Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Interview. Pascal Marmier, Swiss consul, swissnex Boston

Pascal Marmier
Later this summer, Pascal Marmier, Switzerland's consul in the Boston area, will depart Cambridge for his next post, Shanghai, China.  As one of the founding staff of swissnex Boston, the hybrid consulate/cultural center/innovation hub that he helped build over the last decade, Pascal leaves behind a dynamic part of the innovation scene that has burgeoned in Cambridge since the late 1990s.  Both as a representative of Switzerland, and an active participant in the ongoing discussion about the economic future in this country and his, Pascal sat down with me last week for an interview to reflect on his time here, the phenomenon we call the innovation economy, and what's next. He also previewed his May 14th event at swissnex Boston where he will join his departing colleagues, the consuls general of Great Britain, France and Germany, in a discussion of what they've seen during their time here and what they hope for the future. 

Pascal, tell us about your background?
I was a narrowly focused young lawyer after graduating from the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and I thought my professional career would be along the border of the Swiss French side of Switzerland, but then my wife and I met, she decided we should broaden a little bit our horizon and decided on a one year trip to Boston. 
After at year a Boston University in 1999 studying business law, Pascal met Xavier Comtesse, the head of what was then called Swiss House, and as he says, "the rest is history.  This was the height of the internet bubble when it was still growing fast and here was the chance to start a new organization that was catering to this community of knowledge workers as we used to refer to them at the time – the entrepreneurs, the scientists – and really creating a place that would be a home to all kinds of ideas and also kinds of relationship building activities for the creative class or the innovative class.”  During the next decade, he was never far from this work, with a brief pause to get an MBA from MIT.  We then talked more about the organization, the work they do, and innovation more generally.


What is swissnex?
We’ve been inspired and to a certain extent we’ve mirrored what we’ve seen in the innovation economy of the Boston area.  
Externally a lot of what happens here happens because of collaboration.  People meet each other.  The collective intelligence and knowledge builds up and the relationships of the people influence the way the companies work or their research is done.  So swissnex is a connecting place and a place where people can build on their knowledge and their relationships.

It has the form of a consulate and it has government backing, but we’re really trying to push very hard in the sense of innovation and being ourselves innovative and that brings me to the internal part where we try to operate as a startup, a young team and very creative and a different management style than what you would see in a similar organization.  We have to be creative and innovative ourselves in the activities we do.  This is exemplified by the fact that we have some of our funding coming from third parties – universities and others working directly with the stakeholders have been a really innovative part of the model. 

What do you work on?
Broadly speaking I would define three areas of activities.

One is what I call academic and supports to the careers of young talent. It’s finding organizations that want to work together and want to collaborate and start programs on the education side, on the research side and also from the academic side, some that need some support in their career, getting out of the lab and going into the industry or finding some seed money to start a company.
Then, assistance to start ups and entrepreneurs.  They can come here we have programs that let them accelerate their companies when they come to the US. We also have boot camps whereby we take the most promising entrepreneurs out of the labs of the Swiss universities and train them in commercialization and business development in the US way.   
In the same way we spend quite a bit trying to explain to Swiss decision-makers on how an innovation economy should work drawing heavily from what’s being done here.
And finally we have quite a few members in our corporate program whereby large companies can work with us, in the case of a reinsurance company develop the future of medicine.  We go and ask experts and have working sessions. 
For the public, for the audience here, we are a community driven organization.  A lot of what we do involves the public, involves the experts and others and we like to have an open perspective on what we do.
A lot has changed in the world since 1999.  You’ve been on the forefront in this connection between Switzerland and Boston.  What’s been your impression of what you’ve seen and experienced in the world?
Innovation, broadly defined, needs to be at the forefront of the political agenda in a lot of places.  You see the economic crisis in Europe.  You see Asia where they are trying to shift to a higher value economy and you see it in a country like ours [Switzerland] where, yes we have a very strong position in innovation, but we need to continue pushing it.  
Similarly I think it is something that I’ve seen in the US were I’ve seen the looming crises, be it health care, be it climate change, really also rely on the innovative power of a place like this one.  That’s why you see an increasing number of people being interested in being in a place like Boston because this is – even though it might not reap the entire benefits of seeing the idea – it’s really the birthplace of a lot of very important issues and it’s definitely a real forum for experts and people for all around the world to come. It’s a very strategic location.
What have been your observations about America?
It has been overwhelmingly positive.  We have had the chance to be an integral part of the community here in the business but also with the family. One thing that really struck me and continues to strike a lot of our visitors is just the open-mindedness of the people, the easy access, the collaborative spirit.  We would not have thrived as much if this was not the case.  And I think this is just the general sense of optimism.  I think you’ve seen also here there were some periods where this was a little bit harder but despite this there are organizations that continue, be it the Cambridge Innovation Center and others.  I have always been fascinated that the periods of hardship to a certain extent are still periods where people continue to invest and try to do the best out of their own experience.  This has been something in contrast to maybe a pessimistic perspective on Europe.  
When we bring Swiss decision-makers, sometimes they feel that the responsibility of the US is not managed in a way that encompasses other aspects of the world.  Really using the amazing power generation of ideas and innovation to bring in more people and be very active in climate change which is one of the messages that our Minister of Environment came with – really leading by example.  I think there is a huge potential for places like Cambridge to be showcases for urban sustainability.  I think we need the next steps of innovation to be a little bit more into the mainstream be it through the political process or the business process.  I think there is the potential for amazing innovative power, but it needs to be brought into scale in a certain extent.
What are some of your wise words on innovation?
I think it is a story of people who are thinking bold, who are thinking outside of the box.  People who are young and are encouraged to be thinking about this.  It is something that is strong in the culture.  It is something that makes you creative or willing to explore what people call “white spaces” where not a lot of people are going.  It is really there that I would start.  It’s just this amazing thing, flexibility and the ability of people to deal with uncertainty. I am still impressed when someone comes with an idea and they have just left a high-paying job or they have graduated and instead of going to a large company they will start the next thing that might change the world.
What changed in the last 20 years to make that possible?
A couple of things have happened.  First, in the US you have role models.  You have other people that have done it.  You have companies that have succeeded.  The tools that you are using now have been started by people not generations ago but just a couple of years ahead of us. 
Second is the realization among young people that entrepreneurship might be a career in itself.  That you are not going to be in your grandfather’s company forever because the speed of change is just too fast for any company to survive.

In the end, if you add the personal interest, the career choice, and the changes outside, what I would say to describe the innovation, it comes back through the scientific progress.  What’s been very interesting to see is that by continuing and having a continuous circle of people reinvesting in others, you feed it right into the place where you are going to educate the young minds …
Help us understand that a little more …
As people get rich and companies get funded there is also a part that is coming back through philanthropies and corporate donations and corporate partnerships. Especially in a place like Boston, the role of universities is changing, is adapting.  Having Harvard Business School give $3,000 to 150 companies that want to start is amazing.  Yes, they wanted to go into consulting and banking, but now. 
It is really the fact that there is very much of a system in place. Some parts are voluntary and some parts are just based on the goodwill of people but in every university you go you will be positively infected by the entrepreneurial virus and you see your peers, and this innovation culture is an insurance for the future because you know that changes are going to continue to happen.  Large companies are going to relocate, localize, but if you embed in your local system how people live and work, and they need to embrace this uncertainty and continuous change, as a population and as a nation, you are really powerful.
And when you reflect on these things in relation to Switzerland, what thoughts come to mind?
We are a country that goes by small steps.  We are very consensus driven.  So there are some bits and pieces of this innovation aspect.  
There is a new generation of entrepreneurs.  I think it is still ramping up.  We don’t yet have the collective knowledge of all these people that know how to take small ideas and transform them into larger companies.  But the change is slowly coming.

One thing that has been very interesting is to see that there is also an adaptation to the current playing field.  Switzerland plays a different role than they did ten years ago.  Yes, a massive number of companies go there and locate for logistical reasons, but at the same time, it is not a surprise that Switzerland is often ranked #1 in innovation.  I think the universities find way to work with others and plan for future growth. Switzerland has been really smart on both the major shift and preparing for this and preparing the next generation for this, and also adapting but keeping a small piece but important piece of the innovation economy going.
We then talked about Europe and Pascal stated unequivocally “I think Europe will be back”, but added that conversations need to be had on economic policy, on socio-economic policy and on immigration.  When asked of his prognosis, he said “Good. I am encouraged by the fact that I have heard that I have heard quite a few people in the Boston area saying that ‘We’ve looked a lot in Asia, we’ve built up a lot in South America, I think it’s time that we dedicate some time in Europe’.”  Pascal's next stop is China.

What are looking forward to in Shanghai?
I want to see how a country that has to basically do a lot of catch up at very high speed, how they are doing it.  It looks like a train that is running very fast.  I think they have the means to be a very interesting global partner.  I want to see a different socio-political environment.  On a personal side, I want to see how a big city works.  I’ve never really lived in a big city.  I’ve seen a totally different perspective by coming from the US.  I expect to be significantly challenged also by getting a new perspective from Asia.
Why is the “s” in “swissnex” not capitalized?
"swissnex" is more an idea, a concept.  You can explain it differently, you can work on it.  The capitalization also means that the big “S” of Switzerland is also a little bit behind.  I think we “nex” as much as we “Swiss”, meaning we are here to connect, to be part of the people to be part of the community.  And yes, we’re Swiss but this is not necessarily the complete driver of our organization.
On May 14th you’ve invited some of your consular colleagues who are also departing this summer, from Great Britain, France, Germany, to join you in a conversation looking back over your experiences here. What are you all going to talk about?
It is going to be very interesting because we all come at different angles to the Boston area.  We all have different interests, different networks.  Of course there is quite a bit of overlap, but I expect all of us will reflect the kind of metamorphosis we've experienced as people, as professionals. 
It is going to be very interesting to see that some of us are making radical career changes.  First, no one comes untouched from four years here, that’s one thing.  Second, we are going to see where do we put the emphasis on where we work?  Where do we put the resources?  I know for example that for us, students and next generation is very important.  It might not be the case for some of my colleagues.  Or, there is very strong culture and cultural roots in some other countries and yes we do some, but this is not the driver of our activities, so it is going to show that Boston has so much to offer in these different sectors that all of us can come to it but not necessarily with the same level of intensity.  Finally we all going to agree that we all had some very important person that we never would have had in another position come through Boston because of the amazing power of the universities and the research and the kind of centers located here.
You’re a runner.  What is you favorite marathon?
Other than Boston, I have only run the New York once and I didn’t really like New York that much.  I think everyone would agree that Boston is by far the best.
What was your best time?
My best time was last year when I did a 2:43, which is way lower than what I had ever dreamed of doing when I started about 10 years ago.
If you were going to write your successor a Post-It note with a recommendation on it, what would that be?
It will have three words.  Connect. Connect. Connect.  This is so important here.
What is the hardest challenge you’ve faced here?
My hardest challenge is making sense of all of the different requests, demands and sometimes competing interests and transforming it into a program that brings value to everybody.
Are there any things hanging out there that you wish you had a little more time to work on?
When I reflect on how people are connecting and interacting, I think the virtual side of our activity – the fact that we can bring people both here and in Switzerland closer through technology, that is something that I wish I had more time to spend on.  Yes we’ve done video conferencing.  But there is another dimension. 
Perhaps having tried to be a more ambitious on large issues.  For example on sustainability.  Maybe having tried to solve a bigger challenge, even if it meant taking little steps bit by bit. 
The last part is something that I hope will be continued – pushing on this idea of operating as a start up and keeping this innovation engine running through the time.
What are your thoughts about government at all levels?
Here we had the chance to be experimenting.  There is a huge value to being outside of your borders and even welcoming people from the government outside of your borders, you are freer to adapt, you are freer to experiment, to learn and discover.  If I transform this into what I’ve seen from the local government, I think there’s been an amazing amount of increasing awareness of the position of Cambridge and the perspective of Cambridge around the world.  I still think that when I see the number of international foreign interest represented in the Boston area there’s room for much more discussion, activities that would lead to economic development, that might lead to better issues linked to the environment or maybe even just in terms of managing social aspects.  The reverse of the swissnex model would be the Cambridge government trying to structure conversation with some of the people that are either visiting or here permanently from foreign organizations.  I think there is certainly something that can be enhanced.
What are you going to miss about Cambridge?  What are you not going to miss about Cambridge?
I am going to miss the sense of community.  I don’t think there is a person I’ve met that I didn’t feel I could relate to.  I was always impressed by the number of people, just by telling the simple swissnex story, would share, be interested, embrace the narrative, help out.
What am I not going to miss?  It is hard to say, but an additional level of cosmopolitan is something I am looking at.  Cambridge is doing good in certain parts like Kendall Square to be populating it with restaurants but I think the stature of this world city, there should be much more.  I think the [Charles] river should be an entertainment zone.  I think there should just be more exciting things to do, especially for younger people.
If I had one wish for Cambridge, the capital of education would not only start at the university level but Cambridge would also become the hotbed of innovation in K-12 education.  I am sure there is so much expertise around.
And for your final question: Is there a Swiss Bakery in Shanghai?
This I don’t know.



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