Portrait

The heart and soul of the Swiss start-up scene

Beat Schillig is the heart and soul of the Swiss start-up scene. Nobody has done as much in the last 25 years for company founders as he has; tens of thousands benefit from his work.

Hansjörg Honegger

Start-ups are the media’s new pop stars. Successful young people who are conquering the world with ideas and drive. The brawny, somewhat stocky man sitting in his small office on the third floor of an office building in St. Gallen does not look like a pop star at all, yet he is the heart and soul of the Swiss start-up scene. For 25 years now, Beat Schillig has been working at his Institut für Jungunternehmen (IFJ, Swiss institute for start-up companies) as part of established support programmes such as venturelab and Venture Kick. Everyone in the scene knows him – he has a lot of influence. As a business angel, he made millions with his shrewdness, insight into human nature and inexhaustible energy. And he reinvested the profit straight back into start-ups.

 

Luck? Not really

“A lot of it was pure luck.” Laconically, he puts his successes down to fate, as if his talent and perseverance had nothing to do with any of it. People who know him well paint a different picture: tenacious, inspiring, dedicated. “Beat Schillig has really shaped the start-up scene in Switzerland and helped to establish it. He invested capital and expertise in start-ups before it was in vogue,” says Nicole Herzog, co-founder of Haufe-umantis AG, with conviction.  

 

Entrepreneurship was not handed to Schillig on a plate. As the oldest of four sons, he grew up between St. Gallen and Lake Constance; his father was a milker and the family did not have a lot of money. So even as a small child, he earned his own money by helping farmers with their harvest: picking cherries and sorting apples. “At 14, I was supposed to choose a career. But I had no idea what I wanted to do. I enjoyed going to school, so I decided to get a school-leaving certificate.” This is typical of Schillig: he did not ask his mother and father, Rita and Max, if that was okay. He informed his parents of his decision. 

 

The top five start-ups from the viewpoint of Beat Schillig

 

1/5 L.E.S.S.: The physicists Simon Rivier and Yann Tissot, from French-speaking Switzerland, intend to revolutionise the lighting market with ”Light Efficient SystemS” or L.E.S.S.for short. LED is yesterday’s news, L.E.S.S. is the future. The new light source based on fibre optics could also be used to equip laptops, tablets and televisions. The company is on the verge of industrial production.

2/5 Abionic: Iwan Märki and Nicolas Durand have achieved a milestone with their medical technology company Abionic: they obtained authorisation for an allergy test. The “Lab on Chip” makes blood tests in pharmacies or at the GP’s office cheaper, easier and faster. The results are available in 20 minutes, and they are just as accurate as the tests in large laboratories.

3/5 Flyability: Drones are controversial aircraft that are prone to collisions. This is where Adrien Briod and Patrick Thévoz come in with their start-up Flyability: the Gimball drone has a spherical frame that protects the drones from damage. This opens up new application possibilities such as inspection flights in power plant boilers.

4/5 Bcomp: Car manufacturers have a problem, at least in the US: cars are too heavy and emit too much CO2. Christian Fischer and Cyrille Boinay provide a solution with the start-up Bcomp: their polymer components with flax fibres are very lightweight and are perfectly suited to automotive engineering. Negotiations with the car industry are currently underway.

5/5 Sophia Genetics: CEO Jurgi Camblong has already been through the foundation phase with his start-up Sophia Genetics. With 50 employees and 10 new contracts signed each month, the start-up company is on a growth curve. Customers are hospitals from all over the world, and the company provides a standardised analysis of patients’ genetic data.

1/5 L.E.S.S.: The physicists Simon Rivier and Yann Tissot, from French-speaking Switzerland, intend to revolutionise the lighting market with ”Light Efficient SystemS” or L.E.S.S.for short. LED is yesterday’s news, L.E.S.S. is the future. The new light source based on fibre optics could also be used to equip laptops, tablets and televisions. The company is on the verge of industrial production.
Without a plan – but with ambition

A child at secondary school: this was not easy for a milker with a low income and four children. “It was clear to me: I didn’t want my decision to mean that I had to sponge off my parents – I wanted to pay my own way," recalls Schillig. During the holidays, he worked as a gardener in a cemetery and did metal drilling work, on Saturdays he packed fruit and vegetables for a wholesaler. “I started work at five in the morning, it was no walk in the park.” He relaxed on Sundays at a country inn – where he sometimes worked as a waiter. He grins as he says this, remembering the hard graft, and today he is still proud to have managed it.

“Money is a means to an end, but my work is about emotions, not money.”

Beat Schillig, founder of the IFJ

After finishing school, he still had no idea what he wanted to do. He was interested in becoming an architect, but not interested enough. In St. Gallen, you go to the HSG (University of St. Gallen), to do business, “although I didn’t have a clue what they really did there.” The other good thing about the HSG was that he could live with his parents and save money. Schillig studied part time and concentrated on his exams. He also learnt Spanish and travelled for months at a time through Cuba, Argentina and Brazil. He took on more jobs to finance his travels and support himself: a night watchman for Securitas, night shifts for the railway postal service, bar keeper, lifeguard in Ticino, market research, student trainee at IBM and, most recently, skipper on a Greek sailing yacht. The main thing was that it guaranteed him his independence. 

 

Really bad: hierarchies

The conventional career for a HSG graduate at an international company or a renowned consultancy firm was out of the question. “I realised very quickly in the military that I detested hierarchies. Being ordered around by people who have no clue was just impossible.” After three weeks, a proposal for the NCO academy was on the table. He had to be creative – again. “I started a real feud with the platoon leader. I followed all orders to the letter,” recalls Schillig, with a big smile on his face. It went like this: when he received an order to turn off the light in the garage, he did just that. He then slept in the garage, because no one ordered him to come back. His superior gave up and, with a handshake, it was agreed that Schillig would come to his senses if he did not have to stay on. 

“Beat Schillig does everything with a contagious enthusiasm; you can rely on him and he is fun to be around.”

Rinaldo Dieziger, founder of Supertext

On his last day at the HSG, an advert on the notice board aroused his interest: “Project managers for strategy implementation wanted. Code word: Rolls-Royce. Phone number.” Schillig called the number. And shortly afterwards, he started his first job at a leading company in the textiles industry: “I supported the management in developing and implementing the new strategy. It was challenging and exciting. And the CEO gave me free reign.” Free reign! That was exactly what Schillig needed. Once the strategy change had been implemented successfully, he went back out into the big wide world. He worked for an SME in telecommunications, where he was responsible for business development in South America, coordinating production in Ireland and selling a project on the Prague Stock Exchange.

 

The start-up coincidence

Start-ups entered his life by chance in his next job working for a consulting firm that was setting up a course for young entrepreneurs for UBS. The proprietor charged Schillig with this task. And he got the bug: “It was exactly what I was looking for – maximum independence working with like-minded people.” This was the starting point for the Institut für Jungunternehmen. Schillig hurled himself into the set-up task, lectured at universities on the side and guided the first start-ups through the difficult set-up phase. This included being closely involved in establishing Jobs.ch. And he was practically forced into his first investment as a business angel: “UBS was prepared to finance the company, if I would purchase share capital with my own money.” Schillig scraped together 100,000 Swiss francs, his life savings, and got on board. A few years later, the company was taken over as part of contract in the three-digit millions. Schillig was now financially independent. He was able to invest his profit into further start-up projects and get involved in setting up companies as a business angel. 

 

But what is money really? “Money is a means to an end, but my work is about emotions, not money.” Not everyone could make this statement believable. But Schillig can. It fills his heart with joy when he is invited to a company’s anniversary celebrations, when he sees the fruits of his work, and when he can look on with pride at the young entrepreneurs he has supported. His commitment pays dividends. Kai Glatt, former IFJ employee and now EY Entrepreneur of the Year and head of the start-up The Rokker Company, had this to say: “Beat Schillig made an impact on me, he is demanding and ambitious. But he helped me to focus on what is essential.” 

 

A one-off result

Today, Beat Schillig is a crucial figure in the Swiss start-up scene: he has personally trained and coached thousands of people in the last 25 years. If you count his entire team of 25, then well over 100,000 company founders have benefitted from the IFJ’s workshops and networking events. And he continues to inspire people: “Beat Schillig does everything with a contagious enthusiasm; you can rely on him and he is fun to be around,” says Rinaldo Dieziger, founder of Supertext and also a former IFJ employee. At present, Schillig is venturing out into the world again. In 2015, he was with “venture leaders” – the Swiss start-up national team – in China and the US and trained the best high-tech start-ups in South Africa.

 

Time to sit back and relax? Not likely. Schillig turned 50 this year, which set him thinking for a while. When his younger brother told him he had swum 400 kilometres last year, it came just at the right moment: after all, you need to look after your body. So time to hit the pool. 500 kilometres in a year was his first idea. But this was no real challenge. So 1,000 kilometres or 200 sets of five kilometres. No mean feat when you spend half the year on the go. “It seemed virtually impossible to me,” he recalls, and he laughs again. Anything less than impossible is boring. By mid-November he had clocked up 891 kilometres. Go figure.

 

Institut für Jungunternehmen (IFJ)

The IFJ has been supporting young entrepreneurs with courses, events and professional advice for 25 years. The venturelab accelerator programme for the best Swiss start-up talents was developed from the IFJ. In 2007, the IFJ was given a mandate to manage Venture Kick, which has provided 16 million Swiss francs in starting capital to around 400 spin-off projects. IFJ operates in St. Gallen, Zurich and Lausanne with a team of 25 start-up supporters.

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