For the Solothurn-based W.A. de Vigier Foundation, 2013 was a year that marked a change of generation. Six members of the Board of Trustees departed and six new individuals climbed aboard.
The W.A. de Vigier Foundation is a success story. For the young entrepreneurs competition in 2014, the application period expired at the end of September 2013 and the number of applicants has risen once again. While 180 founder teams sent in their applications in the previous year, 250 have done so this time: more than ever before.
There are now hardly any ambitious founders between Lake Constance and Lake Geneva who have not applied for the prize money (five sums of 100,000 francs) at least once; one reason is the financial bonus, but another is the fact that since the first time it was presented, 26 years ago, the de Vigier Foundation’s award for young entrepreneurs has become a benchmark in the Swiss young entrepreneurs’ scene, one that is also perceived by the wider public – by authorities, banks and potential business partners.
“It is astonishing,” says the founder of Zurich-based Gastros AG, Timo Hafner, “how much reputation the award brings.” As a 16-year-old secondary school pupil, Hafner began to work on an induction-based warming solution for upmarket gastronomy. The market entry was a success: in dozens of plush hotels around the globe, the hot buffet food is dished up in the specially coated ceramics from Gastros. For this effort, Hafner received the 2013 de Vigier Award this summer.
Nick Hayek giving the keynote at the prize ceremony 2013
His project was assessed by the Board of Trustees, which was still presided over by Crossair founder Moriz Suter at the time. Alongside Suter, the committee also included Jean-Claude Strebel, long-standing managing director of the foundation, Dr. Urs Scheidegger, former mayor of Solothurn, the Ticino-based entrepreneur Fides P. Baldesberger and Eastern Switzerland’s Ernst Uhlmann, founder of the electronics firm FELA.
With this line-up remaining unaltered from 2005 onwards, the team assessed hundreds of project submissions and underwent groundbreaking changes. In 2010, for instance, the foundation opened up to foreign applicants that have their company headquarters in Switzerland, and in the same year, Zurich-based Nektoon AG (Memonic) became the first company with a web-based business model to win the award.
“The Board of Trustees,” says Jean-Pierre Vuilleumier, the foundation’s current managing director, “is the driving force of the competition.” This is because it not only screens the candidates, but also provides for the necessary presence in society.
Vuilleumier states that this is why great caution was exercised with regard to the rejuvenation of the Board of Trustees, which had to be realised in 2013. The initial situation was stipulated by the by-laws: according to the will of founder William A. de Vigier, the committee must include a politician, a scientist, an engineer and at least one entrepreneur.
At the last award ceremony in the “Sommerhaus”, Solothurn, the new trustees were then introduced: the Biel-based doctor and investor Daniel E. Borer shall act as president of the foundation; at his side are the CVP’s Pirmin Bischof of Solothurn, member of the Council of States, the investor Alain Nicod, the two entrepreneurs Felix Grisard (HIAG Immobilien) and Guy G. Petignat (Falu AG), and Felix Kunz, who, in addition to other roles, works as an “innovation mentor” at the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI).
Prize winners 2013
“Only one rejection,” says Jean-Pierre Vuilleumier, “was received by the foundation in answer to its queries.” Apparently, all other candidates for the Board of Trustees made themselves available without lengthy deliberation. This says a lot about the foundation’s reputation and is not to be taken for granted, in view of the fact that the work involved is considerable. “It is not just a matter of two or three meetings a year,” Vuilleumier points out. He estimates the time spent by the trustees to be around two weeks a year.
Alongside the jury activity, their duties also include being present at the foundation’s events, namely the summer award ceremony and the regularly held alumni events.
Managing director Jean-Pierre Vuilleumier attaches great importance to these occasions, because this is where the foundation’s densely woven network comes from, which in addition to the active and previous trustees, also encompasses numerous experts, as well as the professors who act as ambassadors for the foundation at universities and other tertiary institutions in Switzerland.
“The access to our network,” says Vuilleumier, “alongside the prize money and the reputation boost, is the third key benefit that we can offer our winners, but also the nominees.”
This is an assessment that Timo Hafner would immediately support. “The relationships with the trustees and with the other prize winners are extremely valuable to me,” says the Gastros founder. According to Hafner, some problems that everyday entrepreneurship entails can be sorted out with a simple telephone call.
2014 is set to be a special year for de Vigier Award winner Timo Hafner. He will be mass-producing his warming dishes, for which purpose he is expanding the international marketing. “Of course, in this regard, the foundation’s 100,000 francs came just at the right time.”
Time is not standing still in Solothurn either though: managing director Vuilleumier wants to conquer new frontiers with the rejuvenated Board of Trustees. Various concepts are on the table and shall be made public in the course of the coming year.
Prof. Dr. Patrick Aebischer, President EPFL and Supporter of the Year, Moritz Suter, former Chairman, Dr. Daniel E. Borer, new Chairman, Nick Hayek, CEO Swatch Group
The general direction is clear: the Board of Trustees wants to increase its commitment to young entrepreneurship further and, in particular, to enhance society’s appreciation of founders and young entrepreneurs.
The management team and Board of Trustees received prominent moral support at the last award ceremony, from guest speaker Nick Hayek, who appealed to the consciences of this country’s decision-makers in politics and business: “Switzerland urgently needs more courage with regard to entrepreneurship!” said the head of the world’s largest watch manufacturer.
Incidentally, Timo Hafner was also impressed by the speech and presence of the Swatch CEO: “As a young entrepreneur, you don’t get the opportunity to meet such a personality every day.”
The award for young entrepreneurs presented by the Solothurn-based W.A. de Vigier Foundation is the oldest and most renowned award for start-up companies in Switzerland. Each year, the foundation honours five start-up companies that have potential for growth with 100,000 francs each. The award ceremony in Solothurn is always held in June. The application deadline for the 2014 award has expired. The next submission period, for the 2015 award, will be between July and September 2014.
For more information: www.devigier.ch.