How the ETH start-up ecosystem works

In 2023, a record-breaking 43 spin-offs were founded at ETH Zurich. Why are ETH spin-offs so successful? Tracing the typical path of a start-up.
As part of a focus project, ETH students developed the e-Sling four-seater electric aircraft. Such projects are designed to help students focus on solutions. (Photograph: Cellsius)

Mathematics, theory, technical know-how: For ETH students, the first years at university are all about learning the basics. This is what sets them apart from other students and lays solid foundations for a future entrepreneurial career. Project work aimed at teaching them to focus on solutions is introduced as soon as they finish their first year. In many degree programmes, it is a core part of the curriculum.

Whether it's building electric cars, hydrogen-powered planes or tunnel-boring machines, students learn to run their own projects and develop a steady stream of creative solutions. This builds their confidence and helps foster an entrepreneurial spirit.

ETH actively encourages students to pursue their ideas – and to dare to fail. At the Student Project House, students can safely explore new ideas without worrying about grades.

Networking and testing ideas

All the projects are conducted in interdisciplinary teams, and the Student Project House gets students talking to people from industry right from the start. What better way to test their ideas and discover whether their vision meets a genuine need?

Alongside promoting the adoption of an entrepreneurial mindset, students are encouraged to venture into entrepreneurship themselves. Founded and run by students, the Entrepreneur Club organises pitching competitions, offers inspiring stories of resilience at its “FuckUp Nights” and holds events to help students network with start-ups and industry representatives.

This networking plays a key role in bringing ETH students’ ideas to life. ETH therefore cultivates a network and an ecosystem that sets the stage for founders to succeed. This includes the nationwide Talent Kick initiative, which helps students find co-founders and gain business experience before they even complete their course.

From doctoral thesis to product

Other examples include ESA BIC – a business incubation programme for space-related start-ups, which is run by ETH and the European Space Agency (ESA) – and Wyss Zurich, an initiative that provides funding to around a dozen young founders from ETH and the University of Zurich in the fields of medicine and robotics

However, helping students is not the only key building block in the ETH start-up funding ecosystem. Young researchers looking to commercialise the results of their Master’s or doctoral project can also apply for a Pioneer Fellowship.

Each year, between 12 and 15 researchers receive 150,000 Swiss francs and 18 months of coaching, business training and access to ETH infrastructure – from labs and workshops to computing capacity and office space. Funding is provided by donors to the ETH Foundation.

Support in securing patents, licences and grants

The ETH entrepreneurial ecosystem even has its own navigators. Students looking to found a company can get advice and support from the ETH Entrepreneurship group. This helps young researchers find suitable funding programmes, grants and contacts in the founder ecosystem. It also has a dedicated team that can assist with questions on intellectual property, licences and patents, including the assessment of the accreditation of start-ups as official ETH spin-offs.

ETH continues to offer its support – even after students’ entrepreneurial ideas have already gained a foothold outside the university. In the make-or-break years after their founding, accredited ETH spin-offs receive support in the form of consulting, the licensing of ETH technologies and networking opportunities. Examples of this include the Investor Summit, a new investor event organised by ETH in collaboration with Swiss bank UBS.

A detailed analysis conducted in 2020 by the University of St. Gallen revealed that ETH spin-offs perform better, create more jobs and are more likely to be an M&A target than the average Swiss start-up.

Further information

This text appeared in the 24/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.