Letter from Silicon Valley
Names that should ring a bell
There's no doubt that Google's Urs Hölzle is the most famous Swiss export to Silicon Valley. However, there are other Swiss movers and shakers based in this high-tech metropolis who are rather less well-known. A report from the city where two cultures meet.
This issue of Die Weltwoche focuses on the individuals who have made an impact over the past year. And in this ‘Letter from Silicon Valley’, for once, I’m not focusing on technology, either. Instead, I’m looking at the people at the forefront of the digital revolution. More precisely: people from Switzerland who are making their mark in Silicon Valley.
Most readers have probably heard of Urs Hölzle. In 1999, he became Google's 8th employee, shortly after the company was founded by students at Stanford University. That institution was also where he earned his doctorate before becoming a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. As Senior Vice President for Technical Infrastructure, he has long been a member of the upper management level of the billion-euro group and is responsible for the massive technical infrastructure of its data centres. Google now has several thousand employees in Zurich, and internally, people think this is down to Urs Hölzle, who’s familiar with the advantages of both regions.
A good-sized group of other people from Switzerland often crop up in the media and on television, making them (or their names) relatively well-known, too. I include Alain Chuard among them. He’s become better known since he successfully established, and sold, a social media marketing company: he sold Wildfire to Google for 450 million US dollars in 2012. After the sale, he spent several years as their Chief Product Officer (CPO), but now he's on the lookout for new ideas. In the previous column, I briefly mentioned Sascha Zahnd, Tesla's global head of procurement. He’s one of Elon Musk’s direct reports, which makes him one of the most influential executives within the technology group. I would also add the Chairman of Logitech’s Board of Directors Daniel Borel, Airbnb’s Research Director Anita Roth and Karin Schwab, Deputy Head of Legal at Ebay, to this group.
Then there are also a number of Swiss people in Silicon Valley who are hardly known in their country of origin, but who are nevertheless making a sizeable impact. I would like to focus on a handful of them in this brief overview. I don't claim that this list is exhaustive - after all, a fascinating countryman (or countrywoman) might suddenly cross your path at any point between San Francisco and San José!
The entrepreneur: Teo Borschberg founded his first company immediately after he’d completed his studies at the Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne. In Shanghai, he set up Good Media, one of the first providers of washroom advertising, thereby launching a million-dollar business. After successfully selling this business in 2015, he moved to Silicon Valley, where he was hired as the Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Stanford University’s Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park. Last year, Borschberg founded the company OTO Systems, which has offices in San Francisco and Zurich. This artificial intelligence company develops solutions that enable acoustic speech recognition to work out the speaker's emotional state. This tool could be really useful for call centres, for example.
The venture capitalist: Philipp Stauffer is one of the Swiss veterans of Silicon Valley. He’s been active in the venture capital scene there for decades. His company Fyrfly Venture Partners specialises in early-stage investments. This is, as it were, the upper echelon of venture capital, as it’s difficult to assess whether the business model in question is viable at that point in time. After studying at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, Stauffer completed an MBA at the Wharton Business School. He has held a stake in Philz Coffee, a pioneer of the so-called third wave in the coffee market (namely, the return of an awareness of quality), since 2013. Stauffer has also invested in Beekeeper, the much-discussed start-up which has sites in Silicon Valley and Switzerland.
The president: Philipp Barmettler’s main job sees him handle sales and marketing partnerships for Facebook. Alongside this, Barmettler also chairs the San Francisco branch of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham). It's no wonder that he knows a lot of Swiss people in Silicon Valley. He always likes to pick up the phone and connect them to each other. After starting off in industrial companies such as Sika and Siemens, he joined McKinsey in 2003. Three years later, the consulting firm sent him to Stamford, Connecticut. He then moved from consulting into a more active role. He started his time at Hewlett Packard successfully as vice president of their go-to-market strategy, where he managed the division of the company into HP Inc. and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
The veteran: Herman Gyr is really only known to insiders. In 1976, he emigrated to the USA to complete his doctorate, then founded his consulting company ten years later. Gyr prefers to drive things forward from the backseat. With his Enterprise Development Group, he helps companies to become or remain innovative. He advised the former Swisscom CEO Carsten Schloter, as well as other clients including companies such as Apple, the airline Delta and Swiss Post. Gyr is the inventor of the innovation blueprint, a model which ensures that business leaders and other stakeholders are involved in the innovative transformation of a business.
The networker: Gioia Deucher has an office in San Francisco and many envy its location. The premises of Swissnex San Francisco, where Deucher is CEO, are located on Pier 17, i.e. built into the sea. Her organisation is the first port of call for Swiss companies who want something in Silicon Valley - or vice versa. With her top-notch knowledge of the tech world, her organisation brings Switzerland and the Bay Area closer together, whether in the form of Swissnex's various public events or in the form of the targeted links forged between companies from both regions.
The essentialist: Cédric Waldburger is Head of Ecosystem Growth at Dfinity, one of the most ambitious cryptography companies in Silicon Valley. Dfinity say that they plan to develop a blockchain supercomputer that will house the next generation of software and services. Strictly speaking, Waldburger can’t be counted as being part of Silicon Valley because he is constantly on the move. This is made possible by his life's motto: radical reduction. As an "essentialist", he only owns 64 items. Back in Switzerland, Waldburger is one of the investors in the online organic market Farmy and in Amorana, the provider of erotic goods and lifestyle products.
As you can see: in Silicon Valley, Switzerland is punching above its weight, or above the weight you'd allocate to a small country with a population of just eight million. It is often typical Swiss values such as down-to-earthness, an awareness of quality, and precision that contribute to the success stories in the high-tech world. My observations in San Fransisco Bay suggest that these qualities are highly valued. Switzerland, on the other hand, can benefit in turn from the experiences that its citizens undergo in Silicon Valley. Most of the people mentioned above have retained a connection to their country of origin, meaning that they can also bring the spirit of Silicon Valley to Switzerland.
Simon Zwahlen Head of US Fintech and Vice President of Business Development & Innovation at Swisscom in Palo Alto, California
What has your experience of the "Swiss community" in Silicon Valley been like? I’ve found it to be extremely active. Lots of successful people in the tech world are proud of their Swiss roots. There’s a whole host of Swiss clubs and loads of events where you can meet people and network.
Why aren’t companies like Google being created in Switzerland? In Silicon Valley, people have the experience required to disseminate new business models very quickly. In Switzerland, we're sometimes a little lacking in ambition. In addition, we want everything to be technologically perfect before we enter the market – which means that we’re then easily overtaken by a competitor from another country.
What else can we learn from our expats in the tech world? Make mistakes! In Silicon Valley, you've only really made it if you've fallen flat on your face once, or more than once, as this means that you’ve had experiences that you can learn from.
Do people in the Valley seek out your expertise because you’re Swiss? Yes – and it’s something I’m very happy about, of course! (laughs) Our team is often invited to give presentations or provide expert opinions on topics including mobile security, the Internet of Things, and fintech, in particular. Switzerland is seen as being at the forefront of fintech, especially. And Swisscom’s blockchain work fits in nicely here too, as in the case of the blockchain platform we’re currently developing with Swiss Post.
What innovations have you explored for Swisscom customers? In the first half of 2019, we’re launching a product that’ll be a world first – and we discovered the technology for this in Silicon Valley.
Artificial Intelligence (AI): Artificial intelligence is the key technology of the future. The term stands for machines that can learn from their environment and react to it.
Blockchain: A new generation of encryption technology (cryptography) in which individual processes or transactions are simultaneously confirmed and stored using a network of computers. Its best known application is the cryptocurrency Bitcoin.
(Corporate) venture capital: Venture capital refers to investments in newly founded companies. In the case of corporate venture capital, the capital required comes from the resources held by a corporate, i.e. a more established company.
Direct report: A directly subordinate employee. As a direct report, you report directly to a specific person, such as the CEO.
Early-stage: Companies in their early stages. This stage is characterised by a high risk because the business model of the company in question has not yet been put to the test. An estimated 75 percent of Silicon Valley-based companies do not survive this stage.
Swisscom tracks what’s going on in the digital world around the globe, with their network stretching from Shanghai to Silicon Valley. Simon Zwahlen is one of their leading specialists. He provides Weltwoche with first-hand monthly reports on the hottest trends and most fascinating developments.