“It was purely by chance that I heard about the call for the Digital Entrepreneur Fellowship in an email from the university,” recalls Merens Derungs, who was the first recipient of the fellowship in 2021. At the time, he was in the process of writing his thesis on the topic of digital stocks and thought the project could be a good match for the program. “With a digital stock, a physical security is no longer issued, but a digital token instead. Switzerland is one of the first countries to allow this,” he explains.
Derungs acquired his in-depth knowledge about capital markets and the associated legislation, among other things during a legal traineeship in Zurich. But at the time, he was not yet a fan of the crypto world and digital assets. All that changed when Professor Caspar von der Crone, whom Derungs wanted to supervise his thesis, asked him to write an article about digital assets. After this, Derungs decided to launch a start-up based on the digitalization of stocks. This is the idea that won him the first Digital Entrepreneur Fellowship in 2021.
In particular, Derungs benefited from coaching. “The program provided me with a coach, who guided me through the various stages of developing a start-up,” explains Derungs. The coach also helped Derungs develop the idea into a robust business concept. Building on this, Derungs set up the company Arcton a few months ago, which aims to develop a marketplace for start-up financing based on blockchain. The platform will allow start-ups to find investors all over the world more quickly and conveniently by offering digitalized shares in their companies. In return, investors can diversify and invest in interesting start-ups starting with very small amounts, and they don’t have to wait 10 years before they can sell their shares again.
As well as the coaching, Derungs has benefited from the prestige associated with the fellowship, which has lent his crypto project the necessary credibility and opened many doors. The young lawyer used the CHF 100,000 in seed funding to purchase licenses and software, and to pay himself and his team a small salary. Besides his co-founder Thomas Charrière, three developers are currently working in Georgia on the Arcton platform, which is due to go live at the end of this year.
Marta Marciniak, one of two recipients of the fellowship this year, starts her program in December 2022. Born in Poland, she studied psychology and is developing a mental wellbeing app for women. As a postdoctoral student, she wanted to put her psychological research into practice to help people. In Zurich she worked on the research project DynaMORE – Dynamic Modeling of Resilience, where she developed app-based interventions to improve mental health. Through the fellowship, she now wants to make an app intervention into a marketable product.
Most of the apps out there are not based on scientifically-tested interventions and don’t specifically address women’s needs, although women are twice as likely as men to suffer from stress-related mental illnesses and are also impacted by the hormonal fluctuations linked to their menstrual cycles. “The fellowship means that after my thesis, I can focus all my energy on developing a mental wellbeing app for the market. I’m mainly going to use the funding to set up a team,” says Marciniak. Some will also be used for focus groups, she says. The app will be developed in close collaboration with end users.
Marciniak and Derungs are among the winners of the fellowship and therefore benefit from funding and coaching. But Merens Derungs believes that it’s still worth applying for a fellowship even if you don’t end up getting one. “It helped me conceptualize my application idea. Plus, it’s good practice for pitching and you get valuable feedback on your business concept.”
Someone else who is enthusiastic about the Digital Entrepreneur Fellowship is Markus Hagmann, president of the Hans Eggenberger Foundation Board, which provides the financial backing for the program. “Hans Eggenberger was a pioneer who brought the radio to Switzerland. When he presented this novel device that could pick up music from thin air for the first time in Zurich in 1922, people were flabbergasted,” says Hagmann with a smile. Hans Eggenberger founded a successful company importing electronic devices such as radios and televisions to Switzerland, and made a lot of money. As he didn’t have children, his wealth was transferred to a foundation in his name.
Back then, technology brought great social upheaval, as is the case today with the digital transformation. A start-up in the area of blockchain like the one set up by Merens Derungs is really interesting, says Hagmann. What’s more, Hans Eggenberger cared a great deal about supporting start-up entrepreneurs his whole life. The foundation’s mission – which was originally to promote electronics and electrical engineering – has since been extended to IT. As Hagmann says, the Digital Entrepreneur Fellowship is therefore an exciting project that is in line with the foundation’s purpose.
The Digital Entrepreneur Fellowship is an example of a new program at UZH that is providing funding for innovative research in a targeted way. The UZH Innovation Hub already set up a UZH Entrepreneur Fellowship in the field of biotech back in 2017. The fellowship was so successful that just a year later, a medtech one was launched. This promising funding instrument has now been expanded to include digital innovation, says Maria Olivares, head of the UZH Innovation Hub.
But the UZH Innovation Hub does not have any funds of its own to implement these sorts of projects. “So for funding instruments like the fellowship, we are heavily reliant on third-party funds, in other words donations and endowments,” says Olivares. “The UZH Foundation can provide professional support to us here. It knows the market and has a good overview of the topics that will appeal to potential target groups. In the Hans Eggenberger Foundation, it has found the perfect partner to finance the fellowship.”
The UZH Foundation connects foundations, companies, private donors and sponsors with university research projects that enable pioneering developments for society and advance the careers of talented young people. “These sorts of projects can’t usually be funded with public money,” says Annelise Alig Anderhalden, CEO of the UZH Foundation. The private funds raised by the UZH Foundation facilitate or accelerate additional innovative research at UZH.
There are plenty of examples that show how the supported projects ultimately benefit society, such as the research on sickle cell anemia. This serious genetic disease could only be treated with expensive gene therapy until a team at UZH proved that a known drug used to treat Alzheimer’s protects against deadly sickling.
The research studies on coronavirus that were made possible by the UZH Foundation are a current example that highlights the relevance of the supported projects to our society. During the lockdown in 2020, the UZH Foundation together with UZH launched a crowdfunding campaign for the first time for a pandemic fund to finance research on Covid. “The results of these studies meant schools were able to reopen sooner,” says Alig. And the digitalization of the letters of Zurich reformer Heinrich Bullinger, which have been made available to the public, was possible thanks to the UZH Foundation.
It is hoped that the launch of new funding instruments like the Digital Entrepreneur Fellowship will encourage more innovative research projects in the digital field and will incite young researchers to develop their projects into marketable products and applications.