“There is great interest in Swiss start-ups in China”

16.11.2018 12:28

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Jordi Montserrat

Ten Swiss start-ups travelled to China as part of Venture Leaders this autumn for the fifth time. We asked Jordi Montserrat, organiser of the roadshow and co-founder and managing partner of Venturelab, about the experiences, tips for the difficult market and further plans.

The Chinese market is considered difficult and the Chinese culture even harder to understand. Why would a Swiss start-up want to travel to China?
China is not only a big market, but also the fastest growing innovation ecosystem in the world. Of course, there are also big challenges. Venture Leaders was started simply because although the market is interesting, the path to success is not easy. Together with our partners, in particular the Swiss Embassy in Beijing and swissnex Shanghai, we want to support the best start-ups to find.

What are the specific challenges?
You have to find the right partners, develop the right way to handle intellectual property and understand the business environment. Participants in Venture Leaders China, such as Ava CEO Pascal König, emphasise repeatedly that the 10 days completely changed their understanding of the country, and they have adjusted their strategy accordingly and have now already opened offices in Hong Kong. And we can help with the trip in terms of partners. Flyability and GreenTEG have been able to massively expand their network in China, and cleantech start-up Tyre Recycling Solutions strengthen their market understanding, helping to later find Chinese investor through expansion of the network. Finally, some start-up actually decided that China was not for them at this stage, which is also a strategical choice.

In a huge market such as China, no one is likely to have been waiting for Swiss start-ups. How big is the interest in Swiss companies?
There is a great interest in Swiss start-ups in China. Switzerland stands for innovation, quality and reliability. More importantly, the Chinese always want to know first what distinguishes one western company from another. Swiss start-ups with their strong technology and background in cutting-edge research are naturally well received.

Does that apply to all sectors? In other words, should China be a destination for start-ups in all fields?
China is a promising market for many industries, but it’s not for everyone. B2C is generally a difficult topic, but even B2B software vendors from the west do not have it easy. In contrast, the country is very attractive for companies in the health, biotech, manufacturing and advanced engineering sectors, which also include drones, for example – and in addition, in my experience, deep tech hardware such as laboratory equipment and measuring instruments.

Venture Leaders China has been around for five years. What has changed in China during this time?
China has heavily invested in its innovation infrastructure : many new technology parks, startup programs , incubators and investment funds were born, some of them with more than 10 bn to invest. The much cited advances in IP actually exist. So the all ecosystem has become much stronger.

This is likely to make the situation for western companies rather confusing.
Absolutely. China is like a continent. It makes little sense to simply ‘go to China’, just as it makes no sense to ‘go to Europe’. A company must find the business location and trusted partners that offers the best environment. To facilitate this, we are also developing partnerships with selected Chinese partners in top level locations ; for example, this year Dong Sheng Science & Technology Park near Beijing was a new partner. One of Venture Leaders’ winners, Reto Naef of Topadur, was directly selection for their innovation cup final and will return in November for the finals, benefiting from additional business development opportunities.

Are any Chinese organisations looking for start-ups in Switzerland?
They do exist. After our conversation, I am meeting with a delegation from Tianjin in Lausanne. And recently, the IPIEC Global programme for the first time selected four Swiss start-ups to travel to China for a boot camp in December (see separate article).


Venture Leaders China 2018 with the Swiss Ambassador at the Swiss incubation night at WEF in Tianjin. 

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