How to start high-tech business in Switzerland

Interview with Dr. Xiang Li, CEO and Co-Founder of ZuriMED, Venture Leaders 2015 – Member of Swiss National Startup Team 2015

Dr. Xiang Li, the founder and CEO of the medical device company ZuriMED in Zurich is our first interview partner in this series. Dr. Li Xiang gave us a lot of advice for the business environment in Switzerland, some information about his specific business as well as practical experience.


EurAsia Info: Thank you, Dr. Xiang Li, to give EURASIA INFO this chance for an interview with you. Can you talk about your impression of the environment for innovation and entrepreneurship in Switzerland?

Xiang Li: Switzerland pays a lot of attention to scientific and technological innovation. Every year, the government gives a large number of special funds to support innovation and entrepreneurial projects which is one reason that Switzerland can always keep competitive advantages and economic prosperity.

To control technical innovation cost and corresponding risks, many large enterprises tend to purchase some good innovative projects or some promising technology start-up companies. So the main drivers of scientific and technological innovation are the general research institutes and start-up enterprises.

The Swiss government and the research institutes established a comprehensive and reasonable technology transformation system to support the start-up enterprises. This system produces a steady stream of business with a high survival rate. That is why Switzerland could keep the No.1 position in the global innovation index for 4 years in a row (2011-2014).


EurAsia Info: How does the Swiss government support entrepreneurs?
Xiang Li: The first support is funding. If an entrepreneur has a good business idea, he can participate in different business competitions or business support programs. As far as I know, before the establishment of a company, you can apply for up to 200,000 Swiss francs to support your business idea. After the company has been established, together with an academic partner, you may also apply for a maximum of about 500,000 Swiss francs from the government to cover part of your R&D costs.
Secondly, in Switzerland there are many comprehensive training and consulting facilities for entrepreneurs. Venture or technology transfer organizations provide experienced professionals in various fields as business mentors to assist new entrepreneurs.

I personally benefited greatly from this system. Entrepreneurs with a technical background generally lack expertise in legal and financial aspects and entrepreneurs in the biomedical area are sometimes poor in registration and regulation processes. For start-up enterprises it is sometimes very difficult to hire professional staff in all areas.


EurAsia Info: In which phase is your company now? What are your plans for the future?

Xiang Li: The first product of our company is a class III medical device for which the process of regulatory registration and examination takes a long time. We have been developing this product for six years and now we are building our Quality Management System. We will ask our qualified OEMs  to produce the final product and we will then apply for regulatory approval for the clinical application. The whole process requires a large amount of money. We are lucky to get the first financing round with 1,500,000 CHF recently confirmed which can cover our expenses for the regulatory registration process in Europe. In the future, we plan to kick off the second financing round to expand our markets to the U.S. and China.


EurAsia Info: Can you recommend some useful websites for entrepreneurs?

Xiang Li: I would recommend the following websites:

Students from ETHZ are highly recommended to apply for the Pioneer Fellowship project. Venture Kick and Venture Competition are also very good programs for entrepreneurs, no matter which phase your company is in.

The Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) holds entrepreneurial lectures and provides mentoring programs which are quite helpful for the self-improvement of entrepreneurs. With respect to company registration, I would recommend the website where entrepreneurs can find detailed information regarding the choice of the company type, the company registration process, the visa application process for foreigners, etc.


EurAsia Info: If I have a good business idea, whom should I consult?
Xiang Li: When you have a good business idea, the first thing that you should do is to make a 2-3 pages executive summary, explaining briefly your potential markets, the problems and your products or solutions addressing those, your team composition and your financing plan.

Attending the entrepreneurial lectures offered by CTI can make your business ideas more sound. With the executive summary, you can then participate in the start-up support programs mentioned above where you will receive a lot of feedback and advice to improve your business plan. Entrepreneurs can also make an appointment with the consultants from the website to get the opportunity of free consultation for a few hours.

EurAsia Info: How do you choose the right team members?

Xiang Li: The standard to select team members varies from person to person, depending on the particularity of the company and its stage of development. What I am saying here only represents my current personal opinion:

Firstly, the match of characters among team members is very important. My team consists of three people, including my doctoral advisor, one of my colleagues in the laboratory and me. We have been working together for already six years, so we have deep mutual understanding and get along well.
Secondly, team members should have consensus about the business plan and the operation of the company. Although all of my team members come from technical backgrounds, everyone is willing to learn other areas, with the aim to keep our team as lean as possible in the early phase of our company.


EurAsia Info: Do you think it’s necessary for a foreign entrepreneur in Switzerland to have a local Swiss person in the team?

Xiang Li: Absolutely necessary!
Since many documents in Switzerland are written in German only, language issues could be a barrier for foreign entrepreneurs. Furthermore, local Swiss people know more about local regulations and conventions than us foreigners. Thus, having a local Swiss team member would be a great help for foreign entrepreneurs, especially when they are applying for projects, fund raising and looking for partners. I am very lucky to have an excellent local Swiss person in our team who is also a co-founder of our company.


EurAsia Info: Do you think it’s important to apply for patents? How does applying for patents work in Switzerland?

Xiang Li: In Switzerland intellectual property protection is very important.        Patent protection is essential for technological innovation projects and start-ups. With filed patent applications can help entrepreneurs in applying for start-up support projects and for subsequent fund raising. For a start-up project at an early stage, the most valuable assets of the company are its patents and team.

For personal technological innovation, one can apply for European patents through a patent attorney directly. The Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property offers assisting patent search service to retrieve the innovation type. Regarding patents for inventions of employees, the claim of ownership has to be initiated by the institution the inventor is associated to, not by the inventor himself.

Students from ETHZ can evaluate their technological innovation through “ETH Transfer” and then formally apply for their patents after passing the examination. In this way, inventors can highly increase their success rate of patents application due to the fact that only inventions of real value can pass the strict examination of “ETH Transfer”. Students from other universities, such as University of Zurich, University of Bern and University of Basel, can apply for patents through the patent office “Unitectra”.


EurAsia Info: Our last question is: Could you please give some suggestions to those who are about to start a business and those who have already started?

Xiang Li: I am just starting myself and still learning on the way, so I can only share some personal experience rather than making suggestions.
It is well-known that fund raising is a big challenge faced by entrepreneurs. Therefore, it’s important for entrepreneurs to be ready at any time, to give a two-minute elevator pitch, a ten-minute presentation and an executive summary of the company. The purpose is to clearly express your project in a short time, in order to attract your potential investors and seize an opportunity when it shows up. For example, if someone you meet in a social event has interest in your project and asks for your executive summary, you have to be able to send it immediately.

If someone has very strong interest and invites you to his office for a talk about details, then your 10 minutes Powerpoint presentation prepared earlier now is very practical.
An entrepreneur should listen to feedback and criticism with an open mind, should accept constructive suggestions, should correct mistakes and update his business plan over time to be better prepared for the next contact.

These things are not going to be easy in the beginning, but everyone can make it, as long as you treat it seriously and practice permanently.


EurAsia Info: Thank you Dr. Xiang Li again for accepting the EURASIA INFO interview and thank you for sharing many useful information on entrepreneurship in Switzerland with our readers. I believe that, after reading this interview report, many entrepreneurs can avoid detours and better realize their dreams. Thank you!

Interview by Lin Weidong from EURASIA INFO  ■

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