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Americans in Switzerland Solving tech problems with a Swiss degree and an American mindset

The view from the terrace at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH in Zurich

The view from the terrace at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH in Zurich

(© KEYSTONE / WALTER BIERI)

Thirty-one-year-old Kevin Mader brought the American entrepreneurial spirit to his studies in Switzerland. As part of a series of US expat stories, he shares how he launched his Swiss startup 4Quant.

In 2008, on the website of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, the ETHexternal link, I found a grad school project that was bringing together optical X-ray imaging and biomedical engineering. I was very interested in bone cancer, the cancer that my Dad had, and I wanted to study more about it. I decided to apply to study in Switzerland.

Unlike American grad schools, where you fill out 25 pages of applications and have essays about what you want to be when you grow up and where you see yourself in 15 years and what your research plan is for the rest of your life, in Switzerland you basically write an email to the Professor who ran the ad and say what you do, where you worked before, why you think the position is kind of cool. I put the email together in an afternoon. And they responded two or three weeks later with plane tickets to come out and interview.

The position I came for was at the Paul Scherrer Institute, which is a national research labexternal link. They do a lot of the big-scale science, where you need really large, expensive instruments in order to do experiments. Or really large teams.

Kevin Mader demonstrating some of the technology he uses in his work 

(Courtesy Kevin Mader/SRF)

I have an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering and photonics from Boston University. I guess one of the things about Boston that I missed when I came here was the entrepreneurial energy. In my dormitory freshman year there were at least five kids living on my floor who were dreaming about starting their own company. People here seem to have more respect for someone who’s got a lot of titles and is a chief manager at a bank.

In the States, at MIT for example, it seems like every professor has a start-up. At least one. At ETH, it seems a bit less common, and a lot of the professors with start-ups are American professors. It’s an imported culture.

Fitting in

I came here alone. I had taken two semesters of German before I came. I could order a beer. I could count to 10. But in a conversational setting I wasn’t particularly useful. The first thing I did was to join a local running club.

There were normally 15 of us who would go on the runs, two or three times a week. And that was a good way to learn the local dialect, Swiss German. We would go to training camps for four days, and it would be all Swiss German all the time. You’d do training on the tracks, where you’d run intervals, but in fact the language training was much more intense.

The people in the club were fairly disinterested in my background, which kind of surprised me, because if a Swiss person had joined an all-American running group I would have been much more curious. Today, if I meet someone and they find out I’m American, it’s very difficult to have a conversation that doesn’t involve Trump, or you trying to justify or explain Trump. When Obama was President you didn’t have to hide the fact that you were American at all. You could actually be quite proud to be American.

I was born in California, but I grew up in Ohio and Oregon and went to college in Boston. I would say my hometown is Portland, Oregon. Especially culturally. I fit in much better with the people in Portlandexternal link in terms of sports and political views than I do with people in Ohio.

Here, I see it as somewhat my responsibility to try to combat the stereotype of the fat, lazy American who watches television and drives their car everywhere. I do try to show that not all Americans can be put into this category.

Starting a start-up

Most of the time when you go to grad school you develop a huge amount of things, but when you finish, your project is finished. ETH has some really nice funding for graduates of the university, if you want to take your ideas and see if they have any commercial viability.

There’s a website, cofoundme.org, where you try to find people who want to work on a business with you. The process is kind of akin to speed dating. So you put out your application, ‘I’m looking for someone with such and such sort of business expertise’, and then you kind of go on dozens of blind dates with people trying to figure out if they’re a good match for what you want to do.

Some people you talked to, the first thing they wanted to know was how many shares they were getting. Other people seemed kind of cool. And then you’d meet with these people a couple times and you’d realize, this is going in a good direction, we complement each other well, we can bring different aspects to the table. And that’s how I came to know my partners, Flavio and Joachim.

A project for 4Quant 

The science people do at ETH is very theoretical. You have a very strong basis in how you can really elegantly solve very complicated things. When you come from ETH, you build solutions. You have all the technology, all the competence, all the algorithms you could ever need, you know how to solve any problem, but you don’t usually know what the problem is.

In June 2015, at a conference in Basel, we met some radiologists from the Basel University Hospitalexternal link who told us about their problem in treating lung cancer. They were under increasing time pressure, and they had to deal with a huge amount of detail.

Every time they get a new scanner the resolution goes up, and you’re looking for tiny little spots. It’s like going through a Where’s Waldo?external link book in 10 minutes and saying, ‘Is Waldo on any of these pages or not?’ You’re looking at pages of red stripes, trying to find a little man wearing red stripes. It’s not an easy task.

But it’s a task that computers can be made to be very good at. Now we’re working with the radiologists to build toolsexternal link so they can do their jobs quicker and more accurately. Making analyses and then comparing what the radiologists made with what the software made. Trying to see if there’s something they missed, if there’s something they should look at in more detail, or if everything looks okay.

We’re hoping to figure out which problems are best suited for computers to take over. They can handle all the boring tasks that don’t require a whole lot of thinking, and the complicated tasks can be saved for the physician, who’s ultimately responsible for the decision, and will be still for a long time.

Road map for expansion

We’re already working with other hospitals in Switzerland. And eventually we hope to expand to other countries. But we think proximity is initially quite important. We don’t necessarily want to be shipping some pre-packaged product to China or California, and having people use it, because we think there’s a lot that still needs to be done on a personal scale.

That’s potentially one of the things that we hope differentiates us from the competition in this area. You see the Silicon Valley start-ups who’ve taken on $20 million in venture capital and have to expand to 10 countries by the end of 2018. And we think that potentially a more Swiss approach, of slowly growing up one group at a time, is safer and more reliable, rather than trying to scale up before you really understand what people do.

Different strategies, different world views

After I started working here I discovered that there are fundamental differences in the way Americans and Europeans approach potential problems. An American might say: ‘When we get to that point, we’ll figure out what to do. But let’s get there first.’ The European approach is much more: ‘Let’s not even start driving until we make sure that there are no roads closed along the way.’

After I got my PhD I went to interview at some places in the US. The work that they’re doing, the dedication people had to their projects – you would go there and be blown away. But you also saw the trade-offs people were making. At 8 pm the lab was full. They had a really nice cafeteria because everyone went to dinner there and went back to work afterwards.

In some sense I was jealous that they had this level of conviction and dedication to what they were working on. But on the other hand I think that having a little more balance is potentially more sustainable over a long period of time. I chose to stay in Switzerland. I don’t feel any huge rush to go back to the US. I think I’ve grown to like the European life quite a bit. 

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