ENTREPRENEURSHIP, A MATTER OF CULTURE

While training and skills are essential for innovation-based ecosystems, the dynamism needed for their development requires an entrepreneurial spirit, confidence in the resources to achieve it and a strong tolerance for failure. A cultural issue in which French-speaking Switzerland is very well positioned, even if it is still struggling to fully realize its full potential.

Entrepreneurial culture - in other words, the propensity of young and old to start a business - is certainly a strength for some innovation-based economies, which have created the framework conditions for such a state of mind. Can the Lake Geneva region boast such a culture?

"Understanding the ecosystem leads to solutions that will be adopted."

Nathalie Nyffeler is in charge of the Innokick Master's course at the HES-SO, which enables students to acquire skills to support or develop innovative projects. She comments on the effects of the approach on the students, but also on the role of design thinking in innovation, the construction of collective intelligence in French-speaking Switzerland and the importance of contextualizing innovation.

 

A perceptible change in mentalities

While the appetite for entrepreneurship is very stable in most countries, there has been a significant change in the perception of opportunity in French-speaking Switzerland. This is now well above the Swiss average.

Something is really happening in French-speaking Switzerland

 

According to the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) study, there is no doubt that the appetite for entrepreneurship has increased significantly. It has a rate of more than 50%, or more than one in two people among the population aged 18-64 (excluding business leaders) who believe that starting an activity in the region where they live is a good career option. In 2015, this rate was still only 25%.

«There is no doubt that the appetite for entrepreneurship has increased significantly»

A lot of envy, still little action

French-speaking Switzerland has a significantly more positive image of entrepreneurship (technological or not) than the rest of the country. Whether it is a potential career choice or a social status, a very large majority of the population perceives entrepreneurship positively.

The perception of French-speaking Switzerland regarding entrepreneurship

The French-speaking population does not feel less capable or more fearful than the German-speaking population as a whole and they even have a slightly higher entrepreneurial appetite. But there is a whole world from words to deeds: these very positive factors lead today to exactly the same rate of implementation as in the rest of Switzerland...

A 40-year-old man

In the canton of Vaud, the typical portrait of people active in technological entrepreneurship is relatively simple to draw: it is a man about 40 years old who is not a Swiss national.

typical portrait of people active in entrepreneurship

 

Exit the image of the 20-year-old entrepreneur who revolutionizes an industry by coming up with radically new ideas! This is because, in ecosystems based on advanced technologies, the scientific background and experience necessary to start a high value-added independent activity are logically not yet acquired at the end of school. Rather, it is the demographics of the research staff, more advanced in age and very international, that is reflected in the profile of entrepreneurs.

Similarly, the technological nature of entrepreneurship in the region directly influences the share of women entrepreneurs, which reflects the share of women in scientific and technical fields. Only 20% of project leaders are women. While this situation is clearly not satisfactory, as it limits the pool of potential talent, it is slowly improving (see Deborah Heintze's interview on this subject).

"The Vaud startupper isn't always from Vaud"

Innovation is often made by people who are not rooted in the local soil. As Hervé Lebret, former head of EPFL's Innogrant business start-up fund, testifies, commenting on the factors that help develop local innovation.

«In the canton of Vaud, they typical portrait of people active in technological entrepreneurship is relatively simple to draw»

A reservoir of skills

Regardless of its size, an innovative company needs specific skills. From this point of view, in Switzerland, the cantons of Vaud and Zurich stand out with a denser local pool of trained personnel than in the other cantons.

The canton of Vaud has a population pool with a high level of education

 

This reflects the presence of many higher education courses in these two cantons. And a more surprising feature: regardless of the origin of the students, university graduates remain within a relatively small geographical area when they enter the labour market. This is particularly the case for EPFL, with an overwhelming majority of alumni in French-speaking Switzerland and in the canton of Vaud (according to a map drawn up in 2014).

«Regardless of its size, an innovative company needs specific skills»

A new generation of entrepreneurs

More than perception or quantity, the most decisive development in recent years has been the truly massive increase in the level of ambition of entrepreneurs, male or female, in the region.

The level of ambition of Vaud entrepreneurs has increased fivefolds in a few years

This level has simply increased fivefold in a few years. The degree of preparation and maturity of new entrepreneurs is also very different from five years ago: "Since I joined the Foundation for Technological Innovation (FIT) in 2012, the overall level of ambition and quality of the projects has been constantly increasing", explains Joao-Antonio Brinca, FIT Vice-President. "Business plans are very well developed, integrating international expansion projects from the outset".

This situation is the result of several factors and, in part, the overall positive perception of the entrepreneur's social status, as well as the regular coverage of this theme in the media. However, the most decisive element is probably to be found in the important effort to educate and raise awareness of entrepreneurship undertaken at several levels, directly within schools, by Innosuisse (ex-CTI) or through private initiatives such as those supported by the Gebert Rüf Foundation. Twenty years ago, these training courses were still totally non-existent.

In the end, with successive generations of entrepreneurs, a true entrepreneurial culture is gradually emerging in the region, with its "role models", its sectors and its founding myths.

«The degree of preparation and maturity of new entrepreneurs is also very different from five years ago»