Zurich, the economic, financial and technological hub of Switzerland, is blessed with scenic natural beauty and high quality of life. Home to world-class universities, Zurich enables businesses and innovation-driven start-ups access to skilled labour and high technology research capabilities. But how does the region attract talent and how do the different cities and states (cantons) collaborate to make sure benefits are spread beyond the city of Zurich? Sonja Wollkopf Walt, the CEO of Greater Zurich Area Ltd (GZA), in this interview explains how the region’s business-friendly atmosphere drives technological innovation, attracts investment and business expansion. 


Sonja Wollkopf Interview


Sonja, the Greater Zurich Area is a world leader in innovation. To your mind, what makes the region attractive as a location to invest and work?

It’s the factor that matters most in today’s world: access to talent. Both INSEAD and IMD rankings consider Switzerland to be the top country in the world for attracting, retaining, and developing qualified employees. Greater Zurich hosts the best university in Continental Europe (ETH Zurich) and research locations of countless world technology leaders like Google, Microsoft, IBM, Oracle, Disney, Huawei, Johnson & Johnson, Biogen, Roche Diagnostics, ABB or Siemens. Add to this a business-friendly, stable environment and an exceptional quality of life.

As CEO of the Greater Zurich Area Ltd (GZA) investment attraction organization, in your view, what does the “Greater Zurich brand” stand for today?

Greater Zurich is where world-class technology meets Swiss reliability. The wealth of technological competence (companies, talents, universities, world-class patents) in such a small area is unique in Europe. Combined with the stability and reliability of Switzerland – which has likely become more important in times of pandemic, global trade conflicts, etc. – the Greater Zurich Area offers international companies real added value and peace of mind for their strategic expansion.

How does GZA help the region to attract investors and talent?

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. Attracting talent is not directly part of our mission. But it happens now and again that we bring talents and companies together.

Which would you consider the main challenges or pitfalls to avoid, when promoting a city region such as the Greater Zurich Area to potential investors or skilled workers?

I can think of two types of challenges:

  • The Greater Zurich Area is a rather heterogeneous economic region that includes nine Swiss cantons: Cities vs. alpine regions, high-tech vs. traditional industries, linguistic and cultural differences, varying levels of taxation, etc. Marketing all this under one brand is not always easy.
  • There is always a need to explain certain Swiss peculiarities – such as the autonomy of the cantons (states), the direct-democratic political system with regular referendums, etc. But we are very happy to do this “educational work”.
When it comes to start-ups, you can find the three most important ingredients for a thriving start-up ecosystem here: talent, capital, and customers.
Sonja Wollkopf Walt - Managing Director Greater Zurich Area Ltd.

Zurich city being well known as an expensive place to live – how accessible is the Zurich region for international start-ups and entrepreneurs?

When asked about the cost, we insist on comparing apples to apples. Salaries of top engineering talent are at the same level worldwide. Rents in the city centers of London or Paris are certainly higher than in downtown Zurich. It is true that some costs in Switzerland are higher than in other European countries. However, it is fair to say that in Greater Zurich you get very good value for money, as Swiss workers have one of the highest productivity levels in the world.

When it comes to start-ups, you can find the three most important ingredients for a thriving start-up ecosystem here: talent, capital, and customers. 2019 was a record year in terms of funding and at least four companies from Greater Zurich have reached the prestigious unicorn status.

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Which trends do you observe currently, likely to impact the ability of city-regions in Europe to attract talent or investors?

How quickly the global economy will recover from the COVID-19 shock will determine the market for foreign direct investment significantly. Countries that have come through the crisis well, by comparison – both in terms of health and economy – are likely to benefit at the expense of more severely affected economies.

The talent bottleneck in Silicon Valley could lead to US tech companies increasingly looking for alternative locations.

I believe that European cities and regions can focus even more strongly on values – for example, an open and inclusive society, civil rights and personal liberties, sustainable growth, or more general: a desirable future. These are appealing to many talents and companies.

Apart from the difficulties which you are likely experiencing due to the coronavirus pandemic, in terms of being able to attract talent and investors: has the current situation also benefited the region in some ways – for example in that it forced innovative solutions, or produced new (digital) business opportunities?

Absolutely. We have observed many achievements in the fight against the pandemic 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 start-up HeiQ, a spin-off of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich), has developed a treatment method for textiles that has proven 99.99% effective against the Coronavirus.

Other players have made great progress in the areas of treatment, vaccination, or early detection. Such success stories are in no way intended to belittle the suffering during this crisis. But at least from a brand management perspective, they are completely in line with the core of our positioning: where world-class technology meets Swiss reliability.

Securing adequate funding and stakeholder buy-in are often a challenge for organizations charged with promoting a city or region to potential investors and talent. How do you approach this at GZA?

We are organized as a public-private partnership. About three-quarters of the budget comes from the public sector (9 Swiss cantons, the City of Zurich, and the Winterthur region). The rest comes from over thirty partners from the private sector and academia, including the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich.

This structure of our financing not only gives the investment promotion activities higher credibility among foreign companies, but it also improves our work as we can access the expertise and the broad networks of our public and private partners.

Switzerland’s natural beauty and unparalleled quality of life are crucial for the high availability of talent. We have every interest in preserving this for future generations.
Sonja Wollkopf Walt - Managing Director Greater Zurich Area Ltd.

How important are a location’s environmental sustainability and climate performance, for its ability to attract investors and talent?

Oh, it is very important. Switzerland’s natural beauty and unparalleled quality of life are crucial for the high availability of talent. We have every interest in preserving this for future generations. Both our strategy of attracting primarily technology-oriented and forward-looking companies, and our brand slogan – Connect to tomorrow – reflects this well.

How do you collaborate with other institutions and businesses, to make sure their actions and stories are “on brand” and align with GZA’s portrayal of Greater Zurich as a business and investment location?

We have involved selected key stakeholders from within the business region already in the development of the brand strategy. When creating brand slogans, we additionally sought the thoughts of customers, that is, potential investors, and multipliers. This increases acceptance and makes implementation noticeably easier.

We have also established a Greater Zurich Honorary Ambassador program.

And finally, in our communication with stakeholders within Switzerland, for instance in public talks, media relations, newsletters, events, or most recently a live broadcast, we show why and how we try to attract companies from abroad. This should result in a coherent and consistent brand message.

What’s next for GZA?

We are constantly developing and sharpening our strategy to attract forward-looking companies that create the greatest possible added value in the Greater Zurich Area. This includes the evaluation of new and existing geographical markets and technology fields.

Finally, COVID-19 has been instrumental in accelerating and intensifying digitization projects initiated earlier, such as customer relationship management, virtual meetings, and events or lead generation campaigns.


This interview was first published by The Place Brand Observer (TPBO)

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Why Greater Zurich Area

Where world-class technology meets Swiss reliability: As a global leader in innovation and talent attraction and with Switzerland’s business-friendly, stable and reliable environment, Greater Zurich offers international companies real added value for their strategic expansion.

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