Innovation: the Sino-Helvetic view on globalisation



For the past three years, students from Lausanne have been travelling to China for two-week stays to work on projects involving connected objects. They have also had their eyes opened to emerging markets, explains Marc Laperrouza of the College of Humanities at EPFL and co-founder of the China Hardware Innovation Camp.

Why send students to China and not to Silicon Valley?

We must go to an emerging country if we want to understand the next 25 years. This is the only way to know the dynamics of this type of market. With China, the situation has been reversed: we are going there to copy, not to be copied. Participants travel to Hong Kong and Shenzhen, a 14 million-strong megalopolis, tech hardware capital and home to the likes of Huawei and Foxconn.

What types of projects are developed?

Each team includes students from EPFL, ECAL and HEC Lausanne. For one year, they imagine a new connected product, such as a smart bicycle helmet, a self-heating lunchbox, or a probe to detect groundwater. Once in China, they perfect their prototypes.

What lessons do your participants learn?

First, what you can and what you can’t do in such an ecosystem. China is an extremely dynamic environment that allows for alternative business models. You save time and money, but you lose quality and potentially expose yourself to intellectual property risks. Second, that globalisation on the ground there has nothing to do with Switzerland’s view of it. While our students often imagine Kickstarter-type products, designed by and for Westerners, they discover totally different users. It’s often a revelation.

What concrete contacts do they have with the local population?

They work with specialists in manufacturing plants and workshops. They must also meet potential users – one team was developing a watch to help children with autism contact a local association. They also visit innovation parks and companies such as Huawei.

Is the goal to launch Swiss start-ups in China?

No, we’re not an incubator. Students are introduced to rapid prototyping, which makes it possible to develop prototypes and test them – and thus follow the maxim ‘fail, but fail fast’. Some projects change completely along the way. As different values and backgrounds come together, interdisciplinarity becomes a central point of the programme.

Interview by Daniel Saraga