Interview with Swiss entrepreneur Laurent Balmelli

Laurent Balmelli is a Vaud-based entrepreneur with extensive experience working for multinationals and getting successful companies off the ground. We spoke with him about his multifaceted career and why he ultimately chose to set up his business here in western Switzerland.

You graduated from EPFL with a PhD in Communication Systems and went on to work for IBM in New York and Tokyo, before coming back to Vaud and starting your own business. Can you tell us more about your experience? 

After getting my PhD I accepted a job with the IBM Research Division in New York, working mainly on fundamental research that generally resulted in patents. Six years later I moved to the IBM Tokyo office, where I was involved in software development, systems engineering, and technology transfer. After five years in Japan, I was ready to return to Switzerland – where I grew up – and use the skills I learned to start my own business. This region has a lot of talented engineers and I saw an opportunity to help them turn their technology into viable, marketable products. That step from corporate product development to performing your own market validation is a tough one – you have to shift your focus from “how can I make my technology better” to “how can I make something as relevant as possible for the market”. "This is because you now need to form your own understanding of the market, as opposed to being previously supported by the corporate marketing team". 

Once back in Switzerland, I set up a consulting firm, called Sana|Elias, with my wife, who has a background in investment banking. Our skills are complementary – she specializes in financial advisory services and I advise companies on innovation and value creation driven by market needs. In 2015, I was contacted by three people from HEIG-VD, a local engineering school, to help them bring one of their lab developments to market. We ended up founding a company together called, whose business I led until it was acquired by Snap Inc. – the company behind Snapchat. After the acquisition I spent three years as the Director of Snapchat Switzerland. 

You also work as a coach for young firms, mainly through Y-PARC, Microcity, and Tech4Trust. Can you tell us a little more about that? 

This has been a very enriching experience – it’s inspiring to see the energy and drive these young entrepreneurs bring to the table. Entrepreneurship can be a tough road, especially for engineers with little experience in “softer” skills like sales, management, and marketing. But those skills are crucial if you want to build a brand that differentiates. Through the coaching programs I’m involved in, I help startups resolve practical problems, better understand the go-to-market strategy challenges they face, and more generally untangle difficulties related to their market positioning. I think it’s important for entrepreneurs to participate in the community, and for those of us with experience to give something back.  

Why did you decide to set up your business in western Switzerland? 

Because the startup community here is really strong. There’s a lot of support, the region is brimming with potential business relationships and new opportunities, and there’s a large pool of successful founders to be inspired by. I believe successful entrepreneurs have to be motivated to create something and be good “hustlers” to sell their vision. In Vaud you see a lot of that kind of motivation and hustling. People want you to succeed. And they’ve set up the structures to make that happen. Not just coaching and networking but also financial, such as through the FIT and the array of venture capitalists in the area.  

"In Vaud, people want you to succeed."

Vaud provides a fertile ground for startups to grow: how has the innovation ecosystem here helped your business develop? 

Mainly by putting us in touch with the right people. Through our contacts, we’ve been introduced to senior business leaders at multinationals who opened up major opportunities. And by speaking with other entrepreneurs facing similar challenges, we’ve been able to learn faster and forge a network that helps us navigate through the “fog of entrepreneurship” (the business equivalent to the “fog of war!”). The dynamic ecosystem Vaud has to offer makes our business development activities efficient. And it’s changed a lot over the years; today it’s more international and is growing in the right direction.  

For the new startup I’m currently creating, which is based at Y-PARC, this region has given us a pool of job candidates from many backgrounds. Functionally speaking, our company provides a product that lets customers – typically technology firms – work with external (i.e., outsourced) developers, temp staff working from home, or simply employees on-the-go without jeopardizing their IP, trade secrets, and confidential information, especially when those external people are offshore. So we need people who know how to write code, of course, but also navigate different legal systems, market to different industries, and design interfaces for different types of users. The universities here provide graduates with skills in all those fields. 

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