Is Switzerland the Newest Tech Hub?



Michael Naef, CEO of Doodle

Every so often we hear about another new technology hub; currently, Shanghai, Buenos Aires, Tallinn and Bangalore are among the places vying to be the next Silicon Valley. Add to that list Switzerland — in particular, Zurich.

Earlier this week I ran into Michael Naef, founder of Zurich-based Doodle, which can be loosely described as a smarter, simpler version of Evite that works with your existing calendaring systems.

Doodle, which claims some 3 million users — 800,000 from its native Switzerland — is one of the dozens of technology startups that have sprouted up around the country. According to some estimates, there are between 50 and 100 technology startups in Switzerland –- a pittance when compared with the San Francisco Bay Area, where the buildings surrounding South Park alone could house that many companies –- but impressive nonetheless.

And Naef said that number is on the rise, especially around Zurich. What’s behind the growth? The emergence of a healthy technology ecosystem: There are half a dozen venture funds in Switzerland; the government helps technology startups through various programs; and Switzerland has broadband aplenty –- it ranks fourth among OECD countries. As of June 2008, nearly 33 of its every 100 inhabitants had a broadband connection.

Even more important is the fact that a lot of big technology companies have set up shop there. Google (s goog) has set up its European engineering headquarters in Zurich, and Yahoo (s yhoo) moved its European headquarters there from London last year. There is peripherals maker, Logitech (s logi), and even a few large, non-IT tech companies, like Tyco. They find there a plentiful supply of engineering minds, many of whom graduated from Switzerland’s equivalent of MIT, the ETH.

Many of those engineers, encouraged by the successful sale of local startup, Wuala, a P2P storage service, to French hard drive maker Lacie, are likely to try their hand at entrepreneurship. But when I asked Naef if he had missed out on any growth opportunities because he was based in Zurich and not in Silicon Valley, he said no.

“If it would have helped us grow faster if we were in Silicon Valley, I would have moved the company here,” he said. In fact, he thinks being in Switzerland has worked to Doodle’s advantage. Just like Israel’s limited local market forces companies there to think globally right from the get-go, so do Swiss-based firms.

In a post-broadband world, where geographic boundaries are blurred by the Internet, that is good vantage point to have. Doodle is now available in 30 languages and works across multiple time zones. “We have four official languages in Switzerland, and that alone is enough to get us to think globally,” Naef said. And global focus can bring a lot growth -– if not profits -– as demonstrated by Facebook.

If this furious pace of startup activity keeps up, I may just have to make a stop in Zurich during my next trip to Europe later this year.

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