Research and development (R&D) activities, which reach exceptional proportions in the canton of Vaud, are the basis for all innovation.

The innovative strength of the canton of Vaud is based on an exceptional research and development capacity, following a period of accelerated growth.

Certainly, R&D and innovation are two distinct concepts. There are many examples of innovations that do not require R&D and transform, for example, a business model, even if the use of digital technologies is often key. This includes innovations in the so-called sharing economy, such as the Uber transport service or the Airbnb hospitality service.

However, basic scientific research, whether applied or experimental, plays a significant role in innovation. R&D activities are most often carried out upstream of innovation, as a source of innovation. And in the canton, innovation based on science or technical know-how occupies a prominent place.

The Swiss context

Although it has its own characteristics, the R&D system of the canton of Vaud inherits the main features of the Swiss system. Starting with its strike force.

Switzerland is among the leaders in terms of R&D intensity


In international comparison, Switzerland has an exceptional research and development capability.  With R&D spending reaching 3.4% of GDP in 2017, the country ranks in the world's top 10, in third place ahead of the United States and Germany, and only preceded by Israel and South Korea. By comparison, R&D intensity in the European Union has stagnated at around 2% of GDP on average from 2012 to 2016.

«In international comparison, Switzerland has an exceptional research and development capability»

A hybrid R&D system

A second important feature of the R&D system is the specific weight of the private sector. Business investment represents 70% of the total R&D effort in Switzerland, slightly above the average for EU countries, which is around 65%. The share of universities is 27%, that of non-profit research institutions 2% and that of the central government 1%.

The R&D effort in Switzerland is strongly supported by the private sector


However, despite this lower relative weight, university R&D plays a decisive role in Switzerland, and perhaps even more so in the canton of Vaud.

First, it provides the necessary talent for R&D labs and other innovation functions. Secondly, many academic institutions carry out research funded by the private sector through collaborations or mandates.

These crossovers between financing and carrying out R&D between the public and private sectors highlight a characteristic of the Swiss research and development system: it is hybrid.

Dense and qualitative academic research

A prerequisite for successful R&D is the quality and density of universities. The academic fabric in Switzerland, and in particular that of the canton of Vaud, is characterized by these two properties, which have a decisive influence on the innovation ecosystem.

The Swiss academic research system combines density, productivity and world-class quality


To begin with, the Swiss academic fabric shines through its excellence, particularly in terms of quality publication and productive researchers. Switzerland, for example, is the world's leading producer of scientific publications in relation to its population, with 5.0 publications per 1000 inhabitants.

One of the reasons for this excellence is the special funding of public research in Switzerland. Academic researchers receive part of their funding from the institution that employs them, but they must seek competitive grants, in particular from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and, since 2007, also from the European Research Council.

The second asset of the Swiss academic fabric is its density, which is among the highest in the world in relation to the number of inhabitants. The country has 10 universities and two institutes of technology, plus universities. Its training system manages to train 2.5% of doctoral students per age cohort, one of the highest proportions in the OECD (with Germany, Finland and Sweden).

«The second asset of the Swiss academic fabric is its density»

Hyperconnected academic research

In addition to its quality and density, the Swiss academic research system is highly connected. As a result, Swiss universities act as platforms for global R&D, including for the companies with which they collaborate (and vice versa). This is an extremely important condition that largely explains the strength of the Swiss and Vaud innovation ecosystem.

Vaud research is extensively connected to the rest of the world


At the level of the canton of Vaud, this capacity for international attraction is also reflected in the recruitment of EPFL professors.

The international connection of Swiss academic research has also been promoted for a long time, in particular with the SNSF scholarship systems that allow young Swiss researchers to stay in prestigious laboratories.

But this hyperconnectivity is above all the product of the world-class level of Swiss R&D. It is impossible to establish partnerships and research collaborations at the highest level without this.

The weight of the private sector is decisive

In Switzerland, as in most industrialized countries, most of the research effort (70%) is therefore produced by the private sector. Between 2012 and 2015, R&D spending by private companies in Switzerland even increased by 10% to reach CHF 15.7 billion (2.4% of GDP), including CHF 5.5 billion (0.9% of GDP) in the pharmaceutical sector alone. The largest increases were recorded in the information technology services sector (+66% to 568 million), research (+28% to 2.4 billion) and chemicals (+24% to 629 million).

However, it is mainly companies of a certain size that contribute the most. Most of the investment is made by companies employing more than 100 people. These companies - less than 1% of all companies generate more than 40% of jobs in the country - contribute to more than 80% of the private R&D effort in Switzerland.

As a result, some of the world's leading R&D champions are Swiss. According to the index of the "Nature" magazine, of the leading companies that publish articles in the major scientific journals, Roche is number 1 and Novartis number 3. Number 2 is IBM, with some of its research and some Nobel Prize winners coming from its Zurich laboratories.

However, these global champions are all companies based in German-speaking Switzerland and therefore participate only moderately in the renewal of the economic fabric in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. Nevertheless, the region is home to intensive private R&D activity (see «The specificities of the R&D system in the canton»for more information=10.5pt) but global champions are still awaited.

«Most of the investment is made by companies employing more than 100 people»