Startup Guide Zurich: how fintech and cleantech startups thrive in this vibrant ecosystem
The Startup Guide series of books, published by Sissel Hansen, covers cities such as Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris, Stockholm, Munich, Berlin, London, Lisbon, Miami, and New York. Startup Guide Zürich is spread across 200 pages and makes for an informative and entertaining read, with profiles of founders, coworking spaces, and key ecosystem players.
“When thinking about Zürich, and about Switzerland as a whole, what comes to mind is an efficient, eco-friendly, and balanced place,” explains Sissel Hansen.
As the homeland of the Dadaism art movement a hundred years ago, Zürich has carved a name for itself as a financial and creative hub. Though a costly city to live in, Zürich rates high on the quality-of-life index.
Switzerland is not only the land of mountains, lakes, watches, and chocolates. “The future of work and living is being experimented with, which is a clear indicator of a strong economy, strong education, and residents with a strong sense of responsibility,” according to Mayor Corine Mauch and Councilor Carmen Walker Späh.
The book begins with an overview of Zürich facts and necessities such as language (English is understood but knowledge of German helps a lot), public transport (extensive), dining out (expensive!), local environment (Lake Zürich, Alps, and 1,500 public fountains), and the local people (polite, punctual, private, and abiding by rules).
With a population of around 1.5 million, of which foreigners account for 26 percent, Zürich’s finance sector generates around a third of the wealth and a fifth of the jobs in the city. Thanks to its location in the heart of Europe, Zürich is easy to reach from any of Switzerland’s neighbours.
It has also become a startup hub, with a range of recent successes from ventures such as Wingtra (drone mapping), Neurimmune (immunotherapeutics), RosieReality (educational app for robotics), Guuru (live chat), and G7 Therapeutics (acquired by Heptares). Many startups are incubated and spun off from Zürich’s Federal Institute of Technology (ETH).
Zürich is one of the Top 20 startup hubs in Europe (according to the Startup Heatmap Europe). As a financial centre, only London is ranked higher in Europe. There is also a creative cluster (design, music, architecture, gaming), as seen via Disney Research Zürich, Swiss Game Developers Association, and Design Biennale Zürich (see also our photo essay on Kunsthaus Zürich here).
There are around 50,000 people working in the ICT cluster of five thousand companies in the canton of Zürich, including Google Research and IBM Research. The city also hosts the HackZürich hackathon and Swiss ICT Awards. The life-sciences cluster benefits from ETH, the University of Zürich, the University Hospitals, and the Zürich University of Applied Sciences (ZHAW).
The cleantech cluster develops sustainable, high-quality, environmentally friendly services, as seen in the Future Mobility Demonstrator, Climate KIC, Climeworks, and Emerald Technology Ventures. There is also an aerospace cluster, thanks to the European Space Agency’s Business Incubation Centre and Swiss Space Center, with companies such as Marenco, Wingtra, Twingtec, and Ruag Space.
I. Startup profiles
One section of the book profiles 10 startups based in Zürich. They include Farmy (online grocery market for ethical food and responsibly produced food products), UrbanFarmers (aquaponics solutions for fresh vegetables and fish in urban habitats), and Balboa (urban social and workout platform)
Carbon Delta is an environmental fintech that uses big data to perform climate risk analysis of 25,000 publicly listed companies. This helps mitigate risks and meet regulatory requirements. It has also received support from Climate-KIC (the largest public–private innovation partnership in Europe to focus on climate change).
Wildbiene provides BeeHomes to households in which mason bees can be kept as “pets;” they also help sustainably pollinate fruit orchards. CUTISS bio-engineers skin that scars minimally after transplantation, and helps patients suffering from burns. Modum.io provides IoT and blockchain-enabled solutions for transactions involving physical products
ElectricFeel is a platform for shared electric mobility services in cities, and has partners in Mainz, Barcelona, Madrid, Rome, and Lisbon. Over 1,500 e-scooters are in service.
ImagineCargo provides a sustainable, express network for logistics transport between cities using only trains, bicycles and electrically-assisted tricycles. The network extends to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland.
TestingTime is an online test-user recruitment platform for UX designers and market researchers. It is used by large corporations across Europe such as UBS, Zalando, Microsoft, and Accenture.
II. Startup ecosystem
Two sections of the book profile the support system for startups, ranging from coworking spaces to programmes at incubators and accelerators. One of the earlier hubs is Technopark Zürich, established 25 years ago for emerging tech players.
Climate-KIC is Europe’s largest cleantech accelerator supporting over 200 climate-relevant startups a year. It takes no equity, and grant funding up to €95,000 can be given over the course of the programme. The three phases in its startup programme cover MVP, commercialisation, and investment-readiness. It runs in other cities as well, such as Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, and Vienna.
The F10 Incubator & Accelerator programme covers phases like Idea to Prototype (via a 48-hour Thinking Idea Boot Camp), Prototype to Product, and Product to Market. It connects founders to banks, regulators, investors, and internationally-renowned mentors and coaches.
The InnoSuisse’s Start-up Coaching and Training programme offers grants of CHF 5,000 (for initial coaching), CHF 50,000 (to reach milestones in the business plan), and CHF 75,000 (for scaling and international expansion).
Kickstart Accelerator is an initiative of Impact Hub Zürich, one of Europe’s largest zero-equity, multi-corporate accelerators. Impact Hub is a network of over 100 community and coworking spaces in locations around the globe, including São Paolo, Singapore, Johannesburg, and San Francisco. Its joint venture Kraftwerk connects startups and more established companies.
The Kickstart Accelerator programme is for local and international startups in fintech, food, smart cities, and deep technologies. Participants receive up to CHF 15,000 in seed funding, with the possibility of additional grants later in the program; they also participate in regular community-building events.
STRIDE, the “unSchool for Entrepreneurial Leadership,” is a spinoff from Impact Hub Zürich. The learning centre offers a radically different approach to learning, designed especially for potential entrepreneurs. It includes career counseling, topical courses, and coworking days with partners,
Launched in 2013, the Swisscom StartUp Challenge flies five innovative Swiss startups to Silicon Valley for a customised week-long business acceleration program. It has received over 650 applications, and selected startups have received CHF 73 million from Swisscom Ventures and other investors.
Swiss Startup Factory is an independent startup accelerator. Exit Accelerator connects founders to relevant industry professionals. It promotes awareness, trainings, and exposure to exits.
Zürich’s coworking scene started 10 years ago, with a range of players now in operation, including Citizen Space, Impact Hub Zürich (with four locations, including the joint venture project Kraftwerk), Spaces, Hush, Rocket Hub, OfficeLab, Büro Züri, and Kampagnenforum.
Büro Züri is a free coworking space for the public, provided by Zürcher Kantonalbank, the third largest bank in Switzerland. DayCrunch, co-founded by Vishal Mallick in 2013, puts vacant offices to work as temporary coworking spaces until landlords find the next tenant for the office space.
FabLab Zürich is one of more than a thousand FabLabs sprinkled around the world. It provides low-threshold access to modern digital fabrication technologies, according to Thomas Amberg, lab manager. Professionals, amateurs and even children can access 3D printers, laser cutters, CNC machines, knitting machines, plotters, and woodworking tools.
Rocket Hub, run by the ETH Entrepreneur Club, was founded in 2015 on the campus of ETH Zürich. Spaces Bleicherweg is the local chapter of the Amsterdam-founded coworking spaces network. StartupSpace is run by the IFJ (Institute for Young Entrepreneurs).
Some of the space managers are also profiled, such as Giada Polini (‘Chief of Happiness’ at BlueLion Incubator), Thomas Amberg (an organiser of the IoT Meetup and a Maker Faire in Zürich), and Christoph Birkholz (co-founder of Kickstart Accelerator, Viaduct Ventures, and the Global Impact Hub Fellowship).
III. Expert insights
One section of the book provides expert tips from accelerators and startup consultancies in the region. The advice covers customer engagement, marketing, innovation velocity, and talent.
Startups need to test early and often to see who actually wants to buy their solution, and to define their typical customer, advises Patrick-Giorgio Baumberger, of Raiffeisen Switzerland RAI Lab and President of the Swiss Fintech Innovations Association.
It is essential for startups to have enough resources to distribute and test products, and to grow the company when it is ready. “Make sure you understand the feedback you’re getting and adjust accordingly,” he advises. Raiffeisen Switzerland, the third largest banking group in Switzerland, helps startups get access to test customers; the bank has 3.7 million customers nationwide.
“The market operates at hyperspeed, so you should keep ahead of the game,” advise Bernd Brandl and Maria Luisa Silva of SAP Startup Focus. The programme was launched in 2012 to help startups target the enterprise customer market with solutions in big data, predictive and real-time analytics, AI, ML, AR, VR, IoT, and blockchain.
Within five years, the programme has engaged over 6,000 startups operating in 25 industries across 58 countries. SAP Switzerland’s Co-Innovation Lab (COIL) has 13 facilities. Examples of successful startups from the programme include DayOne, an innovation hub for precision medicine.
“One of the crucial factors for success is a startup’s ability to network,” according to Adrian Müller and Jacques Hefti of Startup Campus, a training platform backed by the main universities, techparks, and incubators of the region. It has trained nearly 2,000 entrepreneurs whose survival rate after three years is more than 50 percent
“As an entrepreneur, you have to focus on what’s really important, and that’s tough to do when you’re young and sometimes a bit naïve,” Adrian and Jacques caution. An example of a startup in their programme is Kinastic, a gym activity tracker that pivoted from a consumer to business focus.
“When you’re growing, it’s essential you have a good CTO and CPO,” advises Andreas Schlenker, Head of M&A and Investments at Tamedia, a leading private media group in Switzerland. It was founded in 1893, and has print and digital platforms. Its startup investments include Doodle, the global online scheduling assistant.
IV. Founder advice
The last section of the book interviews a range of startup founders, tracing their entrepreneurial journeys, advice received, lessons learnt, and tips for the next wave of aspiring entrepreneurs.
Melanie Kovacs, Cofounder of Aspire and Master21, worked in digital agency Ginetta, and participated in a number of startup weekend activities. “There were women participating as attendees but not many who were confidently pitching their ideas. We didn’t know a lot of female entrepreneurs we could invite as mentors or judges. That’s why I cofounded the Aspire association to foster female entrepreneurship,” she explains.
Her startup Master21 teaches skills like coding, critical thinking, and creativity. “I don’t think everybody needs to become a programmer nowadays, but it helps to have a certain understanding of computational thinking,” she explains.
"Just start. For me at least, if you overthink it too much, you see more and more obstacles, and people will try to talk you out of it. But if you start, you get these little ‘yay’ moments – these small successes – and you build confidence along the way,” Melanie advises.
“It’s impossible to foresee everything at the beginning, but once you’re on the way, you see lots of opportunities that you didn’t see before,” she adds.
David Allemann, Caspar Coppetti, and three-time World Duathlon champion and multiple Ironman winner Olivier Bernhard started running shoe company On in 2010. Within seven years later, they were available at over 3,000 retailers in more than 50 countries.
“You have to be super versatile and do something completely different in the afternoon from what you did in the morning,” David explains. “We don’t hire for skills but for personality and the ability to constantly learn and grow as a person,” he adds.
Zürich has been a great launchpad for the startup “You’re out in nature immediately, you have a lake, you have mountains. It’s obviously the perfect playground for a sports company,” David says.
Christian Kaufmann co-founded WeAct, a platform to help companies create fun and engaging sustainability and health programmes via techniques like gamification. “Because I was raised in several countries, I developed a lot of empathy and understanding,” he explains. He also worked at Apple and Credit Suisse.
Though he did not enjoy the formal and constrictive environment and financial myopia of corporates, he sees opportunities for corporates and startups to work together. There are also particular challenges in the social startup sector.
“You have to get by with a much lower income, at least much lower than you’d be paid in the corporate world. But that also leads to one of the positives: the people who work here are very, very purpose-driven,” Christian explains.
Cristina Riesen headed Evernote’s Europe operations for five years, before moving on to found the education startup We Are Play Lab. It promotes curiosity, persistence, creativity, and critical thinking among children.
Its prototype of Project Parkopolis in Switzerland is part of a global initiative called “Transforming Cities into Learning Landscapes” via offerings like life-sized board games. Cristina also helped launch the Swiss Tech Collider, an edtech community in Switzerland with more than 60 startups.
“It’s 10 times more difficult to be a nonprofit startup,” she explains. “Every day presents itself with a new challenge. There are extreme highs and extreme lows. Entrepreneurship isn’t for everybody, and it should not be romanticised,” she cautions.
Cristina says the best piece of advice she received was: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Serial entrepreneurs Pascal Mathis and Lukas Weder in 2016 co-founded Wingman, a startup advice and consulting firm. Lukas founded food delivery portal EAT.ch, which was sold to London-based Just Eat. Pascal earlier founded tourist attraction portal GetYourGuide.
“A wingman doesn’t help you fly the plane but stays behind you and guards your back. We’re not copilots; we’re wingmen,” Lukas explains. He observes that the fundraising process can be one of the most difficult stages for a startup.
“Investors understand that a new company might need time to refine its offering, but it should have the basics proven already,” Pascal emphasises. The founders observe that though Swiss startups may not be as strong as the US in selling new technologies, the first generation of successful founders is now able to mentor the new generation of startups and invest as well.
The book ends with a directory of useful resources for startups. For example, active investors include BlueOrchard, Creathor Ventures, Emerald Technology Ventures, Redalpine, ResponsAbility, SICTIC, Swiss Startup Invest, Viaduct Ventures, Zühlke Ventures, and Zukunftsfonds.
There are a range of events and forums targeting startups and investors, such as Design Biennale Zürich, Digital Festival, Finance 2.0, GameZ Festival, HackZürich, Ludicious Zürich Game Festival, Maker Faire Zürich, START Summit, Startup Grind Zürich, and WorldWebForum.
In sum, the book provides informative and entertaining insights into Zürich’s startup ecosystem, as well as a useful framework for other cities to reflect on and improve their own startup ecosystems.
(Edited by Teja Lele Desai)