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Talk – Start-up country Switzerland with Dr. Thomas Dübendorfer

Felix Niederer
Guest: Dr. Thomas Dübendorfer, founder and president of the angel investor club SICTIC

Welcome to the first episode in a series of podcasts on the topic of «Switzerland as a land of entrepreneurs». In this exciting series, we shed light on the many facets of the Swiss start-up scene and talk to influential personalities.

Our first guest is an indispensable figure in the Swiss start-up scene: Dr. Thomas Dübendorfer. Dr. Thomas Dübendorf is co-founder and president of SICTIC, the largest angel investor club in Switzerland, as well as a multiple founder and experienced investor. In our interview, we talked about his experiences, the challenges and the opportunities for start-ups in Switzerland.

Thomas, after completing your doctorate at ETH, you set up the Swiss location for Google. That alone would be a big challenge for many, but during this time you also founded your first company: a contact platform for expats. How did this come about and what was your motivation to set up a company alongside your work for Google?

I joined Google in 2006 when the company was still very small in Switzerland, especially in the area of sales. Then the decision was made to expand Switzerland into the largest engineering location outside North America. I had the privilege of building a new team in cybersecurity and anti-fraud in the advertising system and later also teams in data protection to make Google compatible with European data protection requirements. During this time, Google in Zurich grew very quickly. When I started, we had around 40 employees, seven years later we had 1'300. I really enjoyed this entrepreneurial activity. During this time, I met a good fellow student who was founding a start-up and needed support. So, without much experience, I began my journey into the world of start-ups as an investor.

What was your «lesson learned» from this first start-up? What does it take to found a company successfully?

It's important to work with young entrepreneurs and turn innovations into products. You have to be able to deal with uncertainty and be prepared to give your all – be it network, strategy or experience. Start-ups are adventurous and risky. You have to be adventurous to succeed in this world.

In the USA, founders talk openly about failures, whereas in Europe this is more of a taboo. Why is that?

In Switzerland, we tend to strive for perfection and only show our work when we are completely satisfied. In the USA, on the other hand, a product is launched on the market at an early stage and further developed there. These cultural differences inhibit the willingness to take risks and accept mistakes as a source of learning.

But failure is always a source of experience. You learn from it and do better next time. You can learn from every mistake, but you can't make every mistake yourself. That would be far too expensive. You have to learn from the mistakes of others. Culturally, in Switzerland, those who are financially successful don't talk about it and those who make mistakes tend not to either. People prefer to talk about the average, about those who don't stand out so much. It's different in the USA. There, people talk about pioneers who want to change the world, who fly to Mars. These pioneers also exist in Switzerland, but they work somewhat in the shadows.

Have you also experienced failure yourself?

Anyone who invests in start-ups assumes that some of them will not survive. The more risk you take, the higher the failure rate. Of course, I have also invested in start-ups that did not survive. One example is a company that was dependent on data from a large social network. When access to the data was blocked, our business model collapsed. Because without data, we couldn't earn any money. We knew from the start that we were dependent on the data feed. But we thought that this platform wouldn't realize so quickly that you can earn a lot of money with this data. In the end, it was a total loss.

Where do you see the economic benefits of start-ups?

Switzerland has a high rate of innovation, but in order to maximize the social benefits, these innovations need to be turned into products. Start-ups are ideally positioned for this as they can take high risks. They create future-proof jobs and drive economic agility, which is particularly important in times of digitalization and AI.

How do you rate the framework conditions for start-ups in Switzerland compared to other countries?

If you look at the world's start-up hubs, Switzerland is not among the top 30. This is mainly due to its size. People often don't compare Switzerland, but just one city, namely Zurich. Switzerland is strong across the board. We have excellent scientific centers in several parts of the country that have produced various spin-offs. For example, the EPFL in Lausanne, the ETH in Zurich or the HSG in St. Gallen and the University of Zurich. In an international comparison, however, this is usually only considered per city. Because Zurich is a very small city compared to global metropolises such as New York, San Francisco, London or Singapore, we often disappear in the rankings.

I think it is important for Switzerland that the framework conditions are such that people want to found start-ups. It must also be financially worthwhile, because it is a commitment over five to ten years. It should have a certain social standing in society, so that people are happy when someone founds a start-up and don't ask: «Why are you doing this? Haven't you found a proper job?»

Is there enough venture capital available in Switzerland?

In the early stages of company development, in which SICTIC is active, the first 1 to 2 million Swiss francs are certainly available, provided the idea and the team are convincing and the business potential is large enough. What is lacking, however, is growth capital. Companies looking for capital in the range of 10 to 50 million Swiss francs usually have to find it abroad. This means that the effort required to raise capital in order to grow and hire several hundred employees is considerably greater. Contacts must first be established and trust built up before larger sums are available. It would be desirable if Switzerland also had a growth vehicle that could function on a larger scale. However, this requires the courage to say that we want to create jobs in Switzerland. For example, some of the capital that is currently in pension funds could be channeled into start-up channels. However, politicians currently lack the courage to take such steps.

A personal question to conclude: What does money mean to you?

Money makes many things easier or allows you to implement something more quickly. At the same time, if you have large sums of money, for me it primarily means responsibility. The responsibility to do something worthwhile with this money. I prefer to use the money for start-ups, which in turn create jobs. I have invested in companies in Switzerland and Africa, where my investments have created 18'000 jobs.

For anyone who wants to start their own business or is facing the challenge of raising capital: You have written a book about it. Would you like to briefly introduce it?

Yes, the «Swiss Angel Investor Handbook» is a guide for private investors. It covers topics such as investment schemes, tax aspects and working with founding teams. The book can be downloaded free of charge as a PDF at and is also distributed in printed form.

Thank you very much for the interview, Thomas.

Disclaimer: We have taken great care with the content of this article. Nevertheless, we cannot exclude the possibility of errors. The validity of the content is limited to the time of publication.

About the author

Felix Niederer

Founder and CEO of True Wealth. After graduating from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) as a physicist, Felix first spent several years in Swiss industry and then four years with a major reinsurance company in portfolio management and risk modeling.


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