The Heart of Innovation

By Rob Anderson

Why Switzerland is the most innovative country in the world

As a multinational team, occasionally there is some debate - usually led by the local branch of the Sweden Appreciation Society - about which country is the most innovative. Whilst there are numerous fascinating examples of technological advances and development from all over the world, it is clear that there is, more often than not, a clear correlation between innovation delivery and those countries with investment infrastructure in place and a supportive local culture.

Fortunately for Edengene team internal relations, the global business school INSEAD has developed a systematic way of putting paid to the debate over which country is the most innovative with its Global Innovation Index (GII). The GII is an empirical digestion of five innovation input areas and two outputs: ‘Scientific &’Creative outputs’ that is used to rate a country’s global innovation profile. The 2011 edition was announced at the end of June this year and the winner was …… Switzerland.

Despite, or perhaps because of, “five hundred years of democracy and peace”, Switzerland has long been a hotbed of innovation, particularly technological innovation, that stretches well beyond the realms of the cuckoo clock (which, incidentally, was developed in Germany). In fact Switzerland has a rich history peppered with notable academic and creative figures, including the artists and scientists of the Bernoulli family, pioneering Swiss mathematician and physicist Leonard Euler and, more recently, Alexander Osterwalder, author of the business model design and innovation publication ‘Business Model Generation’, which has become a publishing phenomenon (featured opposite). Obviously it helps to have big pharmaceutical companies like Roche and Novartis operating in the country as well as technical research and development communities like IBM Zurich, and Switzerland’s strong record of investment and supportive culture also make it an ideal place for innovation. 

Below we’ve captured some of Switzerland's innovation highlights. 


Middle Ages Private banking

Switzerland’s tradition of bank secrecy is a key element in the development of contemporary private banking, where customer service is rendered on a personal basis, via dedicated bank advisers to private inpiduals investing sizable assets. For some, this system has facilitated the development of global tax fraud, but overall it is seen as a positive innovation. 

The late18th century The oil lamp 

Francois Pierre-Ami Argand vastly improved the design and functionality of the oil lamp. The brightness of the Argand lamp was equivalent to six to ten candles, something almost unheard of at the time. Argand’s lamp quickly replaced all other varieties of oil lamps and was manufactured in an assortment of ornamental forms.

1897 Swiss army knife

The Schweizer Offiziersmesser, developed in Ibach Schwyz, was the original multi-function pocketknife or multi-tool, supplied to the Swiss Armed Forces, and has now become a by-word for usefulness.

1875 Milk chocolate

In 1875, former Swiss candle maker Daniel Peter had the idea of combining his home made chocolate with his neighbour Henri Nestlé’s condensed milk. The result was milk chocolate, guilty pleasure of millions of people around the world. It is a subject for debate as to whether this delicious treat has contributed significantly to the current worldwide obesity epidemic. 

1863 The Red Cross

First began in 1863 with the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross by Henry Dunant in Geneva. This movement is now the world’s largest humanitarian organization, providing assistance without discrimination to those in need, with approximately 97 million volunteers, members and staff worldwide. Between them, the institutions under the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement banner have received four Nobel prizes.

1900 Cellophane 

This modern household staple was invented by Swiss chemist Jacques E. Brandenberger who, inspired by seeing a wine spill on a restaurant’s tablecloth, decided to create a cloth that could repel liquids rather than absorb them. His first step was to spray a waterproof coating on to fabric (he opted for viscose). The resultant coated fabric was far too stiff, but the clear film easily separated from the backing cloth, and possibilities for the new material became apparent.

 1900s Psychological typologies

Much of modern psychology flows from the work of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychiatrist born in Thurgau. For instance the psychometric instrument, the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) has its roots in his book ‘Psychological Types’.

1921 Coil zipper 

Although the first hook zip system was Canadian, the zip that we are still using today was developed and perfected by Dr. Martin Winterhalder, a former jurist in St Gallen.

1938 LSD

LSD was first synthesized by Swiss scientist Albert Hofmann in 1938 from ergotamine, a chemical derived from ergot, a grain fungus that typically grows on rye. The drug was introduced in 1947 as ‘Delysid’ by Sandoz Laboratories (now Novartis) and used for psychiatric purposes. Recreational use during the 1960s led to a political firestorm that resulted in its prohibition.

1941  Velcro

Velcro was invented in 1941 by engineer Georges de Mestral. After returning from a hunting trip with his dog in the Swiss Alps he noticed burrs of burdock that kept sticking to his clothes and his dog’s fur. Examining them under a microscope, he noted their hundreds of ‘hooks’ that caught on anything with a loop, such as clothing, animal fur, or hair. From this he realised the possibility of binding two materials reversibly in a simple fashion by replicating the hooks and loops found on the burdock burrs. Velcro’s uses are plentiful today; it is often used to hold clothes together, keep bags closed…even Spiderman has been known to rely on it.

1981 Scanning tunneling microscope

It is an instrument for imaging surfaces at the atomic level, and one of many innovations from IBM Zurich. Its development earned its inventors, German physicist Gerd Binnig and Swiss physicist Heinrich Rohrer, the Nobel Prize in Physics.

1987 High-temperature superconductivity

Swiss Physicist Alex Mueller and German J. Georg Bednorz, again of the IBM Zürich Research Laboratory, were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for the discovery of the property of a new class of materials.

1991 Dye-sensitized solar cell

Low-cost thin film solar cell, based photosynthesis using a semiconductor formed between a photosensitised anode and an electrolyte a photoelectrochemical system. It was invented by a team led by Michael Grätzel, at Swiss technology school École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne. Grätzel won the 2010 Millennium Technology Prize for the invention.

2010 Red fleshed apples

The fruits of a 20-year research programme overseen by Markus Kobelt of the Lubera nursery in Buchs. Perhaps not the country’s most pioneering invention but tasty nonetheless!






Rob Anderson

Rob was a founding director of Edengene in 2000, having previously been head of the business growth practice at PA Consulting Group. A chartered accountant with strong finance skills, he has 20+ years’ consulting experience working with blue chip companies, designing and directing multi-year growth and innovation programmes. Rob is the author of Edengene's customer-led innovation methodology, which provides a structured approach to innovation to deliver revenue growth.