"Zurich’s path will be different from the one Silicon Valley started down 70 years ago."

DigitalZurich2025 is a cross-industry association with the goal of strengthening the Greater Zurich Area’s position as a digital innovation hub and to project those benefits across the whole of Switzerland. Key factors for achieving this vision include flexible framework conditions for start-ups, according to Sunnie Groeneveld, Managing Director DigitalZurich2025.

Sunnie Groeneveld, Managing Director DigitalZurich2025

Sunnie Groeneveld, in which areas is Zurich still analog, and in which is it (already) digital?

Zurich is already a digital innovation hotspot, but is often still not perceived as such internationally. For example, digital innovations are being continually developed in the Computer Science Department of ETH Zurich under the guidance of Professor Markus Püschel, as well as at the IBM Research Lab and at Google’s development center in Zurich. Zurich is also very well positioned in the area of animation. Various digital effects for large cinematic projects were developed at the Disney Research Lab here in Zurich. There are so many digital innovations coming out of Zurich that you never hear anything about. Of course, there are also areas which could be improved. A city-wide WLAN would be exciting, and there is also potential for improvement in the digitization of public administration. Progress has been made in the latter area thanks to the ezurich initiative, and another positive example is the “Züri wie neu” app, which can be used to report defects or damages to municipal infrastructure to the city of Zurich. What we need to do now is build on the existing projects because there is still an enormous amount of unrealized potential out there.

DigitalZurich2025 is a recent initiative which aims to make the Greater Zurich Area a leading location in Europe’s digital economy and project those benefits across the whole of Switzerland as well. What does the initiative encompass precisely?

DigitalZurich2025 was founded  by 20 members, most of them large companies, but also by the canton of Zurich, the city of Zurich, economiesuisse, ETH Zurich and Council of State member Ruedi Noser. All of them stand united behind the vision of making the Greater Zurich Area a leading digital innovation hub of Europe and projecting those benefits across the whole of Switzerland. DigitalZurich2025 is focusing on strengthening the start-up ecosystem, promoting digital talent, establishing an exchange of ideas and best practices in digitization across industries as well as increasing the international visibility. When you think of digital innovation hubs, London and Berlin come instantly to mind, Zurich less so. We want to change that.

Which specific projects is DigitalZurich2025 pursuing, and have there been any first successes?

The first Investor Summit took place this past January. We brought together national as well as international investors and some of the most promising start-ups in Switzerland. The feedback on the part of the investors as well as the start-ups has been positive. Further projects include turning the WorldWebForum into a digital conference with global reach, a joint-presence with the canton of Zurich at the Swiss Pavillion at CeBIT 2016, and the creation of an Education Digital platform, which will aggregate trainings and further education courses in digital subjects.

The newly launched Kickstart Accelerator is also an important project for DigitalZurich2025. This three-month program will be the access point for start-ups from all over the world to enter the Swiss innovation ecosystem. Within the context of the Kickstart Accelerator selected start-ups will receive seed-financing, free office space and – most importantly – support from industry partners, mentors and decision-makers. This enables them to build a relevant business network in Switzerland.

Ringier CEO Marc Walder, who launched DigitalZurich2025 last year, commented recently in an interview that Zurich could be turned into a leading location for the digital economy within five to six years. That is a very short time frame. Economic regions that are leaders in industrial sectors have sometimes needed a generation...

We need this sense of urgency and great ambition ! Digitization is pushing forward faster than any other economic development ever before. Disruptive business models are conquering the world and changing industries within a matter of years. One example: AirBnB was founded in 2008. The company doesn’t own a single room, but has succeeded in massively disrupting the hospitality industry.

If Switzerland as a service-based country wants to play an active role in digitization, industry and politics must combine forces and do everything possible to enable the country’s economy for the future.

Zurich has certainly done a lot of things right in the last two years, which is also reflected in the fact that the amount of investment in start-ups has grown compared to previous years. Why do you think that there is not enough risk capital invested in start-ups in Switzerland?

There is a well-developed scene of seedfinancing in Zurich thanks to business angels and numerous support programs who help start-ups early on. It is often more difficult for start-ups to obtain larger investments above 2 million Swiss francs. In this regard, the availability of risk capital still needs to be expanded. On one hand, this requires improving the political framework. But it’s also a matter of culture:  we are not known for choosing risk over stability. Perhaps it also got to do with a lack of prime examples in the digital sector. There is no Swiss “Paypal Mafia”, no Swiss Elon Musk or Peter Thiel, who sold their businesses in the early 2000 (Paypal, in their case) in order to reinvest all of the profits in start-ups (e.g. Facebook, Palantir, Tesla, Space X, and many more) and thus advance the entire ecosystem considerably.

What role can Greater Zurich Area AG play in promoting Zurich as the digital innovation hub?

We need to pool our resources and spread the message of a highly innovative Zurich around the world. Mutual exchanges are also key to utilizing synergies .

ETH has a legal mandate to promote research and innovation – and thereby the economy as well – in Switzerland. How do you collaborate with ETH Zurich?

ETH is a very important founding member of DigitalZurich2025. For the Smart & Connected Machines vertical at the Kickstart Accelerator, we are in close contact with the experts from the Autonomous System Lab at ETH. ETH Zurich was also one of the main partners for the Investor Summit. In the future, we will continue to expand our  relationship.

In my opinion, ETH Zurich is the MIT of Europe. There are so many great innovations coming out of ETH. I would like to contribute to this with DigitalZurich2025 as a location initiative and ensure that there is even more international recognition of ETH’s incredibly strong innovation.

OK, in all honesty: Does little Zurich really have what it takes to go head to head with the likes of Silicon Valley?

I always find the comparison to Silicon Valley somewhat unfortunate. We should not attempt to imitate something that already exists. Zurich’s path will be different from the one Silicon Valley started down 70 years ago. It will be a new, highly exciting and highly innovative one – of that I’m sure.

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