It’s all about impact – not guardianship

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.

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.

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