The idea was to build bridges between science and business

Former Managing Partner at Swiss private bank Lombard Odier, Thierry Lombard explores how the bank’s initial gift to acquire the grocery store that would become swissnex Boston led the development of a global network championing public-private partnership.

Twenty years ago, Thierry Lombard, Patrick Odier, and their partners made the decision to invest in the long-term growth and economic prosperity of Switzerland by seed-funding swissnex — a risky but innovative idea for science diplomacy. Over the course of 20 years, that gift gave rise to a global swissnex Network connecting Switzerland and the world’s most innovative and technologically advanced cities. We spoke with Thierry Lombard about his role in helping to make swissnex a reality and thoughts on the future.

Commemorative Plaque from the Inauguration of swissnex Boston in October 2000

What motivated you to embark on the swissnex adventure?

There were multiple elements. One was the Latsis Bavois Forum, in which we invited Swiss academic, political, and economic leaders to the table to discuss and debate the challenges to Swiss competitiveness. We knew that if Switzerland wanted to stay competitive, we needed to build bridges between science and business. Charles Kleiberand Xavier Comtesse were part of these meetings and we continued to stay in touch with them.

In 1998, when Patrick Odier and I had long been thinking about the bicentennial of our bank, Xavier and Charles’s idea of “scientific outposts” landed on our table. For our 200th anniversary, we really wanted to do something to support Switzerland’s long-term growth and economic prosperity, to look towards the future, and not so much at the past. The SHARE project, as it was called back then, matched that sentiment. It was an innovative idea bringing the economic, the academic, and potentially even the political together.

As we talked about it with Charles, we agreed that the project needed a boost, which seemed appropriate for us to grant in relation to our bicentennial. That eventually led us to find the small grocery store that stood where swissnex Boston is right now and receive, after a few legal hiccups, the authorization to transform the space for the development of SHARE.

Why do you think this project was important for Switzerland 20 years ago?

It allowed for us to continue the dialogue between these different Swiss sectors, working towards supporting Switzerland and the image and influence of Switzerland abroad. This project was also interesting in its potential to help counteract the adverse effects of brain drain, wherein the Swiss abroad found themselves not having the knowledge or the tools to return to Switzerland. What’s more, it represented this desire to work on a project with younger generations, rather than the traditional side of academia, business, and politics.

We just calculated our average age at swissnex Boston and we’re 31. It’s young!

Yes, and I think that’s good. In a world that changes so much, it is vital to have balance between generations. If there are three generations operating in the same company, I think all three can yield value, but I also think we should reverse the power distribution a little bit, by instead giving the power to the younger generation and relying on the older one for its experience, help and support. Today it has become a necessity to find a balance between creativity, innovation, and experience.

Do you remember a bit about the discussions around the creation of swissnex?

One thing that always amused me was that we supported the steps and procedure of the project, particularly by giving financial support, but somehow we still had a lot of trouble coordinating or collaborating better between the various stakeholders involved. At one point I said that while there are probably financial resources up for grabs, they all needed to come together with a project under a common vision, or else those resources wouldn’t be there. Those were easy times in the sense that I had the opportunity to put resources into the purchase of this house and in the support of this project. The ground was a little relaxed, and the landing was a little softer at the time when we moved this project forward. I have to admit that without Xavier and Charles, it would have been impossible to make the project happen.

You have been involved with swissnex for 20 years, from near and far. What are you most proud of in the last 20 years ?

What I find interesting about swissnex is that it is an illustration of a successful collaboration between the public and private sectors. In the end the resources put forward by the private sector were able to provide a launch pad for 20 years of public-private collaboration via swissnex.

Do you have a highlight that stands out to you?

What interested and pleased me is that after Boston there was San Francisco, and after San Francisco there was the development of a global network. I am glad that the project has developed and evolved. I think what Boston did very well at the beginning was to surround itself with local anchors. It created this dual dimension — one belonging to the swissnex Network, and one directed more locally. A regret for me is that swissnex has probably been too unknown in Switzerland. Perhaps swissnex should have a bigger presence and work on its visibility and reputation in Switzerland. People at swissnex have information and readings of approaches and projects that potentially could be more and better highlighted in Switzerland.

Communication has always been a big topic for us. Some people think we’re a consulate, some think we’re a startup incubator, some think we’re an art gallery... These multiple identities allow us to attract completely different audiences and connect people in surprising ways. But this is also what makes it difficult to communicate about swissnex.

Yes, and perhaps it should stay that way. It is exactly this diversity that allows for creativity — which may not be a bad thing after all. Looking to the future, swissnex has the capability to be a sense-maker — a platform to read and shape the future for Switzerland. It will require staying on the cutting edge of innovation and better coordination at the network level. Let’s protect the originality, quality, and continuation of this project in the next 20 years.

This interview has been conducted, edited and condensed by swissnex Boston.