Author’s note

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.

Diplomatic manners

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.

What enemy?

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.

Paradox of plenty

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!”

Comfort Critique

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.”

Switzerland has everything but

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.”

Falling behind

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.”

Why not Switzerland?

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.”

Schneider-Amman’s start-up story

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.

Agro-preneur perspective

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 …”

Being Swiss means

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.”

Happy to lead

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.”

Strategic or serendipitous

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.”

Attracting talent

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.”

Exit poll results

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.”

Political pragmatism

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?