Detlef Günther, vice president for research and corporate relations at ETH Zurich is, “very happy” Switzerland has regained its status of fully associated member in Horizon 2020. However, he told Science|Business, “ERC grants are very important for us, because they enable us to make additional fundamental research – the foundation for all innovation. Our spin-off activity is also based on it but works separately from Horizon 2020,” said Günther.
ETH researchers file approximately 200 invention declarations every year. Around 80 to 100 of these are patented. Each year 20 to 25 ETH Spin-offs are incorporated based on ETH technologies and some of them have their own patent licences.
On the back of this flow of intellectual property, ETH has formed more than 20 companies a year since 2007. In 2016, ten of the newly founded ETH spin-offs were created through the Pioneer Fellowship programme, an in-house instrument benefiting academics keen to commercialise their research.
Selected researchers are interviewed by university professors, tech transfer professionals and industry representatives who judge their idea and personal motivation. But the main selection criterion is the entrepreneurial potential of the candidate. “We want to ascertain that this person has entrepreneurial skills,” said Günther. “That is something that you really see. It’s a gut feeling.” Successful fellows have to be able to explain their idea and demonstrate “how visionary and how thought through [it] is,” Günther said.
Once the selection process is over, the fellows are trained by a coach and a mentor and receive support to develop their idea into a business. “Seventy five per cent of them succeed and start a company,” said Günther. ETH could help launch more spin-offs through this programme, but chooses not to, as the fellowships are partly funded from donations and the university wants to avoid burning through cash. “We are very selective,” said Günther.
The 355 companies formed around ETH research since 1996 have created over 2,500 jobs. Around 92 percent make it through the first five years, a survival rate 40 percent higher than that of other start-ups in Switzerland.
ETH has 16 departments and 500 professors and their excellence is demonstrated by the variety of the spin-offs. In 2016, the university helped launch eight spin-offs in ICT, six in mechanical engineering, four in biotechnology, three in robotics, while two other companies are specialists in timber engineering.
The university aims to spread its academic diversity and encourage innovative ideas in all departments. The leadership does not want to “force it top-down to have more spin-offs,” said Günther. “The school works bottom-up and the intrinsic motivation of researchers is enough to generate all these spin-offs.”
Günther believes that success cannot be planned, but ETH wants to make the best use of taxpayer money and “create as many jobs in Switzerland as we can.”