Claudia Winkler

Inventive Minds: How Innovation Happens

Using scientific know-how to develop products for the marketplace and start your own company is a risky venture. We met some innovative thinkers who dared to take the leap. 

By Thomas Gull and Roger Nickl; translated by Caitlin Stephens

Creative minds and bright ideas: Innovators think big and dare to try new things. Here at UZH, they find an environment that stimulates and supports them. New products and business ideas are often based on university research and academic education, and the University of Zurich is part of a flourishing innovation ecosystem that has emerged in the last 20 years in and around Zurich. In that time, more than 100 UZH spin-offs and numerous start-ups have been founded, and around 300 licenses for scientific inventions have been granted. Companies launched by UZH researchers and graduates are like an injection of live cells into the economy. With the launch of its Innovation Hub (www.innovation.uzh.ch), UZH has created a further catalyst for innovation, providing even more support for creative thinkers who want to start a business or market their invention. 

But even with the best support in the world, setting up a company based on scientific research findings is a challenging adventure. For this issue, we talked to some of those inventive minds to find out what it takes to grasp the entrepreneurial nettle. All are at different stages in their journeys – from a student dreaming of running her own company, to a young molecular biologist in the process of starting a business, and finally the experienced entrepreneur who already has several companies under his belt. We wanted to hear why they ventured into new waters – from the safe haven of academia to the vagaries of the business world – and what is required to turn a great idea or a promising invention into a successful product. 

We learned that a successful venture requires a multitude of ingredients. The most important, however, is having a convincing idea and being absolutely convinced of its worth yourself. The customers are also vital – no customers, no business. And last but not least, starting a company is a team sport, which is why it is vital to get the right people with different and complementary skills on your side. 

But even with all the essential elements in place, starting a company is a risky business, and the line between success and failure is a thin one. Company founders need to have tenacity and perseverance – they have to be prepared to tighten their belts and survive some lean times along the way. Ideally, support from backers who are just as enthusiastic about the project as they are will help them through those lean times. Nowadays there are a lot of good organizations committed to helping start-ups with advice and practical support, such as the UZH technology transfer office Unitectra. 
When a venture works, solid scientific ideas become useful products about which their inventors and UZH can be proud. As Andreas Plückthun, biochemist and founder of three companies, says: “My basic research has led to the development of important drugs. As a chemistry student I never dreamed that could be the case.”