Three key takeaways from the UBS Growth Talk #12

  • Define for your company what you understand by innovation.
  • Establish a healthy error culture. You’ll make progress only if you’re not afraid to make mistakes, but instead learn from them.
  • Enter into strategic research collaborations to develop your innovations.

They work in an extremely innovative environment: Enzo Wälchli, CCO at the robotics company ANYbotics, and Jeannine Pilloud, Head of Innovation Partnerships at ETH Zurich. In the UBS Growth Talk, the two experts talk about what they understand by innovation, why a positive attitude to mistakes is important, and what distinguishes an innovative company.

Watch the talk directly as a video (with English subtitles) or listen to the conversation as a podcast (in German):

Research and business hand in hand

With her extensive experience in the public and private sectors, Jeannine Pilloud is predestined for this job: Since 2023, she has been responsible for innovation partnerships at the interface between research and business at ETH Zurich. The aim of this newly created position is to make ETH Zurich more accessible to companies, as well as to promote an understanding of the corporate world within the university. Every year, ETH Zurich launches around 1000 new research collaborations with industry, public authorities, and non-profit organizations. “We want to ensure that ETH Zurich’s expertise and research results in the area of innovation reach the corporate world even faster,” says Pilloud. Not only lecturers and PhD students, but students too are given plenty of space to develop innovative ideas; several hundred students work in parallel on their ideas in what is called the Student Project House. “Especially in times of shortages of skilled labor, it can pay off for companies to work with students on innovation processes and integrate them into the company in due course,” says Pilloud.

The takeaway: An (even) closer cooperation between ETH Zurich and the companies boosts the innovative strength and efficiency of the innovation process. This also counteracts the shortage of skilled labor.

We want innovations from ETH Zurich to reach the corporate world even faster.

Jeannine Pilloud, Head of Partnership for Innovation & Industry Relations at ETH Zurich

UBS is committed to entrepreneurship at Swiss universities

Top-notch education and pioneering research at universities and colleges help to ensure that Switzerland remains innovative. That is why we support Swiss universities such as ETH Zurich.

Getting the best from research and entrepreneurship: ANYbotics

The work of ANYbotics also began in the robotics laboratories at ETH Zurich. That was around 2009. In 2016, ANYbotics was spun off from the research center. The vision of the young company: Robots that perform “dull, dirty, and dangerous” tasks – i.e., repetitive and potentially dangerous tasks – automatically. This frees up skilled staff to concentrate more on their business and on finding creative solutions to problems. And ANYbotics achieved this thanks to its focused strategy. The company is one of the few in the world with this expertise and has taken up a strong position on the international scene.

Enzo Wälchli is Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) of ANYbotics and heads up all marketing, sales, and customer success teams in this role. The biggest innovation that ANYbotics has developed is undoubtedly the four-legged walking robot. The robot “ANYmal” – as the name suggests – looks and moves like an animal. In fact, this type of mobility is one of the most stable systems there is – “just as we find it in nature,” Wälchli explains. For several years now, ANYbotics has been working increasingly with artificial intelligence. “With this technology, our robots teach themselves to walk,” says Wälchli. This is a huge step forward in mobility.

The takeaway: Combining the skills from research with an entrepreneurial spirit offers huge potential for innovation.

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Making innovation possible in the company

“You can’t really plan innovations,” says Jeannine Pilloud. “But you can make it possible.” This opinion is shared by Enzo Wälchli. The corporate culture plays a key role for him: “It must be constantly nurtured and reinforced,” says Wälchli. ANYbotics has a “the best idea wins” mentality, which Enzo Wälchli explains as follows: “It doesn’t matter who comes up with the idea, whether it’s the intern or the CEO. Ultimately, innovations are made by people.” A good error culture is also important for a strong innovative drive. “Mistakes happen, that’s normal. It is important to learn from them,” says Wälchli. It goes without saying that the management needs to set a positive example and admit mistakes themselves. What Enzo Wälchli often observes is that some employees initially find it difficult to deal with this “failure culture.” “They are fresh out of university and are used to not being allowed to fail,” he says. “You have to learn to fail first.” And another important point that Wälchli talks about: diversity. “If all the people working together in a team are similar, there can’t be as much innovation.” Of that, he is sure. It is no coincidence that ANYbotics employs people from over 30 different countries.

The takeaway: The corporate culture is fundamental to the development of innovations. This includes allowing everyone to contribute innovatively, tolerating mistakes, and setting up diverse teams. 

It doesn’t matter who comes up with an idea, whether it’s the intern or the CEO. Ultimately, innovations are made by people.

Enzo Wälchli, Chief Commercial Officer ANYbotics

Flexibility and agility

For Jeannine Pilloud, it is crucial for every company to define for itself in advance what exactly is understood by innovation. Is it simply a good idea? Or a finished product that has been successfully launched on the market? For Pilloud herself, innovation begins when a unique idea is formulated in such a way that it is possible to imagine where it will lead and the benefits are recognizable in the market. Clear vision on the one hand – flexibility and agility on the other. “An innovative company should be able to respond quickly if something goes wrong,” says Pilloud. “Otherwise, it can get very expensive fast.”

The takeaway: You need clarity about what you want to achieve with an innovation, as well as flexibility and agility in its implementation.

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Faster than the competition

Being able to respond quickly is also key for ANYbotics. The company develops “cutting-edge technology”; these technologies are still new and innovative, but “older” than what are known as “bleeding-edge” technologies. This means that a small part of the technical edge is exchanged for a little more security and support. “Cutting edge” is a good compromise if companies want to rely on new technologies, while minimizing risk at the same time. “In every case, it is important that we protect our developments from abuse,” says Wälchli. ANYbotics has opted for the classic route of applying for patents. For strategic reasons, certain – potential – innovations are kept as “trade secrets” and not publicly announced. “The speed at which we work also helps us to safeguard our technologies,” Wälchli adds. “Even if the competition were to get hold of individual developments, at best we would already be at the next level.”

The takeaway: A fast pace of innovation helps to leave the competition behind.

Challenges for Switzerland as a center of innovation

In her role at the source of Switzerland’s capacity as an innovation center, Jeannine Pilloud has a good insight into what is going on in the research labs and on the market. “There’s an impressive spectrum of topics in which we’re researching and driving developments. We can be proud,” she says. And she has no doubt that it will be successful: “We humans can look forward to a lot more progress.” According to Pilloud, the really big innovation topics must be tackled in collaboration with others: “To boost its innovation capacity, it is important for Switzerland to form alliances.” She is fundamentally optimistic. “The most important spice you can add to your daily dose of innovation is curiosity. And that’s something I feel a whole lot of,” says Pilloud. Enzo Wälchli is entirely in agreement: “We are ‘hungry for more’ – that’s what drives us every day.”

The takeaway: The big innovation topics require collaboration with innovation partners.

Portrait of Jeannine Pilloud

Jeannine Pilloud

Head of Partnerships for Innovation & Industry Relations ETH Zurich

Jeannine Pilloud, lic. phil. I, studied architecture at ETH Zurich. She was CIO at the Bon Appétit Group for two years and Senior Vice President Western Europe at Deutsche Telekom from 2003. From 2011 to 2017, Jeannine Pilloud was Head of Passenger Transport at SBB and a member of the Group Executive Board. In 2019, she was appointed CEO of the telco company Ascom. Since mid-July 2023, she has been responsible for partnerships with industry and institutions in her capacity as Vice President of Knowledge Transfer and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich.

Portrait of Enzo Wälchli

Enzo Wälchli

Chief Commercial Officer ANYbotics

Enzo Wälchli is Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) of ANYbotics and heads up all marketing, sales, and customer success teams in this role. The rapidly growing Zurich scaleup ANYbotics, with 150 staff, develops autonomous walking robots for industrial inspections. Enzo Wälchli holds a double Master’s degree from the University of St. Gallen and has spent the last ten years in marketing, sales, and business development for innovative solutions in the oil and gas, energy, and construction industries.

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