnex Boston, a consulate dedicated to science, technology and innovation, and through my advisory role at Rewired AI fund. These involvements made me reflect on the uniqueness and possible synergies between both ecosystems.

It’s not easy to accurately trace the roots of this maturity in dealing with uncertainty and failure, but I believe that world-class academic and research institutions like MIT, Harvard, Tufts, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Northeastern, Boston University, UMass and others have played a significant role in creating such a culture.

The very nature of academic research, I believe, especially those in STEM, teaches us to deal with uncertainty and a high degree of possible failure, and one can even claim this might be a reason why scientists and researchers have founded numerous successful and resilient startups.

You are not wrong to think that scientists may not necessarily be the best prepared to transition these high-risk, nascent technologies into a commercially successful venture, but this is precisely where this unique ecosystem comes into play.

The availability of experienced funding from a broad spectrum of investors, from angels to major venture capital firms, mitigates this risk factor. However, it’s more than just a money issue: experienced guidance provided by investors like General Catalyst, Atlas, Highland Capital, Bessemer, and Fairhaven Ventures significantly increase the researcher-entrepreneurs’ potential to make a commercial impact.

Despite the claim that Boston’s investments have been somewhat conservative, compared to the West Coast, for example, it’s important to note that the invested dollars per capita have been higher than any other state in the US.

It’s also worth noting that the investment community in Boston is unique in their focus and affinity for business-to-business (B2B) startups. For example, in the robotics space, I have experienced firsthand the size of investments in collaborative robots (Rethink Robotics & Righthand Robotics), logistics robots (Locus & Kiva which got acquired by Amazon Robotics), military robotics (iRobot spinoff Endeavor & Boston Dynamics), and commercial drones (American Robotics) compared to investments in consumer robotics (with the exception of Jibo), and consumer drones.

The fertile soil that the US government in general, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the City of Boston in particular, has prepared over the past number of years has made it easy to incorporate and register a business, protect intellectual property (IP), balance investment and governance issues, and attract and recruit top-notch talent.

Moreover, the existence of technology or industry-specific startup-support organizations like Greentown Labs (for clean energy), Lab Central (for biotech) and MassRobotics (for robotics and AI) have assisted in growing tech startups that require more significant rounds of funding, more support, and a broader range of prototyping capabilities and expertise.

For the Swiss ecosystem, Christian Simm, CEO of Swissnex Boston, and Santiago Tenorio, General Partner at robotics and AI fund Rewired, shared with me their own insights. “The best seed ground for an entrepreneurial ecosystem” says Christian Simm “are world-class universities combined with a tissue of innovative corporates and startups. These preconditions are very strong in the Boston area, Silicon Valley and also in Switzerland, especially in robotics world-leading universities where the likes of MIT (US) and EPFL & ETH (Switzerland) have generated a very vibrant and successful ecosystem for robotics startups.”

Mr. Simm adds that the dynamism of the Swiss robotics ecosystem and the international standing of the country’s academic institutions “furthermore has attracted venture capitalists and leading tech companies like Google, Apple and Facebook.”

“For us, Switzerland was a logical choice for our European HQ” commented Santiago Tenorio. “A multicultural country (approximately 20% of the population are foreigners; with around 60% having an immigrant background), Switzerland is tax-efficient, R&D friendly, and has a great pool of engineering talent, and also provides a level of political stability that isn’t always found elsewhere.” The talent pool that Santiago refers to has piqued the interest of American companies. From cutting-edge startups to multinationals such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, companies are conducting research in Switzerland, many of them in collaboration with Swiss universities and institutions. A good example is Google’s technology platform Tango, which enables devices to navigate without the need for GPS.

Santiago explained that “when you talk to Silicon Valley or East Coast investors about the European tech scene, very few would be familiar with the Swiss ecosystem. Even fewer are aware of Switzerland’s standing in the robotics and artificial intelligence academic community.”

To Santiago’s point, Forbes recently called Switzerland “the Silicon Valley of Robotics” and said the country has “emerged as a serious competitor to California for the technologies, people, and funding that will power the world’s fourth socio-economic revolution.”

“Switzerland, a country of only 8.5 million people, has the highest number of peer-reviewed scientific publication per capita in the world. The robotics and Artificial Intelligence IP coming out of Switzerland is world-class. In this way, I see great similarities with the Boston ecosystem.” continued Santiago.

“Deepmind was acquired by Google for $500 million only four years after its founding, but few know that its key people and technologies originated in Lugano IDSIA Lab, a top-ten AI research institute. Google’s largest campus outside of California is in Zurich, hiring currently over 2000 engineers and 250+ ML AI experts.”

Swissnex in Boston has been a driving force in building strong ties between the innovation and startup communities in both locations. A major building block was its active participation and leadership in Boston’s startup events and activities, and in hosting Swiss delegations of scientists, innovators and corporate executives that played a significant part in the cross-pollination between the two ecosystems.

As a result, Rewired has seen great potential for synergy between both clusters and has been aiming to reinforce this healthy relationship to actively contribute to the global innovation community. The rich ecosystem of Boston is mirrored nearly halfway across the world, in Switzerland.

What is more potent than a single successful ecosystem, but two ecosystems in collaboration? In this instance, 1 + 1 can equal far more than 2.

Rewired is a robotics-focused venture studio. We invest in applied science and technologies that advance machine perception.