The new business city guide to Zurich
More than just a financial hub, Switzerland’s largest city has a burgeoning startup scene
A chance encounter with another passenger on a flight from Zurich to California two years ago led Penny Schiffer on a new path. “He had a data-driven startup for fintech,” Schiffer says. “And it hit me – I wanted to do this for venture capital.”
At the time, Schiffer was the head of Pirates Hub, a co-working space that invests in startups through Swisscom Ventures, an arm of Switzerland’s largest telecom company. Schiffer had been making small bets on startups as an angel investor – it wasn’t hard to find local entrepreneurs – but was playing it safe by staying in a job that gave her family stability.
“Zurich is a great place to live,” she says. “It’s a global city with a global perspective, but it still offers a quiet non-urban life, even when you live within town limits. And the schools are excellent.”
Switzerland is one of the wealthiest countries in the world, and its deep pockets are a boon for companies seeking investors. It also has some prestigious universities, including the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, known as the ETH, in Zurich. “The city has very much an engineering culture, and the ETH is all about getting ideas out to scalable, viable companies,” says Schiffer. Urs Stender, head of Bluelion, a Zurich incubator, agrees: “Zurich has a lot of engineers and scientists coming out of top-ranked universities and that’s a huge plus.” It’s one reason why Zurich ranked sixth in investments for startups (behind London, Paris, Berlin, Munich and Stockholm) in 2019.
Combine the educated workforce with Zurich’s diverse economy and the country’s deep pockets and you get an excellent breeding ground for innovation. Add in favourable tax schemes and it’s not hard to see why Google located its EMEA engineering hub of 3,000 employees in Zurich, opening a new HQ in Europaallee last year.
Zurich now hosts around 17 co-working spaces, most concentrated in Zurich West, the official hub for startups. It might not sound like a lot, but this is a city of only 433,000 inhabitants.
No wonder Schiffer took the plunge. Using her contacts and resources, she set up an office at Bluelion and went through part of the Kickstart programme and Swisscom’s intrapreneur programme. Last year, she founded Raized.ai, a database that uses AI to help venture capitalists make data-driven investment decisions.
More than 1,000 companies have been founded here in the last decade, with more than half a billion Swiss francs (CHF) invested in 100 Zurich-based startups in 2018 alone. Nor are firms deterred by Covid-19. Raized.ai discovered 399 new companies in the first seven months of 2020, most in Zurich or Lausanne. Total Q2 funding of CHF 645 million was roughly unchanged from the same period last year, according to Innosuisse.ch.
In addition to small incubators such as Bluelion, the Swiss government runs Innosuisse.ch to promote science-based innovation. Venture Kick is a privately financed CHF 5 million accelerator fund based in Schlieren. Other major financial backers are SEIF and Swiss Finance Startups. Wyss Zurich is a joint accelerator of the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, funded partly by Swiss entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss.
“The startup ecosystem has changed since 2004, when we launched,” says Stefan Steiner, co-managing director of Venturelab, which supports about 90 per cent of the country’s startups. Sixteen years ago, most of the new companies were founded by researchers coming out of the ETH. Now, Steiner says, “It’s more diverse and professional.”
UBS and Credit Suisse are headquartered here too, so it’s no surprise that fintech also plays an important role. A free co-working space run by Zürcher Kantonalbank is located just a few meters from Paradeplatz, where Swiss banks base themselves. And only a half hour away is the town of Zug, the blockchain and cryptocurrency capital of Europe.
But about 30 per cent of the new startups remain in the IT sector. ETH alone supports more than 25 spin-offs annually, with 90 per cent of them remaining viable after five years. Zurich University is getting into the act, focusing on medtech and life sciences. And all Swiss universities are doing more to support spin-offs that work to meet the UN’s Sustainability Goals. Local success stories include Climeworks, which captures carbon, Ava, a bracelet that detects fertility, and OxyPrem, the first medical device to harmlessly monitor oxygen levels in preterm infants. Then there’s ANYmal, a robot designed by former ETH students that has become a local celebrity of the startup scene.
People usually come to Zurich for jobs or education. They stay because life is good. No wonder the city, Switzerland’s largest, ranked second in Mercer’s global 2019 Quality of Living Survey. “People are happy here,” Schiffer says.
Believe everything you’ve heard about Swiss punctuality. And, for most Swiss, the workday begins early – 7am for many. But they also have an excellent work/life balance. Therefore, people eat their main meal at lunchtime – to get in and out efficiently, most restaurants offer a set lunch menu and it’s advisable to order it. Dress code is casual. Jokes generally don’t go over well. A safe topic for small talk is travel as the Swiss love to go abroad. Note: The Swiss – even young startups – find it hard to blow their own horns. “We’re learning to tell our stories better,” one young entrepreneur says. It’s practically a national motto to under-promise and over-deliver.
Out and about
Zurich’s reputation for being staid and conservative is undeserved. Zurich West has always had a lively nightlife. The main drag, Langstrasse, was once the city’s red-light district. Now its restaurants offer fashionable vegan and fusion fare. You can still find some old dives with great atmospheres if you search the side streets.
At the heart of the city is Zurich’s famous Bahnhofstrasse. This shopping boulevard is the in-place for anyone looking for the latest Gucci, Dolce & Gabbana or Jimmy Choo item. On the other side of the Limmat is Niederdorf. With its cobbled pedestrian zone, it’s funkier but, increasingly, just as pricey.
If you want more than the usual global brands, the Viadukt, in the fifth district, is a trendy but small shopping, restaurant and office space directly below a former train track. There’s a small park by the food court and Impact Hub has a co-working space there.
Museums in Zurich West, especially the Migros Museum and the Museum für Gestaltung, located in a former yoghurt factory, offer some of the most provocative contemporary art in the country. Close to Zurich’s main train station is Europaallee, a newly refurbished office and shopping complex. At the end of the street is Kosmos, an outdoor restaurant, indoor bistro, cinema, bookstore and art gallery.
To get closer to nature, a 45-minute waterside walk takes you from Zürichhorn to Rote Fabrik, which has an iconic garden restaurant. Or take a dip in the lake or the Limmat river at designated bathing points. Reithalle is a former stable by another river, the Sihl, in Zurich Selnau. Check out its large outdoor restaurant or enjoy a drink in its spacious hall.
Miro Mayer, Bluelion
Need some fresh air? Climb Uetliberg and explore the nearby forests and thousands of trails within these beautiful woods. Visit the surroundings rather than the peak if you want to avoid the crowds.
Penny Schiffer, co-founder of Raised.ai
The ETH main building is really beautiful and open to the public. To get there, take the Polybahn, a funicular at Central, near the main train station. If you fancy, grab something to eat at the Polyterrasse – there’s a fantastic view up there.
Stefan Steiner, Venturelab:
Hands down the best pizza in Zurich is at Pizzaway. The dough, salad dressings and all their delicious desserts (my favourite is the tiramisu) are homemade from family recipes and you can tell.
Where to stay
The building is impressive, the rooms are spacious and the location is in the heart of the business district – near the Google campus – and a short walk to the lake and Bahnhofstrasse.
From the outside this new hotel looks like an office building. Inside, it’s roomy. Located at Turbinenplatz, smack in the heart of the Zürich West startup hub, it’s near one of Zurich’s largest parks.
Designed with a nod to the industrial past of Zurich West, this is the anchor hotel for Prime Towers. It’s been described as both a business hotel and a boutique hotel because of its unique interior. The executive lounge and health club offer some of the best views of Zurich in town.
In the centre of one of Zurich’s smartest areas, Hotel Seefeld has been recently renovated by a star architect and offers spacious rooms with the feel of being in a city neighbourhood. Shops, restaurants, galleries and spas are all close by, as is the lake, where it’s fun to promenade or just chill out. Re-opens 31 August.