Emilia Pasquier doesn’t go unnoticed, the CEO of Swissnex in San Francisco has established herself with charisma and dynamism as the Ambassador of Swiss innovation in the Bay Area since September 2022. A philosopher by training, she leads the ecosystem of Swiss entrepreneurs, researchers, scientists and artists visiting San Francisco, with a pronounced taste for innovation and a gift for exchanging ideas and nurturing the community around her.
MerciSF had the pleasure of meeting Emilia at the latest event organized by FrenchFounders, the worldwide business network of French-speaking executives. Learn more about this exceptional Swiss executive, always on the lookout for innovation, in our exclusive interview.
Could you share with us your journey and what led you to head up Swissnex in San Francisco?
My background is rather atypical, mixing innovation, politics, diplomacy and research.After studying political and economic philosophy, and working with political parties and the Swiss network of the United Nations Global Compact, I led a foreign policy think tank in Switzerland, called Foraus, which was very innovative in 2014 because of its participative aspect and its use of digital tools to crowdsource political ideas and facilitate the feedback of ideas to the Swiss government.
I then had the opportunity to join the cabinet of then Minister Alain Berset (currently President of the Swiss Confederation) as an advisor on international relations and economic policy. When the pandemic hit, my role quickly shifted with the setting up of the scientific task force and the management of sanitary measures.
Four years later, I’m back to my first love, working in the field at the heart of innovation and research at Swissnex San Francisco.
Could you tell us more about Swissnex’s role in San Francisco?
I like to compare Swissnex to a kind of hydra, an animal with many heads.
Swissnex is first and foremost a research and innovation center that was founded to connect Switzerland with the West Coast of the United States, particularly Silicon Valley, and to foster links and exchanges in the fields of science, education, innovation and the arts. Swissnex works at the intersection of science diplomacy, entrepreneurship and startups, academia and arts, with a unique operating model based on public-private partnerships and funding.
With Swissnex, we have created an ecosystem of researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs and artists who come to exchange, collaborate and germinate their ideas.
In which key sectors do you operate?
In innovation and research, we are true “scouts”, researching, identifying the latest trends, testing, sharing and launching new ideas. We provide information from our ecosystem of activities in education, research, innovation and creativity, encompassing foresight, technology and trend analysis. For large companies, we organize trend tours and learning expeditions.
For start-ups, Swissnex is the launch pad for new Swiss companies in the United States. Our equity-free start-up programs are tailored to the needs of entrepreneurs exploring or entering the US market.
In the academic field, we connect universities, researchers and academics in Switzerland and the Bay Area, encouraging the international exchange of research and ideas.
In the arts, we work with Pro Helvetia, the Swiss Arts Council, to facilitate the promotion of Swiss artists and cultural exchanges. We are active in the fields of art-technology and art-science, with a particular focus on the specific areas of digital creation, interactive media, design and architecture.
How do you support Swiss start-ups?
We welcome startups in early stage, seed or pre-seed. We offer them internationalization bootcamps, during which entrepreneurs immerse themselves in Silicon Valley for two exploratory weeks.
Switzerland is a very good “breeding ground” for startups but the mindset of entrepreneurs in Switzerland is more focused on perfecting products and less on bringing new products to market, so we help Swiss entrepreneurs adopt the Silicon Valley mindset and setup. For example, we help them to think in terms of scale-up (thinking about the global market) and teach them how to pitch to VCs. We also facilitate their market validation and, when they’re ready, their market entry.
What impact has Swissnex had in recent years? Can you give us some examples of Swiss start-ups and success stories you’ve supported and helped get off the ground?
We’ve also helped accelerate the international development of companies such as Faceshift (acquired by Apple) and Ava, to name just a few Swiss success stories.
How big is the Swiss community in the Bay Area, and what do you see as its greatest strengths today?
There are 20,000 Swiss citizens in California, including over 8,000 in the Bay Area.
Coming from a pluralistic society (with our 4 national languages), I think the Swiss integrate easily into cosmopolitan environments like the Bay Area and are particularly open to international dialogue.
The Swiss are often very well educated, thanks to our top schools, such as L’École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne or Zurich which train excellent engineers. This also explains why Switzerland has a very good pool of start-ups.
You were recently awarded the “Digital Shaper Award” by Digital Switzerland. What contribution have you made in this area, and what do you see as the major challenges of this new digital era?
I’m particularly interested in “out-of-the-box thinking”, “what is the new thing?
But this award really goes to my whole team at Swissnex, because we’re always on the lookout for new ideas and the latest innovations.
In my opinion, one of the major challenges of the AI era will be the authenticity and veracity of the content disseminated to the general public by artificial intelligence tools.
How would you sum up your first year at the helm of Swissnex in San Francisco?
Fascinating encounters. I’m so inspired by Silicon Valley’s can-do attitude and Californians’ ability to bounce back and innovate. The San Francisco and Silicon Valley mindset is really stimulating.
Since my arrival, we’ve organized bootcamps focused on specific industries and 3 key themes: circular economy (sustainable cities), artificial intelligence and healthcare.
Sustainability is a subject particularly close to my heart. As part of the launch of Metropolis, Swissnex’s 20th anniversary initiative, we put out a call for projects and received over 60 proposals for radically different ways of rethinking the cities of the future. Ideas such as smart solar panels or recycling urine to produce fertilizer were among those submitted to build new circular sustainable cities.
What are the major Swissnex events not to be missed in the coming months?
On October 5, we’re hosting a public event at Swissnex on the circular revolution in cities, where we’ll be exploring together how cities can pave the way for more sustainable living by embracing the circular economy.
This conference will launch our METROPOLIS series of events on the Future of Cities. From November 7 to 9, we’ll be welcoming 14 Swiss innovators to present their solutions for making our cities more sustainable and circular. It will be a small festival with workshops and public events. Learn more about the program here.
When you’re not working at Swissnex, what do you like to do in San Francisco, and what are your favorite places?
I love strolling and reading novels in Dolores Park, walking around museums and nature, the Botanical Garden is my favorite place in San Francisco, and next on my list is the Conservatory of Flowers.