Jane Royston on Entrepreneurship and Innovation: “It’s about the Mindset”

Jane Royston is a member of the Swiss Science Council. She has a broad experience in the private industry and currently serves on the boards of several high-tech companies and charitable foundations. Jane Royston has been the first professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation (Branco Weiss Chair) at EPFL and in Switzerland.

Jane Royston, you have been working in the private industry for many years. How do you define entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship is a way of thinking and acting. An entrepreneur is someone who has a vision, who can live with uncertainty, whilst reassuring and motivating others around her or him. This can happen in one’s own company, but also in an NGO or in private life. In a sense, entrepreneurship is the opposite of science, where you need watertight evidence before taking action, such as publishing a paper. As an entrepreneur, you have to act under uncertain conditions. A combination of scientists and entrepreneurs can therefore be quite successful as they complement each other.

How does the Covid-19 crisis change the entrepreneurship ecosystem?

I found it amazing to see how quickly entrepreneurs were able to adapt to the new circumstances. This is due to their ability to deal with the unknown in fast moving environments. For some companies, the Corona crisis offered big opportunities. This is particularly true for the medical and tech sectors. Often it were relatively small teams, as in the case of BioNTech, that performed very well. It is really impressive to see how fast they developed vaccines against Covid-19. The government and the public administration, on the other hand, were in a difficult situation as they had constantly to react to new problems and lacked the time to think strategically.

You have also been a professor for innovation and entrepreneurship at EPFL. How should innovation and entrepreneurship be integrated in the Higher Education curricula?

From my point of view, entrepreneurial projects need to be integrated into all faculties and at all levels of the curricula. Whilst it is good to teach basic entrepreneurship skills, it’s more important to create the right mindset. Providing tight deadlines for projects, assigning tasks that require interdisciplinary skills and teams, forcing decisions that have to be taken without all the necessary data available – all of this contributes to seeing things differently.

In my experience, scientists often look down on sales or on product design, and the people who practise them. But no product has ever sold itself, however appealing it may be. Learning to respect and work with people who are different is vital as well, not only for successful entrepreneurship but for life in general, and we need to teach this at university.

The flexibility of the academic system is also key. Students should be allowed to take a year off in order to try out a business idea and then come back to university again, be it full or part-time. If exams are scheduled before the major holidays, this enables students to gain valuable work experience during the non-lecture period. Such experience may also derive from unqualified jobs like cleaning offices at night, something I did through my student years.

What are the advantages of Switzerland for start-ups and where do you see room for improvement?

Switzerland has a highly qualified and diversified population. Legislation is also very entrepreneurship-friendly. The general conditions are thus almost ideal. Paradoxically, this is also a problem. If you give entrepreneurs everything they want – access to investors, coaching, free courses, etc. – they are never hungry and might then lack the inner fire to go really far.

Within the 100 biggest companies of Switzerland, the share of women in management boards is only 13 %. How could this gender gap be bridged?

Again, it’s all about the mindset. The companies who succeed in attracting a truly diverse workforce are not looking in the first place for specific skills, experiences, and titles. They rather focus on personal characteristics. In other words: don’t hire who has been a CEO, but who has the characteristics of a CEO. Unfortunately, the hiring process is often working like an old boys’ club; many top jobs are not even advertised. This is not a competitive environment. Companies should really try to understand why they are not attracting enough women, starting from the job description to the final selection of a candidate. As long as this is not the case, I am in favour of a women’s quota.

How strong should entrepreneurship be linked to societal challenges, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)?

A country needs to define long-term goals linked to sustainability. If, for instance, Switzerland aims at becoming a top performer regarding renewable energy solutions, it’s important to encourage entrepreneurs to go into this direction. The government should foster clusters of expertise, where the private sector can work together with stakeholders from universities and other research institutions. Covid-19 is a good example on how successful a society can be if entrepreneurial thinking is thrown at big challenges.

You have been a member of the Swiss Science Council (SSC) for many years. What is the reason for this long-term commitment?

I love the spirit of the Council and the open-mindedness of its members. The SSC has a unique role to play, as it focuses on long-term issues, such as Quantum Technology or Digital Transformation. I remember that back in the 90s, when I served the Council for the first time, we discussed the role of the Universities of Applied Sciences, which now have become crucial bodies in the Swiss academic system. I really believe that the work of the Council contributes to the medium- and long-term well-being of Switzerland. After all – and now I’m paraphrasing Albert Einstein – focusing on the future is the only worthwhile activity as that is where we all intend to spend the rest of our lives.


On this blog, members of the Swiss Science Council express their personal opinion. This does not necessarily correspond with the analysis or position of the council.