We talked to Sonja Wollkopf Walt of Greater Zurich, the home to world-class universities and enabler of businesses to access skilled labor and high technology research capabilities, and she had the following to say:-
Why is the Greater Zurich Area a particularly attractive location for startups?
Sonja Wollkopf Walt: Greater Zurich offers the most important ingredients for a thriving startup ecosystem: talent, capital, and customers. In addition, there are leading universities, renowned companies, mentors, incubators, and accelerators, as well as innovation support programs. A business-friendly environment and a sense of entrepreneurial spirit round off the package. Thanks to these assets, the Greater Zurich Area has developed into a very attractive location for technology and innovation-driven startups.
How does GZA support startups?
Sonja Wollkopf Walt: GZA assists foreign businesses and investors in identifying and capitalizing on business opportunities in Greater Zurich, free of charge. We act as a door opener and enabler, connecting interested companies with relevant players in the ecosystems of the Greater Zurich Area, such as peer companies, universities and research institutes, incubators, or authorities.
When it comes to investing in startups, what is the trend in Switzerland?
Sonja Wollkopf Walt: 2019 was a record year in terms of funding, and at least four companies from Greater Zurich have reached the prestigious unicorn status. Even during the pandemic, investment in Swiss startups was very robust, exceeding the CHF 2 billion mark for the second consecutive year and the total invested sum decreased only by 7.4% in 2020. For instance, the biotech sector even grew by more than 30%. I would say given the pandemic, the trend is positive.
Does the Swiss government support companies during the crisis?
Sonja Wollkopf Walt: The Swiss federal government has adopted a comprehensive package of measures to cushion the economic impact. These include liquidity assistance for companies (rapid access to credit facilities), an extension and simplification of short-time work, and compensation for loss of earnings for self-employed and salaried employees. Many companies have told us that the support provided by the Swiss authorities as well as the banks was incredibly efficient and unbureaucratic.
The Greater Zurich Area is a world leader in innovation. Please tell us a bit more about Greater Zurich’s innovation ecosystem and how it developed during the pandemic.
Sonja Wollkopf Walt: For several years, Switzerland has been considered a leading innovation hub and has ranked first in the INSEAD Global Innovation Index since 2011. The Greater Zurich Area is a key driver of Switzerland’s innovative strength thanks to close collaboration between research institutes and the private sector as well as numerous accelerators and incubators. This creates a dynamic environment for innovation in technologies such as life sciences, information technology, fintech and blockchain, robotics and intelligent systems, and advanced production processes.
In the fight against the Coronavirus, we have observed many achievements that scientists, companies, and talents from our region have brought forth. Hamilton Medical, for instance, has been manufacturing ventilators in full swing at their site in the Greater Zurich Area and exported hundreds of them to Italy and the United States. Or the startup HeiQ, a spin-off of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), has developed a treatment method for textiles that have proven 99.99% effective against the Coronavirus.
How has the pandemic affected GZA’s activities?
Sonja Wollkopf Walt: It has given an enormous boost to the digitization of our sales, marketing, and communications activities. Despite corona, we attracted 86 companies from abroad in 2020 together with our partners from the economic development offices to the Greater Zurich Area. This is 21 percent fewer than in the previous year. Given the global pandemic, the result is significantly better than expected.
In your view, what are the reasons for this?
Sonja Wollkopf Walt: The stability and reliability of Switzerland has become an even more important location advantage in times of pandemic and global trade conflicts. Combined with the wealth of technological competence (companies, talents, universities, world-class patents), which is unique in such a small area in Europe, Greater Zurich offers international companies and startups real added value and peace of mind for their strategic expansion.
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