Silvio Bonaccio is delighted by the strong entrepreneurial spirit that he encounters in his work as Head of ETH transfer. It took time, effort and many different pieces of the puzzle to get to that point, as he explains in the interview. He hopes that the many initiatives he sees today are just the tip of the iceberg.
BaseLaunch: In 2019, 30 spin-offs were founded at the ETH Zurich – that’s a new record. Congratulations!
Silvio Bonaccio: It’s always nice when the graphs show an upward trajectory towards a brighter-looking future. But this is not something that happened overnight. There are 20 or more years of history behind these numbers. The effort made by both the ETH and the broader Swiss start-up community has dramatically changed a lot of things in a positive way over the last decades. But the Swiss government and the many private initiatives have to be acknowledged for the creation of today’s thriving entrepreneurship environment too.
You joined the ETH transfer team in 2001, so you can look back on 19 years. What was different then?
I would like to go a little bit further back in history. The ETH started to think about entrepreneurship in the late eighties, when start-ups were not a topic in Switzerland. Back then, a couple of people at the ETH started to think about ways to spark an entrepreneurial mindset: Thomas von Waldkirch, the director of the first Technopark Zurich, for example, and Verena Steiner, who created the course “Lust auf eine eigene Firma” (“Start your own company”). I attended this course while doing my PhD. Then the first business plan competition “Venture – companies for tomorrow” was launched, and the Venture Incubator (VI Partners) was created, a venture capital firm managing 100 million francs. The fund aimed at investing in the seed stage of high-tech start-ups from academic origins. Their mindset was mainly of doing something for the future of the Swiss economy. Then came the hype and the bursting of the “dotcom bubble”. When I joined the ETH in 2001, the entrepreneurial spirit was low.
How did you nurture the entrepreneurial flame?
I was part of a newly recruited tech transfer team, my colleagues Silke Meyns and Andreas Klötti joined shortly after, and Marjan Kraak came just a few years later. We quickly understood that start-ups are a very important vehicle to get technologies to society. The ETH, like many other universities, engages in fundamental research, and the technologies that come out of this are of a very early nature. Usually, when you approach industry with these new inventions they say: “Oh, that looks nice. Come back when you have a prototype or something useful”. It is different with start-ups. Once founded, they can raise venture capital that will potentially see a high return – if things go well. We started to encourage that more. At the same time, other important changes took place, such as the revision of the ETH Act in 2004.
What’s changed in the meantime?
The institution was allowed to take equity in start-ups, and we professionalized the tech transfer activities and became a separate unit with our own budget. At the same time, the federal government made efforts to foster innovation in Switzerland. For instance, the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) launched a call for teaching entrepreneurship. The “Institut für Jungunternehmer” (IFJ) under the lead of Beat Schillig handed in a completely new type of proposal – the Venture Lab. It was – and still is – a huge success. We teamed up early on and tried to stimulate our researchers to think about how to extract socio-economic benefits from newly developed technologies. All these initiatives very systematically helped people in their first steps. Similar developments took place in Lausanne in and around the EPFL, with fantastic start-ups coming out of that area. But that was not all.
What do you mean?
In the year 2000, the biotech company Glycart Biotechnology was founded as an ETH spin-off. They had developed a system that adds sugar moieties to antibodies at selective sites, markedly increasing their potency and specificity against cancer. At that time, very few companies had similar technologies or approaches. Suddenly, Glycart received an unsolicited acquisition offer. Roche, being a strategic partner from the start, eventually bought Glycart for approximately 235 million Swiss francs – the biggest biotech deal of that year in Europe. Since they were a spin-off from the ETH, we had shares from the licensing agreement, and we sold those shares at the time of the acquisition. That raised some eyebrows. The media reports created a big buzz. We got cold calls from investors. Sometimes you may have a vision and the will to create this type of dynamics and environment, but eventually it’s by chance that something falls into place and suddenly it takes off. Then you have to grab the opportunity. I think that’s what ETH did at that time.
What is the business model of ETH transfer today?
The ETH Act clearly says that we should not only do research and education, but also actively transfer our know-how for the good of the economy and society at large. We may not invest in financing rounds, but we are allowed to take shares in companies as part of a licence or in compensation of incurred cost. We take advantage of this possibility, mostly to help spin-offs to preserve their liquidity. But we need to be able to sell the shares at some point. Some start-ups have a growth curve resembling a hockey stick; they become an interesting acquisition target and eventually will be bought. When we have shares in such a company, of course, we get a substantial amount of money back, like in the case of Glycart. This money then flows back into research at the ETH. Raising money to grow a company is still a very big challenge for start-ups. We are currently looking at how to support our spin-offs even more in that respect. Again, the ETH cannot directly invest capital, and maybe should not go into that risky venture capital business anyway. But the ETH Foundation has this possibility and could maybe create a side vehicle one of these days to collect money that can then be deployed into our spin-offs.
It is striking that some of the spin-offs that were founded last year are active in sustainability. Even the biotech was connected to sustainable food production. Is that a trend that you see more often and do these companies have a bigger chance to get funded right now?
The ETH is structured into 16 departments across all disciplines, and every now and then spin-offs are born out of these departments. If we look at the statistics, we will very likely see that, roughly speaking, about one-third comes from ICT, one-third from the life sciences and one third from engineering. Yet, placing technologies in one single box is very difficult nowadays. For example, if you apply big data science to the medical field, should the resulting technology be labelled ICT or medtech? Probably it should be both. There are trends. Ten years ago, meat replacement with protein from sources such as peas were likely not on the radar of VC investors, and probably such concepts were not thought to be developed in start-ups. That’s the dynamic of the world. Suddenly the awareness for certain things dramatically changes (e.g. sustainability, CO2) and people start to consider where they can contribute to solve the eminent challenges and also see the opportunity to make a good business. The two spin-offs of last year, which are developing new materials based on sustainable resources, would probably not have found investment ten years ago.
Do you see investment trends with life sciences spin-offs?
There is a substantial amount of capital from various sources available for companies developing therapies to cure diseases. One of the reason is that the development of treatments in vehicles such as start-ups is an established pathway. It’s capital-intense, yes, but the industry is used to that and accepts the risk of a high failure rate. It may take up to 10 to 15 years until you know for sure if a therapy will work. But in return the profits can be very high. There are currently many new developments in the therapeutic field. The microbiome space is one such hot topic. On the other hand, if you are developing instruments for analysis, you will find it much harder to raise funds because the appetite of investors for such ventures is much lower.
How do you influence the researchers on which direction to pursue?
One of our responsibilities in the tech transfer office is to manage intellectual property. Early on, we become aware of the various technologies being developed in the departments. We don’t suddenly decide we need more start-ups developing solutions to the CO2 problem. ETH scientists have long recognized this challenge and worked for years on solutions. For example, Sunredox – a former ETH spin-off – originated from a lab that had done years of research on a chemical process to produce fuel using sunlight as an energy source. When we first met the scientists, they showed us a vial with a tiny droplet of something. They were very excited and said: “This is fuel!” We said: “Great! How long did it take to make it?” The answer was: “Only a couple of months”. We didn’t really see the immediate business opportunity here, but nevertheless we supported the project. They were awarded the Pioneer Fellowship, a grant of 150,000 francs. The award also included space in the innovation & entrepreneurship lab (ieLab), training and coaching to sharpen the business case. During this time Sunredox was incorporated. In the meantime, they have merged with Synhelion, a company developing complementary technology. They hope their process and technology can in the future produce fuel in a way that is efficient enough to make it marketable. There are big risks of course, but if you don’t try, you will never get there. So, a lot is driven by the fact that ETH researchers find new technologies in their endeavour to explore the fundamentals of the world. And suddenly there is an opportunity to transfer such technologies to society. We are more the catalysts of this process.
How do you prioritize when to push projects forward?
We have a couple of internal programs such as the Pioneer Fellowship to support early promising projects before they are incorporated. The grants are given after an in-depth check, including the expertise of external advisors, usually from industry and the finance sector. Once a spin-off is founded, we deliberately hand over the baton to the founders; the company has to find its own way independently of the ETH. We can still support them by keeping them on-site for up to two years. That is especially important for biotech spin-offs, because at the beginning they can’t afford the high costs of the infrastructure and equipment needed. In essence, we provide these early-stage companies with shelter in order to allow them to build enough value to attract investors. It is still risky, but once the technology is under control and the business case clear, the company can fully focus on customers, product development, sales, and building a strong management team. As a public institution we cannot go all the way with the companies. They have to fly on their own, feel the cold and stiff winds of the economy and hopefully survive. The truth is there are various other professional programs and a fantastic network and start-up community where the newbies find lots of support and help.
What role do such support programmes play?
Even for start-ups, some technologies are very early. That is why we started the Pioneer Fellowship Programme in 2010 with the idea of achieving forward integration in this value chain. We put some money on the table, not for equity, but for developing the product and sharpening the business case. Ten of the thirty spin-offs from 2019 were actually founded by former Pioneer Fellows. By the way, initiatives such as the student driven Entrepreneur Club and the ETH Juniors are equally important, they help in stimulating the entrepreneurial spirit and the founding of start-ups through networking events and also some non-dilutive grants. Without these dynamics the ETH would not be what it is today in terms of start-ups. And external initiatives such as BaseLaunch are very important, because a young start-up needs a professional platform where it can find a first home base and take off from there. A lot is going on, and I hope we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg.
Tephtera from the ETH and Pattern Biosciences from the D-BSSE are BaseLaunch-funded companies.
The D-BSSE is an important department where many great technologies are developed. In the past few years, a tremendous effort has been undertaken in the Basel Area to foster and support biotech / life-sciences start-ups. I’m very happy that we have an initiative like BaseLaunch in the vicinity of the D-BSSE. We have a biotech life sciences area in Zurich-Schlieren, where companies originating from ETH labs in Zurich like Glycart, Molecular Partners and Covagen started and found a home. It’s a fantastic community for Zurich based start-ups. There were ideas to have another hub in the future Innovation Park in Dübendorf. Personally, I think we probably shouldn’t spend more money on another incubator in that area when we have Basel with BaseLaunch and the big pharmaceutical companies around. It’s also fantastic that Novartis has opened up its campus and that Basel Area Business & Innovation is the first tenant. There are many benefits for start-ups, and a lot of synergies that we can gain from that, including access to infrastructure, know-how, research and financing. From the Swiss venture capital report, we see a new record of CHF 2.3 billion venture capital flowing into start-ups in 2019. That is a very strong trend. 2019 also showed again that it is possible to produce future unicorns in Switzerland, e.g. GetYourGuide. It also means that we should not be afraid of being bolder and thinking bigger than we do today. BaseLaunch is an important platform that helps to explore the huge potential further.
The course is set for founders to create companies. Are the scientists ready to be founders?
The mindset has changed dramatically over the years. When we talked about commercializing technologies 19 years ago, the researchers more or less asked me to leave the lab. Today we are delighted to see that people are literally running into our offices, presenting their new technologies and wanting to found a company. I think the current mindset is fantastic. Don’t get me wrong. Not everyone needs to found a company, and not everyone needs to be an entrepreneur. I’m extremely grateful to our Board, because their full commitment was needed in order to change the culture. In ETH’s yearly internal Triple A Report – the Annual Academic Achievement report – researchers have to report on their research and publications, but also on patents filed, software developed and companies founded. Plus, if you go to the departments’ websites, you see that they proudly present the spin-offs and start-ups that came out of their respective labs. This is the type of dynamics that has developed over the years. And ETH and its people are profoundly proud to see that their research is bringing a benefit to the economy and society at large.
About Silvio Bonaccio
In 1995 Silvio joined the Nestec Productivity Team NPT, an internal consulting group of Nestlé. He participated in and led improvement projects in the company’s operational units in Europe and the Americas. He returned to Switzerland by the end of 2000 and started as technology transfer manager at ETH transfer in April 2001. He heads the office since January 2005. Silvio studied Chemistry at the ETH in Zurich. He is a member of swiTT (Swiss Technology Transfer Association), of ASTP (Association of European Science and Technology Transfer Professionals) and the American-Swiss Association.