Tech for Impact at ETH Zurich – a discussion with Dr. Tomas Brenner

Dr. Tomas Brenner is currently Head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at ETH transfer, the technology transfer office of ETH Zurich. He has more than twenty years’ experience in the tech startup world, both in the US and in Europe, and is a member of the SEIF Awards Jury 2019. The Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab offers tailored services for young researchers and entrepreneurs aiming to transfer scientific research results, carried out at ETH Zurich, to business and society.

According to Dr. Brenner, ETH has lot of startups with the potential to make a significant impact. We had the pleasure to talk to him about that, and Tech for Impact solutions in the university environment. Read on to learn all about it.

Dr. Tomas Brenner
Head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab
ETH Zürich

From your perspective as Head of the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab at ETH Zurich, have you noticed a change in the development of Tech for Impact solutions in Switzerland over the last years?

Yes, absolutely! Just by picking up any newspaper today, it becomes clear that our world is facing unprecedented changes. When it comes to social and environmental challenges, there are some clear problem areas and the younger generation is well aware of it. In this context, I believe the younger generation is constantly encouraged by their surroundings to start thinking about solutions to these challenges. Thinking back to how it was only 10 or 15 years ago, it was just cool doing a startup for the sake of technology. At the time, it was about new tech solutions, making money and growing the business. In my view, entrepreneurs are a lot more conscious today, something that is also reflected in our society in general. 

In which sectors do you see the greatest opportunities and why is that? 

Technology concerns all areas of our lives, and not just our lives here in Switzerland or Europe. If you look at developing countries, many individuals already have digital phones and use technology on a daily basis. It is present everywhere. In this context, technology can help us make an impact in almost any field. To give you a few examples from the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, we have startups in the areas of sustainable food production, construction and energy. These areas are great examples of where we can make a significant impact, generating energy from sustainable sources, sustainable housing or finding new solutions for plant-based protein. At ETH, we have lot of startups in these sectors, food waste is another example. In my view, this is really positive. Doing a startup just for the sake of it is great, but if there is also a meaningful mission behind it, if the startup can make an impact, it’s even better. 

Doing a startup just for the sake of it is great, but if there is also a meaningful mission behind it, if the startup can make an impact, it’s even better. 

Do you experience a large interest for Tech for Impact solutions in the university environment? 

Entrepreneurs are much more conscious today. At ETH, we have lot of startups in sectors where we have the potential to make a great impact, such as food, energy and construction. Taking the SEIF Awards as an example, two of the 2019 finalist are also ETH Pioneer Fellows hosted at the Innovation & Entrepreneurship Lab (ieLab): Planted and FenX. Lukas Böni, Planted, and his colleagues Pascal Bieri and Eric Stirnemann develop meat analogues that have the same texture, look and taste as meat. Etienne Jeoffroy, CEO & Co-Founder of SEIF Award winner FenXaddresses the increasing demand for non-flammable and environmental-friendly insulation materials. [You can read more about them here.]

SEIF Award finalist and ETH Pioneer Fellow, Planted, develops meat analogues that have the same texture, look and taste as meat.
SEIF Award winner and ETH Pioneer Fellow Etienne Jeoffroy, FenX, transforms mineral waste into high performance insulation panels for the building industry.

Where do you see the main challenges, and how can we address these to make sure we foster the positive potential of technology? 

In my view, the challenge is not the technology itself. Rather, the challenge is to make these technologies accessible to all, regardless if you live in a rich country like Switzerland or in a less developed country. I see the challenge more in the proliferation of Tech for Impact solutions to all parts of the world.  

In your opinionwhat role can (or shoulduniversities play in fostering Tech for Impact solutions 

Universities play an important part in setting the agenda for research and development. Looking at ETH, we have defined five focus areas of which one is sustainability. In my view, the university has a responsibility towards our society, to find solutions to the challenges we face today, as we are financed and supported by the society. The research conducted at the universities can generate ideas for new impact focused startups. By selecting relevant focus areas, as sustainability, within which research is financed and supported, universities can indirectly support the development of impact startups.  

By selecting relevant focus areas, as sustainability, within which research is financed and supported, universities can indirectly support the development of impact startups.  

The role of the universities is not to create impact startups, but rather, to support research in that direction. Following, the researchers themselves have the opportunity to take their ideas further, and there are now great support programs for them to do that. If you look at what SEIF is doing, or what we are doing with the pioneer fellowships at ETH, we are able to support researchers in their next steps to develop impact driven startups.

Putting Switzerland in an international perspective, do you see any differences in the development of a Tech for Impact ecosystem? If yes, what are these and why do you think these exist?

Of course, there are differences across countries, looking at the local economies, needs and boundaries. For example, Israel – commonly known as the startup nation – is in tension with its neighboring countries. Following, the technologies developed there may have a stronger focus on security or protection than in other parts of the world. In this regard, the country environment plays an important part. If you look at Switzerland, we are a wealthy country, on one hand we are proud of it, but on the other, we probably also feel a bit guilty. Thus, we tend to develop solutions that can have an impact by helping others. We want to do something good for people, also in parts of the world where there is not so much wealth.

What can you tell us about your experiences as a SEIF Awards Jury member? 

It has been a great experience to be part of the SEIF Awards Jury, it is exciting and involves many high-quality projects that can make a significant impact. I particularly enjoyed being part of the very diverse jury, where we were able to have good discussions by bringing in various perspectives. ETH is a well-known institution and I am happy to support the SEIF initiative to help society advance and make a positive impact. 

It has been a great experience to be part of the SEIF Awards Jury, it is exciting and involves many high-quality projects that can make a significant impact. 

I encourage you to keep up the good work at SEIF and I am happy to continue to support the work you do, as I believe it really makes a difference. In this regard, I look forward to continue to work together with SEIF to make our world a better place to live. 

This interview was originally published in the SEIF Awards brochure, available for download here.

Photos
ETH aerial view: ETH Zürich / Alessandro Della Bella
Dr. Tomas Brenner profile, Planted: ETH Zürich
FenX on stage: Eva Zingg