The success of Silicon Valley as the world’s most successful digital innovation ecosystem is largely due to a perfect storm. This storm has a name – even if like me, you’ve never heard of it. Dubbed the “triple helix model of innovation,” by its Dutch co-authors in 1990’s, it theorized when bilateral interactions are fostered between universities, industry and government, amazing things happen.
It’s not confirmed if Marc Walder, CEO Ringier and founder of the digitalswitzerland initiative, knew about the triple helix model, but the organization’s recent sponsorship of two events strongly suggest influence. My story post, “Open Innovation Secret Revealed – Knowledge is Useless,” is about such a triple helix styled event in December that focused on corporate intrapreneurship.
The story which follows looks at another recent Swiss triple helix innovation event. I hope it gives you deeper insight into the difficulty of fostering innovation for the future prosperity of Switzerland.
On a clear sparkling autumn afternoon, one hundred food industry captains, political power brokers and agritech start-up experts met to debate the future of Swiss agriculture. The tranquillity of the setting and diplomatic manners among those assembled belied the insidious difficulties fighting an enemy hiding in the midst of Switzerland’s prosperity.
Recognizing the threat and need for action, in mid-October Federal Councillor, Johann Schneider-Ammann, at the invitation of digitalswitzerland, convened three round tables for a “Swiss Agritech & Food Industry” event at Zurich ETH. Attending were corporate titans like Syngenta and Nestlé, Startups & Accelerators like Yamo, Essento and ImpactHub and Swiss farmers including Fenaco, the CHF 6 billion/year Swiss farmers association. Their common mission: countering complacency.
Susanne Lauber Fürst, agro-food expert and CEO of EnvEve SA, believes Switzerland is in a zone of comfort. She candidly calls the threat a ‘paradox of plenty.’ “We are in a Garden of Eden now. Enough food, low prices, everything seems fine.” Or is it? She continued, “Consumers can buy quality food at low prices and most farmers get subsidies.” But is the Swiss model sustainable?
Susanne believes in leveraging digitalization and education, “We need to train digital agro-champions!”
Pioneering insects-as-food startup Essento CEO Christain Bärtsch, agrees with her, “I see a lack of innovation because it’s too comfortable. Everything is good for people in established sectors. I see with investors this low risk attitude, which has also to do with comfort zone. It’s not very comfortable to stick your head out of the crowd and see what’s over the wall.”
Dr. Daniel M. Böhi, Managing Director of MAD Strategy Consultants and former Nestlé FMCG executive, and one of the event’s 3 round table moderators, expressed similar concern, “I think the biggest threat is our own mentality, we tend to wait, instead of making a step. There is no competitor, no other country, no other university, no better talent anywhere. Switzerland has everything it needs to be at the very top. But because of our current success, we sometimes lack the will and guts to take bold decisions.”
Therefore, as Calvin Grieder, Bühler AG Chairman and member of digitalswitzerland’s steering committee wrote in the event brochure, “If we want to make Switzerland a leading digital innovation hub for a sustainable agritech and food industry, we need to act now.” He warned, “Switzerland risks falling behind China and other countries that are developing into high-profile and recognized hotspots for agritech excellence.”
In the same context, Daniel Böhi cited opportunities missed, “Switzerland is very successful, but this is no guarantee for the future, especially when it comes so fast. We have the knowhow to produce self-driving electro cars. Why was it not Switzerland that said: as of 2025 there will be only electric cars on our roads, and we will be the first ‘self-driving’ nation?”
Extending the analogy to the food industry, he questioned, “Why don’t we say we are the first country to produce without pesticides – or define a maximum sugar content per serving? (Take) bold moves that make everyone: academics, corporates, politicians, start-ups – run! to find the best solutions. Like Israel did with water irrigation systems; today they are a leading agrofood innovation hub.”
Midway through a round table session, likely because it was framed as an anecdote, my ears perked up when Councillor Schneider-Amman, criticizing the lack of tolerance for failure in Swiss culture, narrated an experience with two of his start-ups that went bankrupt. He recalled sharing about his financial loss at a San Diego Rotary club, and receiving a rousing round of applause from its members! The Americans were not being mean-spirited he explained, but were applauding his courage to take the risk of failing.
His story exemplifies embracing risk of failure as a requisite of learning. To understand how successful startups view failing, I spoke to one of Switzerland’s heavyweight agro-preneurs, Marco Brini. An international polymath, Marco has co-founded 3 startups and is CTO of EnvEve SA: a new venture developing technology (under the lead of Agrocope) for predictive analytics and AI in sustainable cropping systems.
We talked at length about risk aversion, (lack of) Series A startup funding and if there was a general misunderstanding in Swiss culture of what innovation means? He mused, “A start-up is doing double innovation: they’re innovating on technology, plus they’re providing business model innovation – so it’s high risk.” Marco continued, “When you’re doing innovation … failure is a teacher to reduce the chance to fail …”
Round tables adjourned, everyone moved to the apéro where I politely ambushed a few participants to record an informal exit poll. Seeing an opening, I slipped in between the Councillor’s security detail and entrage to probe his feelings about failure. With an undertone of empathy, he said, “Being Swiss means you move carefully, you move smartly; you invest when you have more or less a guarantee in the positive (outcome).” Before his handlers whisked him away to deliver the evening’s keynote he declared, “We have to change the social appreciation of failure.”
Next to the apéro’s spring rolls and carrot sticks, I cornered Thomas Hafner, CEO of Mootral, an agritech start-up, to ask ‘what actions need to happen?’ Thomas favours an all-out unified push forward. He said, “We need to get everyone enlisted: Beef & Dairy Industry, consumers, non-food industry, government and above all farmers. We need to create a movement that is greater than the sum of its parts. We’re happy to lead, but we need others to join us.”
Erik Fyrwald, CEO Syngenta, was eyeing the finger food, but paused to tell me why he invested time to attend the event. “… we have $1.4 billion a year in research spend for solutions all over the world to help increase productivity and sustainability of agriculture. We need support from the government, but also from companies like Nestlé that are so important to the global food chain.” Whether strategic or serendipitous, I remembered Erik had been seated next to Hans Jöhr, Nestlé Corporate Head of Agriculture.
Ignoring the Schinkengipfeli in favour of fruit slices, he continued, “We need to all be thinking about what is sustainable agriculture. Yes, it’s healthy, nutritious food. But it also has to be sustainable for the environment. We have to stop deforestation, reverse it to reforestation. We’ve got to get more productivity out of the land and do it in a way that reduces greenhouse gas emissions and lowers the amount of irrigated water required. So, I’m here to listen and talk about how we can collaborate across the food agriculture value chain in Switzerland, but also with a global impact.”
Without pretence, I asked him what Syngenta adds to the Swiss agritech ecosystem? Erik said, “We serve 50 million farmers around the world with our services, our technologies, our advice, which is enhanced by digital capabilities. We need a steady stream of really talented people, both educated here in Switzerland, and from around the world that want to move to Switzerland. Secondly, we need to collaborate across government, NGOs, the food chain and farmers, all the way to the consumer.”
My impromptu exit poll confirmed participants came together knowing what’s at stake for Swiss agriculture and food supplies. They know, as Daniel stressed to me in an email, “If we do not adjust our food supply chain from field to fork, it will simply fail to deliver what consumers want: quality, good price, healthy, sustainable, food … and the ‘old’ methods will not help to achieve that.”
Daniel succinctly added, “Everyone is, and has to turn to new (digital) technologies.” Because he predicts, “like hotels and taxis, digitalization can disrupt entire industries. It is said that once the ‘digital revolution’ swipes through an industry, within less than 5 years the industry is looking totally different.”
Councillor Schneider-Ammann sent participants to this triple helix inspired event home with a politician’s pragmatism, “it … takes time, patience and passion for the issues.” It’s likely I wasn’t the only one pondering if Switzerland’s paradox of plenty will afford us enough time?
Keynote speaker, Dr. Solomon Darwin, known as “The Father of the Smart Village Movement” stepped onto the Kraftwerk stage, fiddled with his two Macbooks and beamed a jolly smile to an international assembly of 200 entrepreneurs, intrapreneurs and innovation seekers. Little did participants attending digitalswitzerland’s Corporate Startup Summit event (CSS) recognize the American professor as a November Samichlaus, bearing gifts more valuable than all the gold cloistered in Switzerland.
Darwin is a robust man in his late 50’s with neatly trimmed beard kitted out in executive uniform of dark suit, white shirt, maroon tie. No stranger to the mantra of open innovation, the Director of Corporate Innovation at University of California, Berkeley, quickly got attendees’ attention by dispelling illusions developed lands, like Switzerland or the EU, can expect their nation – or national champions, to remain relevant doing business as usual in the age of digitalization.
To make it personal, he divided prevailing mindsets of business leaders into two camps. On one side: strategy. The other: innovation. Lest both seemed like viable options for his audience of corporate entrepreneurs (or intrapreneurs in open innovation parlance), he reminded us how in less than one generation, a good strategy, can be totally eclipsed by innovation.
His case in point, Motorola’s strategy producing high value – high cost mobile phones (think RAZR flip out), was displaced by Nokia’s strategy producing high value (from consumers’ POV) low cost phones (think Nokia 1110), who were dispatched by Apple’s innovation. Paraphrasing Darwin, strategy is about choosing restraints – innovation is about establishing new frontiers.
The UC Berkeley professor’s surname, (fully explained in, The Untouchables: Three Generations of Triumph Over Torment) ensured evolutionary science underpinned his reasons of advocating open innovation as the best option for any business’s longevity – and by extension, the future of our Swiss quality of life. Word count restrictions prohibit recapping his insanely useful speech, but fortunately, all the key points are in his book, “Smart Villages of Tomorrow: The Road To Mori.” Check out this powerful short read to grasp why the untapped markets of India and the world are the catalyst to developed nation’s reincarnation.
Henry Chesbrough, a UC Berkeley colleague of Darwin, is considered the “father of open innovation.” In 2011, he wrote in Forbes, “Conceptually, it is a more distributed, more participatory, more decentralized approach to innovation, based on the observed fact that useful knowledge today is widely distributed, and no company, no matter how capable or how big, could innovate effectively on its own.”
A former Harvard Business School professor, Chesbrough’s adds, “For business, open innovation is a more profitable way to innovate, because it can reduce costs, accelerate time to market, increase differentiation in the market, and create new revenue streams for the company.” If that sounds like the same old bullet point slide deck, you would have enjoyed Stefan Schöbi’s Fireside Chat at CSS titled: “Same Same But Different?” with Roger Wüthrich-Hasenböhler, Swisscom Chief Digital Officer.
Despite the appearance of similarities to conventional innovation (if there is such a thing), there’s a good reason open innovation is not on every CEO’s lips. It’s because of the 2nd of two aspects of open innovation. One part is “outside-in,” or involving end users in design and development of your offering. The other aspect is alien to most businesses – this is the “inside out” part, where ideas and technologies in a company are allowed to “go outside,” to be adapted into others’ innovation processes.
Let me put that more bluntly: ‘inside-out means you share your ideas with competitors.’ That’s why open innovation is a tough sell to old school CEOs – it goes counter to our base human nature that says if I originate something, the credit (and reward) should be all mine. Two hundred years of economic and social evolution institutionalized this thinking. Then in 1989, a British scientist at CERN invented the Web, and overnight, the word “open” took on a whole new meaning.
Lots of companies incorporate employee and customer input to improve innovation. But to learn if any Swiss enterprises were practicing both sides of open innovation’s coin, I tracked down two of its champions: Kai-Nicholas Kunze, Co-founder and CEO of Lings, a corporate startup within Generali Insurance and David Hengartner, Head of Swisscom Kickbox and winner of two corporate startup awards at CSS: “Best Corporate Entrepreneurship” (for Swisscom Kickbox) and “Most Impactful Intrapreneur“ (for David himself).
Kai spoke with me a few days after CSS, where he led a Best Practice Slam, described in the programme as, “Success and survival guide of a corporate startup acting as an innovation virus inside the corporate immune system.” I asked Kai straight up if Lings willingly shared their tech and ideas with the world.
An unflinching reply telegraphed an unscripted answer. Kai said, “For the technology I would say no. For the Lings (ideas) part, we are very open about what we do, why we do it, how we do it. We share quite liberally with almost everybody, even competitors, which, I have to say, is a mind shift for insurance. We are not used to sharing our knowledge but I really believe it’s something you need to do.”
Which begged an interrogative, ‘why’? Kai explained, “Lings is trying to do something new in the market. The more others do something similar, the more the whole insurance market will become a market that is interesting for customers. So, I believe in sharing what we do and I see competition helping to build up a new and better proposition for customers.”
Due to a hockey date with my wife, I missed seeing David at the 4th annual CSS Awards, presided over by a jury which included Lukas Strniste, founder of CSS, Benno Seiler, Head of Economic Development, City of Zürich, Katka Letzing, FinTech Lead at Kickstart Accelerator and Daniel Ginter, Sr. Dir. Corp. Enablement at digitalswitzerland. But after briefly getting to know this 33-year-old “Intrapreneur on Fire” post event, I wished I had passed seeing Kloten Flyers lose in the 3rd period to VE Zug.
In a follow-up phone interview, David told me Swisscom Kickbox, their “bottom-up intrapreneurship program,” is itself an example of inside-out idea generation. The first time he learned about this structured approach for identifying and fostering intrapreneurs within large corporates was in Amsterdam three years ago where Mark Randall, VP of Creativity and Chief Strategist at Adobe, and inventor of Kickbox, delivered a keynote about it at The Next Web conference.
When I asked what role open innovation plays in Swisscom Kickbox, David replied, “Since Adobe open-sourced the program, we were able to test, adapt and further develop it and now bring our ready-to-use version to other companies. We built open innovation deeply into our framework with the ultimate goal to enable cross-industry collaboration and build an open innovation ecosystem.”
Before he rang off, David weighed in on a key question I had mailed him, ‘is there one secret ingredient to successful open innovation?’ He said, “I thought about it again and I really think it’s about the people. Sure, I agree the culture of an organization also plays an important role, but the biggest asset of an organization are its people.”
David describes his goal as building a new “mentality of getting things done” culture. He added, “We’re all startup people on the Swisscom Kickbox team. We’re happy to take risks, to work in uncertainty, to get things done. In my opinion, that’s the one ingredient that makes the Kickbox program successful.”
Was it coincidence his viewpoint echoed Professor Darwin’s emphasis on people? Or do open innovation evangelists all think this way? David summed up his optimism for open innovation, “It’s the future. I think in a global and digital economy, enterprises need to collaborate, if they want to survive. Company boundaries will start to blur and employees will not just work for one company anymore.”
In contrast to a general appeal for more cooperation by Federal Councilor Schneider-Amman at digitalswitzerland’s Swiss Agritech & Food event, Solomon Darwin was explicit in his advocacy for open innovation. Itemizing a list of conditional realities, this early St. Nicholas ended his keynote with a gift of revelation: the secret to open innovation.
Like a matryoshka doll of truisms, Darwin revealed the secret step by step:
- Data is useless — unless it is converted into information.
- Information is useless — unless it is converted into knowledge.
- Knowledge is useless — unless it flows and produces something useful (like technology).
- Technology is useless without a business model.
- Business model is useless unless it is sustainable and scalable.
- Scalability is useless if it becomes the enemy of sustainability.
- Sustainability is useless if it’s not making people happy.
Backstage after his talk, he patiently reiterated on tape, “Ultimately, the point is to improve the happiness index of people. Data can be transformed into knowledge, and the resulting technology can be made useful by a scalable and sustainable business model, yet none of it is worth very much unless it adds to the happiness of the people.”
In the final analysis, Darwin insists, “it is the happiness of the people that must override everything else. And that happiness is tied up in the ability of the community to be part of the process that takes them from abundance of data, information, knowledge, technology, business models to happiness.”
Learn more about open innovation (by joining) in Darwin’s Smart Village Movement.
Riva Digital’s bet, emerging from digitalswitzerland’s Challenges, is a noble attempt to save lives by exposing a cunning killer, hypertension – the leading cause of death in Switzerland. The bet’s promise and progress were enough to win 1st place among Challenge contestants in April 2018. But unless it gets a reaction from two key groups in the next few months, Riva’s bet risks falling victim to the same sources perpetuating the disease it hopes to defeat.
The urgency for a reaction from individuals and CEO’s, lies in Riva’s wager to prove their digital tools and strategy can go beyond what has and is being been done in the fight against hypertension. Because let’s give the disease its due. Despite widespread health officials’ warnings, annual mortality rates from high blood pressure (HBP) continue to climb. Like the boy in Aesop’s Fable who cries wolf! – we’re cautioned so often about health threats, our ears are deaf to the messages (and messengers).
Recall back in April 2017, E-Health declared,“… the Roundtable bets that by April 2018, more than 100,000 people will be involved in the digital ecosystem and one year later these people will have demonstrably lowered their blood pressure.”
If Riva gets a reaction from individuals and CEOs, it will have proof its digital tools helped lower 100K peoples’ blood pressure WITHOUT medication, WITHOUT hospitalization, WITHOUT seeing a doctor.
Dr. Thomas Guggi, Riva tech lead and full-time orthopaedic consultant at Schulthess Clinic, acknowledges 100’000 isn’t derived from a mathematical model. He said, “that’s not the idea behind it. The idea is to sensitize people to the problem, not scientifically document that we are lowering blood pressure by this single mean.”
Speaking together in his office, Thomas offered an anecdote illustrating how Riva’s digital strategy and tools for raising awareness will empower HBP’s potential victims.“I had a patient this morning, a nurse, and she monitors her neighbours’ health. She knew one suffered from HBP for a long time and overheard her say, ‘Well I’m off my medication, but I’m feeling fine.’ To which the nurse replied, ‘Okay but why don’t you sit down and measure it for a change?’ She did, and amazingly, her blood pressure was 190 over 110. Bingo!* Now if people have a device or app like RIVA, they can know what range they are – and if in the red, it’s high time to see a professional“
With the September 2018 release of Riva Digital’s new RIVA app, HBP victims gained a new weapon in the war against hypertension. Powered by ground-breaking technology from CSEM, bundled in a slick lifestyle app developed with Riva Partners, Pryv and Altran, the world’s first oBPM (optical blood pressure monitor) app awaits your reaction to help save lives.
Chief Executive Officers are realists. Leading large companies with tens of thousands of employees through good times and bad, they’re expert prioritizing tasks and numbers. Two numbers with outsized impact are productivity and employee satisfaction; research by Gallup suggests engaged workers produce more profits.
If they do the math, CEOs can expect a healthy ROI partnering with Riva – because it sends a message to employees and stakeholders that executive priorities are in the right order. Besides, the cost of doing nothing against this common enemy is high – compared to taking a meeting with Stefan Wild, which costs nothing.
Many know Stefan as the hard-driving, always smiling, CEO of TopPharm, the largest group of independent pharmacies in German-speaking Switzerland. A Riva Society Board member, Stefan concedes it’s hard to place a number how much more revenue is generated by health-literate employees compared to workers distracted by health concerns (they’ve heard what they don’t know can be fatal).
Long-serving CEOs favour proactive rather than re-active management. Similarly, Stefan anticipates, “in the next 2 to 3 years, BPM will not be the only one that goes in the direction of an app. We will have a lot of other (digital health) measurements. It will save time and money to join Riva now and do the first steps in the new direction.” (to book a meeting with Stefan, e-mail Riva, c/o Kathatrina Guggi: email@example.com).
Jan Vichr, Founding Partner, Canopei, gave this account of executive priorities: “I see it as my personal and my company’s mission to transform “sickcare” to healthcare and empower people to live healthier and happier lives. Therefore, we invest in disruptive technology start-ups with the focus on preventive and consumer-centric health and wellness. Riva Digital is 100% in line with this mission.”
Networking with e-Health leaders and media presence were reasons Ruben Gonzalez, CEO Cardio Medic AG, joined Riva Digital. Asked how Riva benefits top executives, Ruben said, “The benefit of the population is also a personal benefit, whether CEO or MD. Only a healthy population can achieve longer-term goals.”
If you’re under 40 and think HBP is no concern, observe the nightmare affair a young Swiss endured:
“I was 27 years old and went for an eye exam. The optometrist noticed a change in the background of my eyes. She sent me to a GP to have my blood pressure (BP) checked. The GP put me on 24-hour BP monitoring device. Next day, I’m working in an open space and device is buzzing every 20 min. Each time it went off I stood up and left the office, not wanting to annoy my colleagues. It all added up to a false set of data and instead of more BP measurements, the doctor put me on beta blockers.”
FYI, beta blockers are medication that reduce BP by blocking the effects of the hormone epinephrine, (a.k.a. adrenaline). Side effects may include headache, fatigue and in some cases, depression. “I had little to no drive. Didn’t see any sense in what I was doing. Everything was slow motion. I’d be sitting at my desk, literally thinking, ‘Why the heck am I going to work?’ I called the doctor and said, ‘Listen, I’m having these and these side effects … and I’d rather die being happy – than a vegetable like this …”
Now in his late 30’s, I asked to share his story for readers who believe they’re too young to worry about hypertension. He winced, the unpleasant affair clearly not forgotten, “Sure … I might not be the only one falsely diagnosed.” Besides he said, “Knowing about blood pressure’s importance, knowing how behaviours and emotions effect your BP, the earlier you start establishing a healthy lifestyle the better.”
Download and open the RIVA app. In 30 seconds, it gives you a reading like 120/80. Measure again tomorrow and know if your BP measurements are green (all good), yellow (a little high) or red (visit your doctor). Taking one’s BP measurement with the app directly supports Riva’s bet – and offers users peace of mind – or early warning against hypertension.
Get the app on Android or iOS. A web portal is opening soon on Riva’s website. Check out cool prizes and fun contests Riva Partners are offering to reward your help in fighting hypertension.
Author’s note: check out previous coverage tracking Riva Digital’s improbable 12-month journey from raucous roundtable to first-place finish in challenge Season One.
12.02.2018 Riva bets your life on winning its challenge
28.02.2018 Riva Digital’s Grand Experiment
* A systolic reading (upper number) above 140 or diastolic reading (lower number) above 90 are classified as Stage 2 HBP and cause for concern. Discover more at rivadigital.ch (in DE/FR/EN).
Insider News from our digitalswitzerland challenge
At twenty-two years of age, my younger brother’s world and future irrevocably changed when he sustained a traumatic spinal cord injury (TSCI) in a motorcycle accident. He was left paralyzed from the neck down. 1984 tech helped make his diminished quality of life tolerable. But more importantly, advancing innovations in medical technology offered hope.
Hope that one day his desires – the signals in his brain – might once again communicate with his torso, arms and legs. Hope that one day, he could sit up unaided, get out of bed, run across a football field or return the bear-hugs lavished on him by family and friends.
Reports in Nov. 2015, from EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne) of a tech break-thru for TSCI sufferers would have given him thrills. Despite arriving too late (he died in 2014), EPFL’s commendable news undoubtedly fuelled fresh hope to hundreds of thousands of disabled like him, renewing their dreams of regaining mobility and dignity.
In their findings, published in the scientific journal Nature, a rhesus monkey regained use of its legs, just six days after a paralyzing injury. The solution was a wireless “brain-computer interface,” (BCI) connecting an implant in the primate’s brain to an electrical stimulator on its spine. By translating the monkey’s movement-related brain signals into electrical pulses on its spine, the technology assisted the monkey’s brain, sending its legs instructions to move — leap-frogging the injured part of its spinal cord.
More than hope
Giving more than just hope to the disabled is only one objective of a new bet, “Brain-Controlled TV,” in Season Two of digitalswitzerland’s challenge. I spoke with its Bet Captain, Martin Kathriner, to understand the odds whether this bet can deliver on its wager as stated:
“Until June 2019, the team wants to demonstrate a TV only to be controlled with the brain.”
Martin explained, “The first impact is for people with disabilities, the paraplegic and tetraplegic, who can use this idea to control a smart TV.” He pointed out smart televisions like Samsung’s, are now a hub for smart homes, and because TVs can talk to other devices, it all leads to an IoT (Internet of Things) approach.”
Alliance with AI
Even before France banned smartphones from schools this summer, people were becoming increasingly uncomfortable in their relationship with technology. Exploring humans’ explicit and implicit alliances with technology are the second major impact Martin expects their bet to make, by stimulating discussions on how we interact with machines. He said, “We talk a lot about the human to machine interaction – but how do people feel when they interact with machines?”
Because regardless if we’re comfortable or not with brain-controlled devices, the future is already history. “Using EEG (electroencephalogram) sensors to measure brain activities is a very old idea, Martin clarified, “In 2018, everybody is talking through their devices … this interaction between us, human beings and machines’ algorithms, will become more important. Controlling a device simply with the brain, that’s very futuristic but is part of human machine interaction and at the end of the day, it needs to be a good.”
Translating taste to TV
Compared to empowering a quadriplegic to walk, or helping an amputee manipulate a prosthetic limb, a bet developing BCI technology to surf Netflix on your television may seem like an underachiever’s ruse. Martin suggested seeing their bet in a different light: “Imagine you’ve had an accident. And imagine a world where you are in a hospital, unable to speak, severely injured, maybe disabled. Now imagine a nurse coming into your room, he sticks a sensor behind your ear and suddenly you can control the TV with your brain activity!”
Earlier, we discussed how our brain signals a sour taste when we bite into a lemon, and “ouch!” when hit on the head. In the context of brain-controlled TV, he urged me to not to limit the BCI possibilities. He offered a comparison: “… if you bite into a lemon, the TV moves up a channel, if you get kicked in the head, the TV channels down. Now, replace the lemon and kickboxer and things start to be very exciting.”
Bona fide BCI rock star
Presently, the bet’s champion is Samsung Electronics. When I questioned if other players were on board, Martin confirmed, “We are partnering with Professor José Millán from EPFL.” In case I didn’t recognize his heavyweight collaborator, Martin continued, “José Millán is THE global rock star of brain-computer interfaces.”
His EPFL faculty bio confirms Martin’s conviction is well-founded. It states, “José del R. Millán is the Defitech Professor at EPFL where he explores the use of brain signals … In this multidisciplinary research effort, Dr. Millán is bringing together his pioneering work on the two fields of brain-computer interfaces and adaptive intelligent robotics.”
Harnessing human thought
Prior to our interview, José suggested I could get up to speed from articles on EPFL’s website. One of many was a critical review of “Mental Work,” a project he co-founded in 2017. Realized as an exhibit, visitors can experience what it’s like to control (and power!) industrial revolution era replica machines using thought alone. In the story (and video) Josè states, “We would like to generate a societal debate about this cognitive revolution which is about to come. What is the place of BCI, if any, in the future cognitive society that we are moving towards?”
The Mental Work project and Brain-Controlled TV bet share Josè’s desire for harnessing human thought and the intentions which compose a thought. José elaborated, “Can we even go farther and give these people with severe motor disabilities the possibility to interact directly by their brain signals? Because even if they have a motor disability, they still have brain signal functions. Can we tap onto them? Can we decode their intentions by simply analysing brain signals and turn those brain signals into the actions that they cannot accomplish?”
Already outside the box
Brain-Controlled TV was a late entry to the challenge race in 2018 but is now charging hard to its June 2019 finish line. Martin hopes larger Swiss hospitals will partner with them to test their new digital innovation. Given this bet’s new status, I asked Martin what other types of collaborators are sought? He said, “We need people in Switzerland who are not sitting in a box. We need cross sector thinkers. We need IT zealots from health institutions, Linux loonies, EEG sensor device evangelists, unconventional thinkers, industrial design enthusiasts, soldering professionals and …”
Say what? I interrupted. Soldering professionals??? Martin quickly said, “That’s a joke.” But then his conscious spoke up and he admitted, “maybe it’s a joke – but I’m also dead serious. Because I don’t only need strategists and super-duper software engineers, I need people who can do anything.”
For a last word, I corralled Martin by asking, ‘Is this just a wild crazy idea or do you really think that you can deliver? He laughed good naturedly, either because of my naïve understanding of his character or the joy he’s getting from working on this bet (or both) and said, “We will build it. It’s a bet and I hate to lose. We can do it and we will do it!”
Fail faster … if you can
Pundits tell us the pathway to innovation is to fail – or fail faster! underlining the reality successful innovation is born from many unsuccessful experiments. Which for a lean start-up spending lunch money on Facebook ads validating a solution-hypothesis isn’t too risky or painful if it flops.
But it’s a whole different galaxy when you’re the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) charged with meeting digital expectations of the 400’000 people/day who pass through Zurich’s Main Station (and moving 1.26 million daily passengers). How forgiving would a fraction of SBB’s customers be if their SBB Mobile app went weirdo after developers added a new feature?
Therein lies the digital dilemma for large scale Swiss enterprises like SBB. Take too long rolling out new digital services and Google or Apple steal away users’ loyalty by providing the high value services customers expect. Launch too quickly without thorough UX testing/feedback they risk building something nobody wants – or worse, damaging reputation when things go wrong. (e.g. reputation risk story, “60K Angry Customers”).
Acknowledging to abstain was the riskiest option of all, in April 2017, Andreas Meyer, SBB’s CEO, doubled down on “SBB AG 2020 Strategy” by placing the “Smart Station” challenge bet:
“participants of the Smart Station project bet that by April 2019, they will have established Zurich Main Station as the world’s most digital, personal traffic hub for customers, tenants, suppliers and other innovative partners.“
In my first report on Smart Station, “the Genie is Out of the Bottle,” I questioned if SBB (and bet collaborators) were sincere or just getting more mileage for marketing. Bruno Lochbrunner, Head of Conceptual Station Management, told me back then, “We are serious about this challenge … it is not just a saying, ‛Smart Station.’ In 2018 and 2019, we have to decide about speed.”
What’s at stake?
Last week I met with Philipp Leimgruber, Overall Project Manager Digitization Zurich HB, to learn if Bruno’s projections were bearing fruit or frustration. Philipp replaces Markus Streckeisen as its challenge bet Captain, evidence of the confidence SBB places in 41-year-old Leimgruber to deliver. A certified Scrum Master and Scrum Product Owner, Philipp earned his PhD in 2010 from University of Bern in Social Sciences. Except for 3 years in research and teaching at Uni Bern, Philipp has invested his entire career with SBB, mainly at the intersection of mobility and digital products.
How much does it matter to Philipp – or you and I, should Smart Station bet win or fall short? Given Swiss revere for national icons, SBB’s role in Switzerland’s national identity is no less significant than its army or fiat currency. With so much at stake and an April 2019 deadline, Philipp was unwavering about his job and their bet’s chances. He said, “there’s not much I don’t like about my work. It’s a lot of fun. But the goal is clear. We want to be the most personal and digitalized train station in the world!”
Wall of fame
Speed to market differentiates winners and losers in the race to innovate. Philipp reiterated the strategy behind partner-supplied innovations in early 2018, like robots Mario and Alfred or the Short Story Dispenser, was the need for speed. “We started our challenge with quick wins because we did not want to take a year doing ideation and project planning.”
However, a lot of innovation was going on out of the public eye. Recently, SBB posted a Wall of Fame, showcasing numerous innovations currently being tested. The headline touts: “Wall of Fame – your opinion matters,” and solicits users to rate these projects. Augmented Reality navigation apparently failed to garner enough likes and has already been pulled. But among the 13 others inviting reviews are Mobility E-Scooters, Foxtrail Zürich indoor scavenger hunt and SBB Sandbox. Vote your favourites!
The SBB Sandbox best illustrates its broad-based approach for winning its bet by leveraging Zurich HB as a “Brain Hub.” Philipp confided, “We did an ideation phase last winter to look for projects that really help us become a destination in itself.”
His smile grew wider as he elaborated on the Sandbox. “We knew 100K people are coming in and out of the station every day. We realized, this (HB) is not only a mobility hub, it’s also a brain hub. So many brains walking in, walking out. So then came this idea, let’s use these brains!”
Philipp accedes, “many people are sceptical of digitization. So we asked ourselves, how can they (sceptics) get involved?” The idea, he explained, was to empower the legions of transient “brains” passing through HB to give feedback for our prototypes and get them involved. But he stressed, SBB Sandbox is not limited to internal projects. It’s an invitation for any Swiss enterprise to have free of charge, a week (16-21 October 2018) of HB floor space and direct access to 100’000 people/day to try out their digital products or prototypes.
A company or entrepreneur who wishes to begin a business relationship with SBB ought to take advantage of Sandbox. Philipp more narrowly defined the criteria for partnerships, “Each (Sandbox) applicant has to come with a clear question. There’s no pitching – no promotion. It’s about testing digital prototypes. We will support them with user experience teams, but they have to come up with a good question.”
Perversely (to me), it feels friendlier to be a pedestrian guinea pig, voluntarily walking into a physical testing arena like Zurich HB, than a snippet of big data surreptitiously collected by my mobile device or an app. Consequently, at this early stage of challenge Season Two contest, I’m awarding SBB front-runner status.
The winner’s circle of the first challenge race saw a crush of contestants and winning bet teams savoring this long-awaited moment. While not quite prancing for joy, Riva Digital and C-Shares bet teams deserved taking a victory lap after they were crowned winner and runner up, respectively, of the first challenge race among a field of 11 determined contenders. Read full event coverage here.
Looking on were the “new arrivals,” those intrepid enough to enter bets for challenge round two via the crowdsourced open challenge platform. These are men and women who answered challenge Steering Committee chair, Stefan Schöbi’s call for, “new recipes, new answers, new ways,” of finding innovative digital solutions. Go check them out and join one to if you wish to learn the recipe for creating innovation.
During a recent conversation, Stefan elaborated on his challenge Steering Committee’s thinking, “Pursuit of innovation is very simple, because there’s no such thing as alchemy (seemingly magical process of transformation) to create innovation. It’s the combination of already known things.”
It’s too soon to tell if open challenge bets will uphold Stefan’s firm belief that, “it’s right to get people together. They’re more creative, they’re a lot more powerful in finding new solutions for existing problems.” But the results of challenge round one are strong evidence the challenge recipe for innovation creation works.
Take the winning e-health bet, Riva Digital, for example. It began life as an opportunists’ mashup. Everybody who was anybody in the health industry jumped on its bandwagon. Crowding around its initial round table were commercial interests like TopPharm, mega-corporates like Migros, venture capitalists, hospitals, lawyers, elite Swiss universities, consultants and rocket scientists at CSEM – to name only a few of its 27 collaborators (at last count) – led by a table Captain, Claudia Pletscher, from Swiss Post.
With so many diverse self-interests at the same table, Riva’s bet could have easily devolved into something like the dysfunctional United States’ Congress and its egomaniac President, unable to agree on anything or get any meaningful work done. Yet the opposite transpired. Riva’s partners combined their own (known) resources in novel ways, and executed, iterating a plan together on the fly.
Speaking with Riva Digital team members, Thomas Guggi and Tobias Pforr, before the winners were announced, Tobias said, “I find it really amazing what this team has accomplished in one year. But it’s not finished. We have a lot more to prove in the next stage.”
Fire and failure
A few hours later, Riva’s bet was named overall winner. I asked Tobias if their smart phone blood pressure app would make a difference in the world and stimulate more Swiss innovation. In a measured voice he said, “The people behind the bet, they’re going to have a tremendous impact on people’s lives.” The look of wonder on his face reveals he still finds it incredible what Riva has accomplished. He continued, “Seeing what is possible, with just a few people catching fire, and going for something … I hope that will ignite other people to dare to do something with a high risk of failure.”
Soon after C-Shares team returned from their victory lap, Luka Müller, partner in MME Legal and mastermind of its blockchain framework, took time out to explain what this new innovation means for Swiss innovation. “For the first time in history, a Swiss share is being printed and transferred from one person to another, without any transactional intermediary. This is the world’s first … and that is sexy.”
Sexy crazy bet delivers world’s first
As I was trying to align ‘sexy’ and ‘world’s first,’ Luka doubled down, “It’s one of the sexxxxiest bets you can actually think of. It’s a crazy bet! When you start with a crazy bet like DAURA, you never THINK of what work you have in front of you. But luckily, it is a challenge, and it is a bet, with a clear-cut timetable. Because without a bet, it would not have worked out so well as it did for DAURA.”
The crowd milled around us as Luka continued, “When you’re in a project like this, you’re never completely sure you’re on the right track. As a venture, you do something that’s never been done before. You have these doubts … but if you have a savvy team and a community (like digitalswitzerland), telling you, ‘hey guys, you’re on the right way,’ well … it makes you happy!”
Execute in spite of the risks
The Fintech roundtable has placed a new bet for round two of the challenge. I asked Luka what lies ahead for his Fintech bet collaborators and their MVP “DAURA”? He said, “A concept like a Swiss C-Share is very new. You have a lot of traditional entrepreneurs and owners of companies. You need to convince them that this is ‘Stage 2’ of investment life. You can only convince them this is good for them with a very very good product, which on a price level, is very sensible. This is our challenge in the next 12 months.”
With his focus already shifted to creating the next tranche of digital innovation, Luka’s outlook reminded me of something Nicolas Bürer, Managing Director, digitalswitzerland, told me. “At the end of the day, the (challenge) strategy is about showing to the world that we can, as a country with such a collaborative approach … execute projects.”
Twelve bet stories and six months ago, I began this assignment looking to validate the challenge conviction, “Innovation has always been and will always be the key factor for Switzerland’s prosperity.” As I file this last story, I’m proud of the women and men who answered the challenge call. Who had the audacity to conspire and declare crazy bets. Who accepted the likelihood of failure, but executed in spite of the risks — to help ensure our prosperity.
If you’re inspired to create Swiss innovation, join the open challenge
As you read this, challenge contestants are crossing the April 9th finish line. From a starting field of 18 ambitious – even crazy, bets, 11 have gone the distance. Tonight, after a year of friendly, sometimes fractious collaboration, the first round of challenge bets will either pay off, or come up short.
But the kicker is, no matter a bet wins gold, or raspberries for “Prix Persévérance,” every person actively collaborating, be they high-flying CEO table Captain, or soft-spoken Ethereum app engineer, has already received something extraordinary: a powerful recipe.
Joy of cooking
There’s no absolute recipe per se for innovation, else every country in the world would be as prosperous as Switzerland. But given the premise, “innovation is executing new ideas to create value” (Tim Kastelle, Tobias Pforr & others), the women, men, and the bets they executed, are living proof the challenge recipe for innovation works.
If you want to experience this joy of cooking, but missed out joining the first challenge, heads up! A new round of bets is beginning, open to anyone with a desire to learn, by doing, the true nature of innovation.
Impatient to start cooking?
CLICK HERE to go directly to open challenge
Until now, hard facts what’s coming after April 9 have been scarce. Bets with 2-year time horizons, like e-Health or Smart Station, obviously will continue building/scaling solutions. Yet having witnessed the challenge recipe in action, I’ve made no secret my desire to see this challenge not only continue – but expand exponentially.
Which made it especially gratifying when Stefan Schöbi, challenge Steering Committee Chair, invited me to his 3rd floor Engagement Migros office to talk about the new open challenge, and what’s in it for you and me.
He greeted me at the door, a bundle of folders in one arm and a ripe pineapple in the other. “Our team meeting is starting right after us,” Stefan remarked, as though that explained the odd mix of analogue paper and tropical fruit. He hustled us into a conference room and launched into how the “old” (challenge) is evolving into the “new” (open challenge).
“In the first challenge, we asked for big challenges from the big corporates. In the second challenge, we’re opening up, making it a bottom-up process.” Stefan equates fostering innovation to creating a great new meal, “You have to find the ingredients. But a meal is not made from just one ingredient; it’s the mixture, the processing … innovation is all about the composition of cooking. Our open challenge is like creating an open kitchen, where everyone can join us.”
Detour conflict of interest
Stefan has learned, “if you start with the corporates, you will always get corporate ‘recipes,’ for what people are good at doing.” He cautions, “But you won’t get new recipes, new answers, new ways. This (open challenge) is a way to bring those people together in a different setting, which is not their corporate housing … more like a cooking course.”
To look at it from another angle, Stefan and the challenge steering committee have designed a detour around self-interest – one of the obstacles of big corporate participation. By crowdsourcing new issues, the open challenge eliminates employer/employee conflicts of interest both upstream (ideas), and downstream (resources required to execute). The detour allows big corporates to continue innovating on their own, but creates opportunities for talented people to step out of their corporate silos and join an open challenge bet.
As people began streaming into our conference room, Stefan concluded with a final appeal. “I’d like more people to join our open challenge. We need lots of different skills, lots of different mindsets. We need people bringing different perspectives to our test kitchen. You’re going to learn …”
His sentence was interrupted by his team bearing the former virgin pineapple, now transformed into a platter of ready-to-eat juicy bites. He began laughing and said, “Help yourself! We’ve talked about cooking all this time, now here’s our meal!”
Converting the faithful
A while later, I gained access to the open challenge crowdsourcing platform by invitation of Adrian Gerber, CEO of innovation consultants, ATIZO 360 GmbH. As platform administrators, they invited 460 people, of whom 25% converted into active users. For comparison, Adrian cited an unnamed Swiss gear brand they helped crowdsource development of an avalanche airbag. “We recruited appx. 500 applications, pre-selecting 120 experts. Our client chose 30 for an ‘Open Innovation’ phase, resulting in 31 concept/ideas.”
Guillaume Gabus, challenge project manager, confirmed active open challenge users have proposed 70 unique ideas. By the time I logged in, the “match-making” phase was already in progress. Connecting the right people remains largely a manual process, but helps explain why digitalswitzerland has attracted 100 members since inception in 2015.
Having little experience with online dating, but high regard for Swiss “Vitamin B,” I called Nicolas Bürer, Managing Director digitalswitzerland, for more insight. An entrepreneur himself, (DeinDeal, MOVU, etc.), Nicolas identifies closely with users the open challenge is attracting. He explained, “The benefit for me joining is being passionate about a topic and through this collaborative approach, you can bring it to life.”
On the importance of match-making, Nicolas advised, “Peter Thiel (PayPal, Palantir, etc.) is always saying a key factor for success is the network effect … the multiplier effect. This is where we can help. We connect the dots and we multiply. This is the advantage for anyone working with digitalswitzerland rather than doing a project on their own. You are part of a network effect, they multiply and speed up execution.”
Smart minds and sexy ideas
Nicolas’s comment reminded me of a FinTech expert I met at Swisscom, Roland Cortivo, when researching the C-Shares bet story. More recently, Roland explained why he submitted a new idea/bet (sustainability topic) for open challenge. “From a personal perspective, it’s to grow my personal and business network … but also give something back. I think our country will only stay on top if you keep pushing innovation forward. It needs smart minds. It needs sexy – crazy ideas. Even if you work in a company like Swisscom, or a bank or so, this gives you the opportunity to live your entrepreneurial ambitions.”
That last point gets me excited for people who may follow Roland’s example. In March, I facilitated purpose-driven story workshops for 12 start-up teams in START Accelerator. Their astonishing energy and blind passion to execute an idea isn’t only a consequence of their youth. It’s because they’ve gone beyond talking about entrepreneurial dreams – they’re living them.
Do you believe?
Before saying Au revoir, I asked Nicholas if new or existing challenge bets require CEOs participation? He asked to be quoted, and said forcefully, “No! we don’t want only CEO’s. We want leaders! We want leaders who have time and passion and are pushing the topic. It can be a CEO or it doesn’t have to be a CEO. We need the ones who really have passion and belief in what they’re doing!”
CLICK HERE join the open challenge
Gold. The symbol AU. From Latin, Aurum, or shining dawn.
Gold fever. Contagious excitement of a gold rush.
Gold rush. Surge in activity by individuals seeking to capitalize on newly discovered gold.
Daura. Rhaeto-Romanisch word meaning, “made of gold.”
DAURA. A new infrastructure to print C-Shares using blockchain technology.
Will gold fever cause a gold rush?
On the evening of April 9, 2018, in Kraftwerk’s auditorium, challenge Round Table Fintech, hopes to cause a new outbreak of gold fever when it unveils, “DAURA,” the MVP of the world’s first digital service for issuance of tradeable bona-fide Swiss regulated C-Shares.
In tandem with the Blockchain challenge bet, DAURA may even set off a new gold rush of investment in Switzerland. Once these two MVP’s become fully operational, entrepreneurs world-wide can log onto its blockchain, incorporate a new Swiss company, then immediately raise share capital among new or existing shareholding investors.
The Fintech Roundtable bets that it can digitally map the issuance and trading of Swiss C-Share certificates until April 2019 and create a Minimal Viable Product (MVP) by April 2018.
Last October, I joined a meeting of C-Share’s collaborators at Swisscom Pirates Hub. By way of introducing their bet, Johannes (Johs.) Höhener, Head of Fintech Swisscom and challenge Table Captain, said, “Joel, I’d like to inspire you a little bit. It’s really digitalization of the economy … it’s the simplification of access to the capital markets.”
Inspiring? Ha! suddenly gold fever hijacked my brain with the prospect any asset could be digitized and traded as crypto-shares. Johs drew down my delirium, “the question is, if you’re able to convince the market. That could be the game-changer, but this process is going to take 10, 15 years, or even longer to become mainstream. The big thing we want to achieve is the first C-shares issued under current existing Swiss law.”
Rich and famous
I tried drawing out Johs to speculate about future fame and fortune if they succeeded. His candid answer revealed what was truly at stake for a Fintech veteran, “This is different I think. This is ecosystem-driven. You don’t get rich and famous with that idea, but you could initiate a change in how we buy, trade and issue assets.”
Before departing, I asked who else would be useful to interview? Johs named only one, “Luka Müller, he’s the father of the (C-Share) framework.”
Interviewing Dr. Luka Müller-Studer, Partner at MME Legal, and mastermind behind DAURA regulatory compliance, required all his charm and first-class privilege to keep our connection open as he boarded a flight to Vienna.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome onboard flight …
Over pre-flight announcements, Luka confided, “By nature, I’m a developer, but educated as a lawyer. When I was young, I started coding and liked the process … adding lines of code, you create something, which then works and creates efficiency.”
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome onboard flight …
Over pre-flight announcements, Luka confided, “By nature, I’m a developer, but educated as a lawyer. When I was young, I started coding and liked the process … adding lines of code, you create something, which then works and creates efficiency.”
Good afternoon this is your captain speaking …
Luka opted to study law but never lost his love for development. “I’ve always been involved in projects that had a legal side … for example, a compliance service engine. Blockchain for me was like wow! something new, which has a considerable impact on legal transactions and definitions.”
We ask that you direct your attention …
The PA droned on. A new voice intruded, cajoling him to buckle up. I pictured the absurd contrast of Luka smiling apologies to the flight attendant while carrying on our sober conversation. Unfazed he explained, “… we should try to make the best use of core elements of blockchain technology. One is unchangeable register information. Secondly, use the centralized transaction nature of blockchain, the same new technology which allows you to print coins, you can also use to print shares.”
Please turn off all personal …
Any moment I feared they would confiscate his phone. Was he handing out 20 SFr. notes to buy non-compliance? He continued, “I call it ICO 2.0 (initial coin offering 2.0). People have many ideas to structure an ICO but we have an old-fashioned concept which allows you to participate in a venture. Why not use the good old working legal structure of an AG with shares — but use the structure with new technology?” The engines were revving as we said goodbyes and agreed to email.
SMEs (small & medium enterprises) account for 99.3% of all Swiss enterprises. Last week, Luka reiterated via e-mail, “the main users of DAURA will be Swiss SMEs which want to offer their existing and potentially new Shareholders a technically attractive share – which can be easily transferred and is therefore suitable for a secondary market.”
The 500-kilo gorilla
From the advantage of my trackside seat, Fintech’s bet looks like a sure thing. Until I was reminded, “a few weeks is an eternity in a project like DAURA.” The caution came from C-Share team member, Roland Cortivo, Fintech Expert at Swisscom Digital Business.
Roland and I met in a Swisscom conference room late January, with a 500-kilogram gorilla: the April deadline, sitting quietly in the corner. Roland isn’t the type to ignore the obvious, “the challenge we have at the moment is a fixed date. We need to go forward with time boxes.”
He admitted that time boxing makes him, “be a little bit the bad guy.” Then with a straight face and hint of humor added, “My contribution is to be persistent, like a dog who is biting everyone, because it’s absolutely crucial for us to have an MVP in April.”
Will DAURA disrupt?
In October, Johs was non-committal about their bet’s chances, citing numerous obstacles that still had to be overcome. After an hour of watching Roland white-board demo DAURA, I asked him the big question, ‘how confident are you C-Shares will be a winner?’
Roland began cautiously, “I would say … there’s always 1% …”
I raised my voice and challenged him, ‘So you’re 99% sure?’
Relief born of hundreds of hours’ labor spilled out, “I’d say, yeah, we really have the A Team for this. MME Legal and Swisscom. I think the perfect match.”
Gold fever was pinging around my brain again. I asked if he thinks DAURA will disrupt the markets? Roland shot back, “Disrupt? This will rock the place. We will have done a share capital increase! Then we can open a good bottle of wine.”
February 1997. Newsweek publishes, Steven Levy’s “The Brain’s Last Stand,” about Kasparov-Deep Blue match—the historic contest where IBM’s computer beat the world champion Grandmaster. 20 years later, Levy writes in WIRED magazine, “No matter what human-like feat computers perform in the future, the Deep Blue match demands an indelible dot on all timelines of AI progress.”
September 2016. Amazon announces “Alexa Prize,” $1 million contest to elicit more humanlike responses from chat-bots (chat-bots are AI designed to converse with humans). 100+ teams from 22 countries applied to compete. A year later, none of the contestants’ chat-bots lasted the required 20 minutes of spontaneous chit-chat with a human to claim victory. James Vlahos, a journalist who programmed, “Dad-Bot,” using recordings of his dying father, said of the Alexa Prize, “Twenty minutes of small talk with a computer isn’t just a moon shot, it’s a trip to Mars.”
October 2017. The Guardian, “… Google’s AI program, AlphaGo Zero, took just 3 days to master the ancient Chinese board game of Go … with no human help beyond being told the rules … an AI so powerful it derived thousands of years of human knowledge of the game before inventing better moves of its own… “
Today. The AI challenge Round Table Captain, Dr. Felix von Reischach’s, collection of degrees, job titles and responsibilities are as large as the man himself – and Felix is a big guy. Shaking hands with him in the polished lobby of Swisscom’s P51 Zuriwest showpiece, his physical bearing (and beard;-) brought to mind, Maximus, played by Russell Crowe, in Ridley Scott’s blockbuster Gladiator. Elevating my eyes 30 degrees to meet his, he greeted me with a candid smile and suggested coffee. I liked him immediately.
Trading small talk before his interview, my first impression was not far off. Outside work, Felix plays rugby as a “lock,” for Grasshoppers Club Zurich. For non-rugby fans, the lock position player requires height, muscle, weight, agility and neck strength guarding against pressures in scrums.
Given the hurdles of mega-tech companies developing voice assistants, from where I’m sitting, the Dialect-Bot will need all the muscle its Table Captain can muster if it hopes to place in the money by April 9th.
“The Artificial Intelligence Roundtable bets that it can put an artificial intelligence service in place that is able to understand and speak one of Switzerland’s rarest dialects until April 2018.”
In early 2017, Felix took over as Head Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning Group. Fortunately, the Swisscom colleague he replaced was in touch with digitalswitzerland. The two AI specialists colluded to bet a Swiss German language “bot” could deliver value for Swisscom and Switzerland.
The idea for their bet is framed as two questions, “How can we provide minorities with access to technology despite the language barrier? How could such a solution be beneficial to the rest of the world?
These altruistic ideas and its quasi-monopoly sponsor, Swisscom, make odd bedfellows. My devil’s advocate wanted to know if was it the chicken or egg that came first? Instead, I ask Felix, ‘What’s behind that question?’
Felix: To be honest, the backstory is a little bit less philanthropic … obviously, we’re a company. We also see ourselves responsible for Switzerland, to keep it competitive. The story here is we knew voice interfaces would become very popular. Already a year ago there were clear signs that have come true. Google has sold one Google Home per second since October. There’s Alexa and now Apple’s launching HomePod. Interacting with computers by your voice, it’s fair to say, is the future.”
Joel: I think you’re right.
Felix: And that raises the question, how can Switzerland be part of that? Because Alexa, for example, only supports English and High German. While more languages are available in Google Home, for many companies, Swiss German is not a priority, simply for the fact the market is too small.
Joel: Of course.
Felix: If you extrapolate that to the world, there are many languages where the big players might not focus on them. The primary question we had was how can we make sure that Switzerland can play a role in this future world of people talking to machines?
Felix: And secondly, maybe there’s a chance we find the mechanism to extrapolate insights of how to build speech recognition systems for less spoken languages. Be it Swahili, or even smaller languages. That was the initial drive for the bet.
I’ve learned from interviewing the gifted and talented, they often down play their own scientific breakthroughs that could change the world. If you unbox “chance we find the mechanism … ,” he means the possibility of discovering a new machine learning paradigm. A new way of developing computer systems with the intelligence to interact by voice with humans – in any language!
Most AI big players train their chat-bots using immense “lakes” of voice and text data. For example, Google processes (& records?) 40,000 search queries per second (+25% are voice). Siri responds (& records?) to 2 billion queries per week. It’s fair to assume there are no equivalent data lakes of Swiss German to be tapped. I asked if this was a handicap for Dialect-Bot?
Felix: I mean at the moment we work with very few hours (voice data) compared to these big companies, because what is important to us … at Swisscom, we have a responsibility, to make sure we don’t misuse data our clients give us. … that might be a disadvantage compared to the big players, but I think it’s our responsibility, and we’re taking that responsibility very seriously.
Can Dialect-Bot deliver?
As I’m writing, Dialect-Bot’s debut is in 4 weeks. I pressed Felix to tell me if their Bot will live up to expectations. He exhaled as I watched his mind weigh an answer before he said, “We have created the system, the speech recognition model for Swiss German, that we will show in April. This is a base line (MVP) model, it’s a start. We have a long path in front of us to create an open domain model that works in all circumstances, whether you’re on the street or calling the (Swisscom) hotline. But we can show that Swiss German speech recognition works.”
Zurich-based Slowsoft GmbH, is one of Dialect-Bot collaborators. Phil Lichtenberg, Head of Sales and Marketing told me, “Last year, there was no Swiss dialect-bot. On 9 April 2018, people can use Swiss German to interact with a dialect-bot for the first time ever in history!” Lest anyone has doubts, Phil sets me up with a rhetorical question and pays off with a promise, “What does that mean? The approach, to make a dialect-bot in a minority language like Swiss German available, has been proven. It works.
Much is riding on this new machine. Can an interaction between a Swiss-German speaker and Dialect-Bot be the catalyst for speech-bot innovation in other minority languages? A year ago, two of Swisscom’s brightest minds envisioned the impact it could have, “By applying the method to other rare dialects, people around the world could fluently communicate with each other and use any technology by applying voice control.”
Closing our interview, Felix had a final message, “I want people to understand that voice interfaces are the future way of people interacting with computers, and that Switzerland needs to act if they want to be part of it.”
The anecdote which begins Riva’s story is true. Names were omitted to protect privacy. BTW, if you want to catch my 1st Riva bet insights, follow this link to read Riva Digital Part 1
His awakening to the dangers of HBP (high blood pressure) came too late. 50-something, married with 2 kids and a stressful job that afforded a lake-view home on Zurich’s Goldcoast, but little time for exercise or fitness. He loved his wife, his Swiss lifestyle and assumed his best years lay ahead.
On a cold night in January 2015, the man attended an Ignite Zurich show. Over the following days, it dawned on him that the good Angel of Death, archangel Michael, also attended the show to deliver him a warning. It came in the guise of a hospice worker’s talk, curiously titled, “What would you pack in your suitcase if you knew you were never returning home?”
The next morning, unaware of Archangel Michael on the sofa, he kissed his wife, stepped back — and melted onto the carpet. 40 minutes later, his stricken family watched in disbelief as two paramedics lifted him onto a stretcher. Conscious, but unable to speak or move, his shock went unnoticed when his wife kindly offered to pack him a suitcase to take along in the ambulance.
Medical professionals know this person’s nightmare is a common outcome of prolonged HBP. A staggering 1.6 million Swiss men and women are plagued by it. Tragically, few of them anticipate its deadly consequences such as heart attack and stroke.
As deceptively simple as its cure is complex
HBP is the leading cause of death in Switzerland. To visualize the economic and emotional impact, consider its death toll equals the population of Zurich – every 12 months! Despite this notoriety, HBP has retained its shameful #1 ranking for years. The reasons why are as deceptively simple as its cure is complex.
Hypertension remains a consistent killing machine for two ignoble reasons: ignorance and invisibility. Recently I spoke with RedRock founder and Riva Digital core team member, Tobias Pforr. He told me, “very few people understand BP or that HBP has a lot to do with a person’s lifestyle.” Tobias sheepishly admitted he personally had never thought about BP, until during a routine eye examination, the optometrist – no pun intended, opened his eyes to the subject.
Earlier this month, Dr. Thomas Guggi, orthopaedic consultant with Schulthess Clinic, and a key link assembling Riva Digital’s ecosystem, described the second reason why HBP claims so many unwitting victims, “… it doesn’t hurt, it isn’t painful, you don’t realize it until in many cases, it’s too late.”
But frankly, the fact it is stealthy doesn’t square with its ungodly butcher’s bill. Thankfully for the employees, customers and eventually you, me and the world, neither did it square with E-Health roundtable partners.
Nine months after Riva declared their bet, insiders point to Riva Digital as a “poster child” among challenge roundtables. They’re not singling out Riva’s team for a “Bachelor” casting call. Their shout out is a salute for identifying a massive global problem and fashioning a scalable solution using digital innovation and Swiss collaboration.
It’s tempting to assume Riva Digital winning this challenge, saving millions of lives and helping secure Switzerland’s leadership as a global hub for digital innovation. The trouble with assumptions are until facts prove the hypothesis, they remain an informed best guess.
Last week in conversation, Tobias cautioned that in spite of impressive achievements, Riva is still, “an experiment with lots of moving parts that need to fit together.” Was he being overly modest or does an obstacle loom ahead that threatens success? Judge for yourself. Below are extracts of the bet’s specifics juxtaposed with up to date insider news and perspective.
In an e-mail, I asked about progress procuring people for the 2nd part of Riva’s bet, “… that by April 2018, more than 100,000 people will be involved in the digital ecosystem …”, Tobias shared the good news Riva just signed a company with +100K employees to join their ecosystem. Which strictly speaking, satisfies their bet’s April 2018 milestone.
HIGH FIVES for Riva!! – but nobody’s popping champagne corks yet
The 3rd phase of the bet doesn’t seem important until 2019, “…and one year later these people will have demonstrably lowered their blood pressure.” But hold on. To compare 100K people’s BP a year from now, Riva needs to benchmark 100K people’s BP today!
Hypothetical question: short of offering an extra 4 weeks’ holiday, how would you get 100K employees of any Swiss company to regularly measure their BP? Riva believes it knows the answer.
In our Jan. 16 interview, Dr. Guggi expressed optimism Riva will deliver, “The next target is 100K by 01 April 2018. I am 100% percent convinced we’ll achieve that goal. The next goal will be one year later, proving that we were able to lower the BP in critical people. But even there, if I look at the technology, if I look at what we can achieve with the app, I am convinced we will make the 100K – also in the follow ups. As for the challenge itself, we need at least two or three measurements throughout the year to show the trend.”
Dr. Guggi’s enthusiasm it turns out, has a lot going for it. For starters, Riva has a secret weapon. The weapon is a beautiful example how to solve a global problem through Swiss digital innovation and collaboration.
What’s got everyone excited is a historic scientific breakthrough. For the first time since Riva-Rocci invented the BP monitor in 1896, people can measure their BP anytime, anywhere — using only a smartphone and Riva Digital’s new app.
Ten years in development, the revolutionary technology was created by Josep Solà and his team of scientists at CSEM. “The algorithm works by differentiating colours,” team member, Mattia Bertschi, tried explaining to me over the phone. “It observes a signal and processes the parameters.” He chose not to go into further detail, either due to trade secrets or because of my neophyte science.
Mattia confirmed their technology powers Riva smartphone apps developed by CSEM industry partners (and Riva partners), Biospectal and Altran. Earlier, Tobias had informed me Altran initiated app development around the CSEM algorithm and Biospectal (founded Aug. 2017) joined in later as they were also developing an app in parallel. For more info on the app, read this interview with Biospectal founder, Dr Patrick Schoettker, by Swiss Digital Health.
Andreas Kuhn, CTO/Program Director, Altran Switzerland, explained how easy people can get their BP measured using the app. It only requires placing a finger on a smartphone camera lens and its flash. The app sends that data snippet to CSEM’s algorithm, which instantly returns a measurement to the user, e.g. 120/80, as accurate as your doctor’s office bulb and cuff monitor. Enhancements may include opt-in reminders, graphical trends or personalized incentives from a Riva partner like TopPharm or Die Post.
Want to join Riva’s grand experiment?
If you suffer HBP, or want to prevent it, help is coming sooner for some than others. Ask your company’s health department if they’ve opted-in to Riva’s ecosystem. If not, tell them Riva’s turnkey system will organize everything: data exchange, coordination, etc.
Once their website, rivadigital.ch, goes live, it should be as easy to participate as it will be to measure your blood pressure. Riva’s bet partners have a holistic approach to subdue this quiet killer. The extraordinary digital innovation of the new app, the many channels among multiple partners now being activated, the commitment of Riva’s leaders; foretell a healthy prosperous future for Switzerland.
On a final note, though I do have insider information, my reasons for betting Riva Digital, “to win,” are personal. I want them to win for good people like the man who packed a suitcase, for people like my father, who died a year ago after a paralysing stroke, for good people of all nations, so they are aware and take action, before it’s too late.