Why did Innovaud merge with DEV, which led to the creation of a single agency for promoting innovation in our canton and attracting foreign companies?
Patrick Barbey: For the past few years there’s been a push to streamline the various economic development agencies and innovation programs in Vaud. But recently one key factor prompted us to move forward – the central role that innovation now plays in the canton’s economy. The line between supporting innovation and supporting the economy has been not just blurred but erased. Traditionally, foreign companies have been drawn to Switzerland by our stability, well-functioning legal system, attractive tax policies and high-caliber universities. Of course we still offer all those benefits, but now there’s another important one: a vibrant innovation ecosystem. That has helped offset some of the legal benefits that no longer exist today. Over the past ten years, Vaud’s innovation ecosystem has become more mature and more impactful. EPFL has clearly made a name for itself globally and especially in the US, and our startups, scale-ups and partnerships in both the public and private sector are on par with the best in Europe. By merging with DEV, we are now better positioned to support the increasingly predominant role that innovation plays in Vaud, and we can do so under one clear brand identity.
How big is the new Innovaud and where are you located?
We have 15 employees, all based at the World Trade Center in Lausanne. We will be moving into larger offices in September. We chose the World Trade Center because it already houses many innovative businesses, we can use its facilities to host large delegations from other countries, it’s close to EPFL and the Biopôle tech cluster, and it’s easy to reach by car and public transportation (it will be near a stop on the M3 metro line set to open in a few years).
“We now also promote the development of high-tech clusters that can support businesses already located here”
What will Innovaud’s main goals be following the merger?
All our activities remain focused on innovation, but we support it in a wider variety of ways. We still run all our programs for local startups, scale-ups and SMEs, yet we’ve created a new unit devoted entirely to building relationships with foreign companies. This unit prospects firms that might be interested in our canton and arranges visits. The upshot is that our two activities – one focused domestically, the other internationally – feed into each other. Our ties with Vaud’s innovation ecosystem make it easier to showcase it to foreign companies, and our knowledge of high-growth industries will make it easier to identify foreign companies that could be interested in expanding into our part of Europe. While our efforts still involve bringing multinationals to Vaud, we now also promote the development of high-tech clusters that can support businesses already located here.
Can you give us an example?
Biopôle is an example of such a cluster, since it performs advanced cancer research for Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV). So now, we can look for up-and-coming medtech companies in Boston or San Diego that might be interested in expanding into Europe and try to convince them to come to Switzerland. We will naturally target companies that would be a good fit – you wouldn’t come to Vaud if you were looking for a large pool of low-cost developers, for instance. But if you wanted highly skilled engineers in medical technology, nanotechnology or healthcare research – to take the Biopôle example – then this would be the place to be. Our role at Innovaud is to find those companies and match them up with what our region has to offer. We have a team of innovation advisors who are excellent in describing the specific ways Vaud can meet companies’ needs.
Will you do a lot of that kind of marketing?
It’s important to get the word out about Vaud, especially on the international stage. We’re still working on our marketing strategy, but innovation will be central to our positioning in various sectors. The Swiss Food & Nutrition Valley – a joint initiative between Nestlé, EPFL, EHL and the Canton of Vaud – is an example of a domain that we will now put forward. Our marketing materials will be tailored to the specific companies we are targeting, with details about what we’re already doing in their particular industries. Sometimes we just have to answer really basic questions like whether people can do business in English here. Another element of our marketing strategy will involve being more present on social media, publishing videos, giving webinars, etc.
We unveiled our new logo, tagline and website on 16 June. They were designed to convey the message that Innovaud is Swiss and devoted to promoting our region, attracting investment and helping companies get set up here.
Will the new Innovaud also offer new services?
Yes. The main new service we will provide is helping local businesses expand internationally. Since we already assist foreign companies wishing to come here, it makes sense that we would also assist local companies wishing to expand abroad. We already do that to some extent with Switzerland Global Enterprise and other organizations. Now we will step up these efforts, in part through our Scale Up Vaud program, so as to support small businesses looking to export their goods and services.
We are also ramping up our market research activities – we created a new full-time position devoted entirely to analyzing our existing innovation ecosystem, identifying the most promising markets and industries, and, crucially, distinguishing short-term fads from disruptive trends.
What resources will you draw on to implement your new strategy for Innovaud?
Half of our 15 employees handle the local market and half the international market. But there are a lot of synergies between these two units. We also have many partnerships in place, such as through GGBa, a joint economic development agency for French-speaking cantons, and internationally through the swissnex network.
How were the members of the new organization’s advisory board chosen?
- The Chairman – Rémi Walbaum, Chief Innovation Officer at École Hôtelière de Lausanne (EHL) – was appointed by the Vaud cantonal government. The other members were elected at the extraordinary general meetings held by Innovaud and DEV in March 2020. The board members are all experts in their fields and come from major organizations; their insight will give us an international perspective and keep us on top of the latest developments. The members are: Aurélien G. Demaurex, CEO of the scale-up ecoRobotix; Fabienne Freymond Cantone, a member of BCV’s board of directors and the Nyon city council; Jean-Philippe Lallement, head of EPFL’s Innovation Park; Luc Oesch, CFO and head of pension funds at Centre Patronal; and Aude Pugin, CEO of APCO Technologies. We are in talks to appoint two more members from key segments of the economy. In addition, the board has two non-voting members: Andreane Jordan Meier, head of Vaud Canton’s Office of Economic Affairs and Innovation (SPEI), and Ariane Baechler, vice president in charge of international affairs at Vaud Canton’s Office of Higher Education (DGES).
Has the pandemic slowed implementation of the merger over these past few months?
It’s true that our combined staff had to start off working together remotely. But fortunately most of us have known each other for years. Once we merged, things got busy right away with requests from startups and SMEs. Six Innovaud experts served on the Vaud committee for reviewing emergency loan applications, for loans all the way up to CHF 1 million. It’s been a lot of hard work but it has also brought staff from the two different organizations closer together. Developing our new brand identity has also taken up a lot of our time. In addition, we’ve been busy holding videoconferences with representatives from foreign businesses to guide them as they continue with their plans to open offices in Vaud. Surprisingly, the pandemic hasn’t stopped them from coming. We’ve already had 11 set up in Vaud this year. That’s more than we had at this point last year, but it’s too soon to see if that reflects the pandemic or if we will end up close to the 33 we had for full-year 2019. In any case, the process will continue in the second half of this year.
Merging our agencies during the lockdown actually turned out to be an opportunity because it improved our lines of communication, allowed us to set up virtual meetings, and brought us closer together. That said, our teams have been happy to gradually come back into the office over the past two weeks.
What are your priorities for the coming months?
First, to get our international marketing efforts going again. We’ve outlined a plan for ramping up our physical presence starting in September through a series of visits and events. The plan includes different scenarios depending on how the pandemic develops in different countries; local organizations are helping us take the pulse of various markets.
Interview: Camille Andres