Carrying out research and development in an SME

How should small and medium-sized companies go about innovating or setting up their own research and development (R&D)? Which partners should they turn to? Here is some advice and testimonials.

Two researchers study an object.

Swiss companies spend nearly CHF 15.5 billion per year on research and development (R&D), according to the latest data published by the Federal Statistical Office (FSO). Involving nearly 58,700 people, the work remains particularly important in the pharmaceutical sector, which invested almost CHF 9 billion in R&D in 2020. According to the same survey, the machinery sector invested 1.7 billion, i.e. 11% of the total amount spent on R&D in the country.

But innovation is not limited to multinationals and large corporations. Zuriga is a case in point. This 25-person SME has made a name for itself by developing a range of high-value-added coffee machines designed and assembled in Zurich. A few months ago, the company also launched a new product: a unique grinding machine. "It took four years to develop," says Moritz Güttinger, Zuriga's managing director and co-founder. This was partly due to a certain perfectionism, but also to the sheer technical complexity of the project. The creation of a mill requires knowledge of many engineering disciplines: mechanics, electronics, thermodynamics, and acoustics. In addition, designing a fiber optic display was particularly demanding.

Involve all staff

What is the entrepreneur's takeaway from this project? "The importance of including, from the start, the entire team: from the store salesperson to the engineer to the technicians. It is crucial that everyone is involved and knows what it is all about as early as possible. Then, depending on the project phase, these different skills should be called on in a targeted way."

Moritz Güttinger also points to the valuable assistance that external reinforcements can provide. "It's all about working with the best in your field. It costs a little more, but this knowledge is automatically passed on to the organization and strengthens the know-how for the next project. And it's also a pleasure to work with experts who really know their stuff."

Partnering with researchers is also key for SMEs that want to benefit from research in order to grow or evolve their business, says Martha Liley, director of the R&D center at the Haute Ecole d'Ingénierie et de Gestion du Canton de Vaud (HEIG-VD). "Switzerland has a vast network for this purpose: higher education institutions of applied sciences, federal institutes of technology or even universities."

Find the right partner

For such a collaboration to work, however, a solid foundation must be laid in accordance with the needs of each party, not only with regard to the technical problems to be solved but also with regard to the desired purpose of the project. "One should not hesitate to contact several potential partners in order to determine the best option according to the expectations and constraints of one's company." Once the ideal partner has been identified, the parties must come to an agreement by writing into a contract every aspect of the project: distribution of roles, durations, resources and funding.

A frequent challenge is also the timing of the project. "Often, SMEs that contact researchers want results as quickly as possible. However, these experts also have to juggle academic calendar deadlines. It is important to plan ahead." Moreover, the expert stresses that one can embark on such a partnership even with a very small budget. "The entrepreneur who has a concept to develop can, for example, apply for a grant from Swiss innovation agency, Innosuisse, to carry out an initial exploration of the field.


On the theme

Switzerland among the most innovative countries in the world

In 2021, the Swiss economy was ranked first for the eleventh consecutive year in the World Innovation Index published by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). With a score of 65.5 out of 100, the country was once again ahead of Sweden and the United States in the top three. Switzerland stands out in particular for its ability to deliver an extremely high number of innovation results in relation to its investments, especially in R&D, a key indicator assessed by the Index.

Last modification 05.10.2022

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