Michael Schaepman, what is the difference between a research finding and an invention?
An invention is a creative achievement that can solve a problem. With a research finding, that’s not necessarily the case. It may, for example, confirm or disprove a fact. But of course, many research findings are also inventions.
And what’s the difference between invention and innovation?
An inherent principle of innovation is that something new is created that will be implemented and used by people, companies or other institutions – whether as a new product, service or process.
UZH does well in innovation rankings. What’s the reason for that?
I think there are three factors. One, UZH researchers file a lot of patents. Two, we have a high success rate with patentability: More than a third of the patents we submit are granted. And three, these patents are often cited in industry research publications or for other patents.
Given that we are already performing so well, is more support for innovation even necessary?
Yes, because society expects innovation to come from universities, alongside research, education and other services. We want to be known for innovation. We also want to encourage even more entrepreneurial spirit at UZH.
Because – apart from in business and economics subjects – we are currently often failing to make the link between education and entrepreneurship. In the future, graduating students should have more options open to them than simply deciding whether to become academics or take a job in an established company. We want to show them that there are other career paths. I think that entrepreneurial thinking will be very important in future. The exclusive up-or-out strategy of pursuing an academic career as far as a professorship is too narrow a perspective.
Is it new, this idea that universities should drive innovation?
No, it has been a significant concern for a long time. Until recently, however, the universities of applied sciences and the federal institutes of technology (ETH and EPFL) have been more successful at positioning themselves in the public eye as being drivers of innovation. But actually, UZH contributes just as much to innovation in Switzerland. There have always been innovative developments at UZH, we just haven’t necessarily labeled them as such. In other words: In the past, we failed to publicize the fact that we were also encouraging and driving innovation, and we did not have a structured program of support for innovation.
What did UZH do up until now in terms of innovation support?
We have been silent creators, above all. And until around 10 years ago, we mainly focused on technology transfer. If someone took intellectual property from the university into a company, we assessed the patent and licensing situation.
What about in the future?
We want to create a culture that encourages students and UZH members to start businesses, to show that being an entrepreneur can be creative and exciting.
What can UZH do to help students gain an entrepreneurial mindset and skills?
We have already established Innovators Camps for Bachelor’s students, where they can find out what being an entrepreneur entails. They don’t just learn the theory, but also visit businesses and see for themselves how things work. Our aim is to offer courses and continuing education programs for UZH members at all stages of their careers, from Bachelor’s students to junior researchers.
We also want to support students and junior researchers who have good ideas but who don’t know how to transform them into marketable products. For the last two years, the UZH Innovation Hub has organized programs and coaching sessions. It also gives out Entrepreneur Fellowships, which support junior researchers in developing their inventions with the aim of founding a spin-off or start-up.
Will all students and researchers have to learn to think like entrepreneurs in the future?
No. (Smiling) We do not yet plan to introduce “Innovation and Entrepreneurship” as an obligatory module just yet. But anyone who is interested in entrepreneurship should have the opportunity to attend relevant courses.
What do you think is the best discovery ever to come out of a university?
The best discovery is freedom of research and teaching. There is nothing more conducive to innovation than independent basic research.
Universities of applied sciences and institutes of technology have been conducting application-oriented research for years. Does UZH risk weakening its profile if it now also pursues innovation as a goal?
No, because it doesn’t mean that we will mainly be pursuing application-oriented research. We don’t prescribe the content of research done at the university. What we do want to do is to open a route to entrepreneurship for scientists doing basic research. It is of course their decision whether to take it or not. Concentrating only on applied research is a risky approach. For example, let’s say research policies shift and the political focus is no longer on energy research but on sustainability. Then the researchers who specialized in energy will find that the parameters have suddenly changed and they have much less chance of funding.
Will it change UZH as a whole if a stronger emphasis is put on innovation?
You have to look at the current situation. In terms of the total cost of research, UZH invests very little in concrete support for innovation. Innovation support is currently provided by the Innovation Hub, which has around four full-time members of staff. The Innovation Hub has already enabled us to raise our profile in this area, both internally and externally. We want to use third-party funding to expand the Innovation Hub’s program so that we can motivate even more students and junior researchers to pursue their own innovative projects.
In what areas does UZH have particularly strong innovation potential?
UZH has around 26,000 students, that’s a huge amount of potential!
The life sciences at UZH are particularly strong on innovation. Then there are also the newly designated innovation clusters of air and space travel, digitalization and the strategic research platforms. I also see great potential in the arts and social sciences, and in the area of law.
Does UZH itself benefit from supporting innovation?
Our aim is not to benefit ourselves. But by supporting innovation, UZH can certainly boost its reputation. It’s important that the public know about the companies emerging from UZH. It is just as important that UZH graduates have positive memories of their student years and can say that they received the tools needed to make their way in the competitive post-university world.
Fast forward 10 years: How many more spin-offs will be coming out of UZH compared to today?
I estimate that we will see around twice as many spin-offs and start-ups being founded every year.
What do you think still needs to be discovered at UZH?
Risk-taking! The survival rate of business founded from UZH is currently over 90 percent, which shows that we produce excellent quality but are not very willing to take risks. There’s lots of room for growth there! But I am confident that future young entrepreneurs will develop greater courage to take risks and will follow the trend of starting individual – small and agile – companies.