Heinrich Gebert dedicated his foundation to the next generation – thereby putting innovation centre stage, says Roland Siegwart, Chairman of the Gebert Rüf Stiftung.
Gebert decided to set up a foundation in 1997, 14 days after Geberit had been sold. He told his long-standing advisor that he didn’t need the money and wanted to do something to benefit Switzerland instead. The purpose of the 25-year-old Gebert Rüf Stiftung, endowed with 220 million Swiss francs, is to use scientific innovation to strengthen Switzerland as a hub for business and as a place to live.
Are foundations even the right model for the future?
Roland Siegwart: Foundations are independent, agile and reliable, and they bring benefits that other stakeholders in society don’t. Foundations are independent of political, personal and commercial interests. Plus, they can do something no other entity can: take risks. They have no owners, no corporate accountability obligation and no need to command majority backing. Neither the state nor businesses can take major risks. Foundations serve as a home for societal experiments. They need to pursue their purpose, and that’s that.
Prosperity via innovation: is this a foundation purpose for the next generation?
Roland Siegwart: Innovation is the bedrock of social and economic prosperity in Switzerland. This was the belief of Heinrich Gebert as a businessperson and philanthropist. That’s also why he dedicated his foundation to the next generation of innovative, engaged, talented entrepreneurs building knowledge-backed businesses: this is as true today as it will be in the future. After all, Switzerland is home to various innovative, sustainability-focused solutions, but we need founders like Heinrich Gebert to make them a reality. And that won’t change going forward. Maybe we’ll actually need people like him even more. That’s because it’s only recently that foundations have discovered the value that an entrepreneurial purpose can add.
What impact does the Gebert Rüf Stiftung want to have for the next generation?
Roland Siegwart: The legacy of the GRS is not a single project or programme, but the way we work: showing how we use risk financing to bridge funding gaps that have major potential, and, in turn, how we make a contribution to society. By extension, this lets us live up to the role of a private grant giving foundation and make the most of the opportunities this offers.
What do you think: have your founder’s wishes been satisfied, a quarter of a century later?
Roland Siegwart: Absolutely. Over the last 25 years, the Gebert Rüf Stiftung was able to make a major contribution towards closing the funding gap chosen by Heinrich Gebert. This is illustrated by our individual projects and programmes, but also by the numbers at hand: when our foundation was set up, around 260 million Swiss francs of its assets were invested in 1,267 projects. The foundation’s assets are now 86 million Swiss francs. All told, 4,000 people have been funded, with 434 partnerships and 194 start-ups being created. The completed projects have generated additional funds of 8.4 billion Swiss francs. When compared to the 196 million Swiss francs invested, this gives an impact factor of 43. Ninety-eight per cent of the foundation’s annual expenditure goes towards providing funding.
Why do you deliberately support projects in the ‘valley of death’?
Pascale Vonmont, CEO/Director: Prosperity comes courtesy of innovation. That’s what Heinrich Gebert believed. Innovation always goes hand-in-hand with a certain amount of risk. The state provides funding, as long as it involves a research project at a university, while businesses and industry focus on financing promising projects. It costs a lot of money to research the underlying topics that lead to a finished product. If there’s a shortage of capital at this stage, ideas that could create products and jobs end up coming to naught. This gap, known as the valley of death, is an outstanding field of action for philanthropists and offers huge scope for impact.
The Gebert Rüf Stiftung has moved away from Heinrich Gebert’s original idea of only investing the returns on its capital. Why is that?
Roland Siegwart: A foundation’s duty is to have an impact, not to preserve itself. The concept of granting funding from capital returns was called into question shortly after the foundation was set up, with the dot-com bubble in the early noughties and the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2007.
And when will all the capital have been used up?
Roland Siegwart: Creating impact for a set period of time is an effective approach for a foundation; we will probably cease operations in 2030 or thereabouts.
The Gebert Rüf Stiftung makes a major investment in Switzerland as a location for foundations. What is the thinking behind this?
Pascale Vonmont: It was our founder Heinrich Gebert who wanted not just to pursue the GRS’ own purpose but also to advance philanthropy in general – which, back then, was just quietly meandering along. So, it is true to his vision that GRS was subsequently involved in the establishment of SwissFoundations, the Swiss Foundation Code, the Center for Philanthropy Studies (CEPS) and, most recently, the StiftungSchweiz consortium. When the sector is on a good footing, this helps boost its impact.
What, in your view, has been the foundation’s key milestone over the past 25 years?
Pascale Vonmont: The foundation’s clear focus, its commitment to bridging gaps where there’s potential and to supporting these issues over an extended period of time. After all, today’s innovations are just ‘more of the same’ or mainstream tomorrow.
How has the innovation ecosystem for science and research changed over the last 25 years?
Pascale Vonmont: Entrepreneurship has undergone a huge amount of development. When we launched our first funding programme NETS (New Entrepreneurs in Technology and Science), people took a rather critical view of pairing science with entrepreneurship. Lots of people were suspicious of bringing business into universities. It’s a totally different ballgame today: students need to, and want to, have business experience. They often set up companies of their own. This trend has also led to changes in the funding landscape.
Our first entrepreneurship programme ran for six years before the federal government decided to support this issue with a national initiative. We also supported practice-focused research for 20 years, all told, via an array of pilot projects. Once again, the federal government has now adopted this role with its ‘BRIDGE’ programme. This mechanism lets us pick up and promote new topics time and again.
What impact have the projects you’ve supported had on society and research?
Pascale Vonmont: We support talent, which means that up-and-coming youngsters have often been able to forge their own careers in academia or in business. Our projects’ clear focus on innovation also contributes to the future in terms of climate, food, health, etc. In other words, it’s about ‘future through innovation’.
Is there one thing that particularly stands out in this respect?
Pascale Vonmont: Lots of things stand out, but we have our biggest impact with focused funding programmes like Venture Kick. A philanthropic initiative of a private consortium, this programme supports Swiss start-ups by providing initial funding of up to 150,000 Swiss francs. Its clearly structured programme offers support throughout the process from coming up with the initial business idea through to establishing a successful company. Over the course of three stages, the start-ups present their projects to a jury of experts to receive the next pot of funding. This gives them direct feedback and access to an international network of 200 successful entrepreneurs and investors. Since its launch in 2007, Venture Kick has provided 44.85 million Swiss francs to 917 Swiss start-ups. The financial support, the education and the network programme have given rise to 718 start-ups and 11,362 jobs, while the companies have generated follow-up investments of 6.7 billion Swiss francs.
You’ve created a new innovation fund to support multimedia science journalism. What’s behind this?
Roland Siegwart: The innovation fund is the latest in a whole string of funding initiatives from the Gebert Rüf Stiftung’s scientainment programme. Just like how the GRS supports the transfer of science to business, its scientainment projects build a bridge between science and society. This is the case with the science podcast ‘Durchblick’, for instance. The goal of the innovation fund is to anchor multimedia formats in Swiss science journalism at a structural level. Switzerland will only remain fit for the future if we manage to get as many people as possible engaged with our journey towards being a knowledge-driven society.
What are the goals of your scientainment programme?
Roland Siegwart: The GRS hopes that the scientainment programme will boost scientific literacy in Switzerland. We support scientific communicators from the fields of education, research and culture who want to use fresh approaches to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Science communication that reaches the maximum number of people is becoming increasingly important for Switzerland as a scientific hub. This is because it lays the groundwork for understanding the way that scientists think and work, for productive participation by the general public in the life of society and thus for safeguarding the key sources of Switzerland’s prosperity, namely education, research and innovation, in the long run. We’re in the midst of losing a whole generation to social media. If we want Switzerland to be fit for the future, it’s crucial that we use scientifically backed channels to share information about research, innovation and technology in a more appealing, entertaining and original way.
You collaborate with other philanthropic partners. What have you learned from these collaborations?
Pascale Vonmont: People are interested in collaboration and they want to engage with it. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have many impactful tools for digital collaboration at our disposal. We’re now anticipating that the StiftungSchweiz platform will develop and provide these tools. In 2015, I took a sabbatical and explored this very topic at the Foundation Center in New York, now known as Candid. I learned that cooperation can bring huge amounts of value, but that it can also lead to hefty costs. ‘Mission first’ always has to be your guiding principle. And, in turn, you need a ‘backbone’ that coordinates the collaboration – which needs to be funded. A digital platform makes it possible to find and implement effective collaborations.
Participation: a dream or reality?
Pascale Vonmont: Participation is particularly key when you’re defining funding gaps. The aim is to integrate the stakeholder groups – namely, all the partners in the value chain. You can also get the ecosystem involved in the funding process by setting certain criteria, including by ensuring that the funder in question offers impactful assistance. In turn, this adds value to the project.
As Chairman of the foundation, Roland Siegwart is responsible for the Gebert Rüf Stiftung’s strategic direction. He’s committed to ensuring that talented young people and pioneers receive efficient and sustainable support during the all-important early stages of the innovation process. He’s been a member and Vice-Chair of the foundation’s board of trustees since 2012 and has chaired it since 2018. grstiftung.ch
Pascale Vonmont is the CEO/Director of the Gebert Rüf Stiftung, an organisation focused on science and innovation, and is responsible for its operational management. She networks the key strategic initiatives, clusters and partners involved in its programmes and topics. She is a board member of SwissFoundations and has represented the foundation consortium on the board of directors of StiftungSchweiz | Philanthropy Services AG since July 2022. grstiftung.ch