“Innovation is at the base of economical, societal, and cultural prosperity.”
By Paksy Plackis-Cheng
There are approximately 13,000 foundations in Switzerland. The majority of the foundations are focused on supporting traditional causes. Dr. Pascale Vonmont, CEO and Director of the Gebert Rüf Stiftung, speaks about the foundation’s areas of focus as well as funding innovative ideas and projects.
You spent time in New York, NY. How is philanthropy in Switzerland different from the United States?
There are some differences. The reason I went to New York is that we have no real data in Switzerland. In the U.S. there is a lot of data about foundations. This data goes back to 1941 when Form 990 [Return of Organization Exempt From U.S. Income Tax] was implemented to provide the public with financial information about nonprofit and tax-exempted organizations. It also ensured transparency regarding the source and spending of foundation money.
The fact that you have all the data about foundations is very important for funders and grantees. Information on how much and where the money is spent can leverage impact.
The other difference is that in the U.S., education is one of the main reasons for giving. In Europe, especially in Switzerland, education is mostly funded by the government. Even our universities are public universities, and the level is very high. About 70 percent of the students in Switzerland go to a university that is in the top 100 worldwide. That’s why the causes of foundations in Europe and the U.S. are different.
Foundations are not very visible in Europe. We do not talk enough about what we do, and we definitely have to work on this.
What are the focus areas for foundations in Switzerland?
Art, social causes, the environment. The main areas the Gebert Rüf Stiftung focuses on is science and innovation. Our founder, Heinrich Gebert, was a successful entrepreneur of a family-owned company. When he founded the foundation, he said, “Innovation is at the base of economical, societal, and cultural prosperity.”
He created the foundation to be at the very early convening of innovation. The goal is to make sure that we don’t lose innovative ideas that might benefit the economic prosperity of our country. This is quite unusual. The focus of foundations are created based on the passion of the founders—someone who enjoys theater, usually ends up giving to the arts.
Can you give an example of the programs and people you support that are driving innovation to help the economy?
At the very beginning of the foundation, I started with a program called “New Entrepreneurs in Technology and Science.” We sent an invitation to the deans of universities and said, “Every university can nominate three students with an entrepreneurial idea.” It made the deans think: Do we have students with innovative ideas? Who are they?
We supported this initiative for six years, and then it was taken over by a national initiative of the government for entrepreneurship training. Now it’s much bigger than when we started.
That gave us the chance to focus on another gap that we defined together with representatives of the ecosystem. Together we came up with pre-seed funding; to take innovative ideas out of the university, these scientists need some initial funding. They also need to understand that they are not scientists anymore. They are now entrepreneurs. That was the launch of Venture Kick. I think it was very important that this was not a program of our foundation from the very beginning. It was a neutral name and organization, which allowed a dozen partners to step in. This was necessary, because there were many unrealized new ideas.
What are important ingredients to make partners go in the same direction?
It is very important to have a common mission. You also have to provide clear organizational rules for all partners. There can’t be hidden agendas. We also share the success, so it’s the success of every single partner. Together you have more leverage, more impact. It also cost more time because you have to agree. You learn from others by putting every disagreement on the table, and you end up building trust, which is very, very important.
Universities have enormous research capabilities. How do we propel more research at universities to translate into practical solutions for the world?
We think out of all the research that is done about 10 percent of it will turn out to be spin-offs, and 10 percent of the spin-offs turn out to really be scale-ups.
The research also needs to be a business idea. You need an entrepreneurial team to make it happen. The questions is then, how do we get more interesting ideas? And, how do we help more entrepreneurs? Can we organize a kind of matchmaking?
At universities, there is a lot of potential. What if we went to every lab and asked what they were working on? And if we come across an interesting idea, then we encouraged them to apply for support?
What are the selection criteria you use when evaluating the work that is taking place in labs?
We especially look for projects that have a disruptive potential. It is deep tech innovation based on science and results that nobody has done yet. It’s often new ways to create drugs, or how we are using bacteria to fight cancer. Or clean tech ideas such as taking CO2 out of the atmosphere.
I was wondering how much interest there is for social entrepreneurship, but these are all kinds of social entrepreneurship! These ideas are all for-profit and for-purpose.
Yes, with SEIF, we launched a separate social entrepreneurship initiative in 2009. We realized these kinds of projects need different support and a different kind of investor. I am convinced that within 5 to 10 years social entrepreneurship will become standard in all the other programs.
In “social enterprise,” the second word is “enterprise.” There has to be a business in the end. To me there’s a clear difference between charity and social enterprise. If there is no customer paying for it, it’s charity, which is perfectly fine. It serves a purpose. And sometimes the government is the customer, because you can show them that they can save tons of money and create a lot of benefit for their citizens.
It is tough to be for-profit, to run a company; a social entrepreneur is dealing with a double, sometimes triple, bottom line. How does that work in practice?
We worked closely with organizations in the UK. They are quite knowledgeable in social entrepreneurship. Yes, for every single project you have to show the social return on investment. It adds a lot of value for many kinds of investors that are not only looking for a return on investment in cash. There are many investors ready to invest in very cool projects, and often invest some time and coaching for a possible social return on investment. You have to be able to show really clear numbers. The impact of the investment does not always have to be cash.
Have you seen a rise in impact investors?
Yes, we created a circle of social impact investors. Impact investing is also a hot topic for foundations. Foundations are aware that maximizing earnings on the income side alongside negative social and environmental effects doesn’t stroke with the other side of doing good.
A lot of people in academia do research or they work for a big corporation. You were able to combine science, entrepreneurship, and philanthropy.
In research, you work the rest of your life on one very focused topic. I have the privilege to see disruptive innovations daily and be part of the journeys of entrepreneurs. This was more than I was hoping for: transferring these innovations and being part of the impact with our foundation in Switzerland.
What’s next for you and the foundation?
We always try to find gaps and to raise awareness for innovation. We just launched a new entrepreneurial program. In Switzerland universities of applied science have not created many spinoffs and startups. That’s why we launched a program called First Ventures for bachelor and master students with an entrepreneurial idea. This is a program that we will run at least for five years.
We are also discussing the topic of education in the age of digital transformation. This has a huge influence for society. In Switzerland, school is public; it always takes time for new concepts. That’s why it adds a lot of value if a foundation comes up with pilot projects in order to show the government new strategies and programs.
The success of the Swiss ventures is higher than those in the United States. What is responsible for this?
One reason is we are completely focused on deep tech spinoff and startups, which means their work is really unique. The other reason is they have a very good test market in Switzerland. It is a small market, but we have the German speaking part, French, and Italian. All three parts have very different cultures. Then the ventures have to go global very fast. This pushes them to think globally from the very beginning, which is hard, because then you have to deal with new countries and their legal systems. But this push is very helpful. The third point is very good support, mentorship and financial support for startups at an early stage.
Being an entrepreneur is really challenging. Do you have any final advice for young entrepreneurs?
Some of our entrepreneurs have said, “Whatever happens with this startup, whatever I learned in these three years, I could never get this value by doing three MBAs.” It’s the best teaching for the rest of your life. It’s adventure with so much value for you personally.
How has feedback benefited personally you as you built your career?
I was always open enough to take all the advice or to really ask for feedback without losing my own character. One input I felt that helped was about public speaking. Before you go on stage, say to yourself, “I’m so happy to be here.” Instead of being nervous, you will have this attitude: “I will go on stage, and I will love it.”