Swiss products and services in demand

Focus: Swiss industry and international cooperation in research and innovation

Switzerland is a member of various international research infrastructures such as the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble. This membership is not just advantageous for Swiss researchers. Swiss companies are able to secure procurement contracts and benefit from the transfer of know-how. Photo: ESFR / D. Morel

International research infrastructures (IRIs) such as CERN in Geneva and international research organisations such as the European Space Agency (ESA) depend on high-quality products and services. Thanks to Switzerland's membership of these organisations, Swiss companies can also take part in calls for tenders. As a result, Swiss-based bidders secure contracts worth a total of around CHF 250 million each year. In addition, large companies and SMEs benefit from knowledge and technology transfer.

As part of its policy of pursuing international cooperation in research and innovation, Switzerland is a member of around ten international research infrastructures (IRIs). All of these IRIs share the same fundamental characteristic: they manage large facilities, all of which must be built and maintained. IRIs therefore need to purchase advanced technologies and contract services or civil engineering works from companies or other institutions. In the case of ESA the operation of space infrastructure is important but ESA’s core activity is the development and launch of new missions into space. These core activities are made possible thanks to supplies from European industrial companies.

International research infrastructures (IRIs)

Switzerland's participation in international research infrastructures (IRIs) provides Swiss companies with access to IRI calls for tenders, which generate orders worth around CHF 100 million each year. In addition to financial returns, participation in IRIs enables the Swiss industrial base to develop technological expertise and know-how. Moreover, IRIs encourage technology transfer activities, which allow the innovations developed for IRIs to be brought to the market. Typically, this includes software or new technologies for fields as varied as medicine, computer science, optics, robotics, energy, transport, communication or even art history. Here company involvement is sought after to develop prototypes that can then be manufactured and distributed on the market.

IRIs tend to have very different procurement policies. Some calls for tenders are public, others are addressed only to a select group of companies decided by the Member States or chosen by the IRI itself. The degree of attention that each IRI must pay to industrial 'fair return' among Member States (i.e. a volume of purchases within each State proportional to its financial contribution) also varies greatly. As the provider of public funds, the federal government has a natural duty to strive for a good industrial return and encourage development of the Swiss industrial base.

As a representative of the federal government in the governing bodies of IRIs, SERI essentially advocates the establishment of transparent procurement rules, respect for the most open procedures possible and consideration of quality criteria - in addition to price - in the awarding of contracts. Quality criteria are essential to ensuring the competitiveness of Swiss industry in an international context where prices are comparatively low. This policy pushes Swiss industry to monitor its competitive environment, create appropriate cross-border partnerships and remain at the forefront. For their part, IRIs benefit from having access to a wide range of services as well as from competition between the various potential suppliers.

European Space Agency

Unlike IRIs, the European Space Agency (ESA) is not linked to any major facility in particular. ESA's mission is to guide the development of European technical capabilities and space infrastructure by coordinating the financial resources and expertise of its Member States. With activities in all areas of space, ESA pursues a large number of very different programmes and missions, which results in a wide range of underlying scientific fields and technologies.

Participation in the various ESA programmes is generally based on ‘variable geometry’, meaning each Member State calibrates its participation according to its national objectives and priorities. Switzerland has a space policy. The Swiss Space Implementation Plan for 2018-2020 provides an overview of Switzerland's strategic framework and technological priorities.

Switzerland’s ESA membership status allows the Swiss space community to be fully involved in ESA missions at various levels (advanced research, prototype development, industrialisation, application development). As a case in point, Swiss companies were involved in the construction of the ESA satellite Sentinel 5P, which has been collecting data for the global observation of the atmosphere since 2017. Photo: ESA / P. Carril

One of the main pillars of ESA is industrial policy, which is intended to support the competitiveness of European industry. The general rule is open calls for tenders. Switzerland's membership allows the various Swiss space actors to be fully involved in ESA's missions at various levels (advanced research, prototype development, industrialisation, application development), which represents an industrial return of around CHF 150 million per year.

ESA, its Member States and the European space industry are now facing new challenges as digital transformation and miniaturisation are rapidly revolutionising space technology and prompting calls to reduce the costs of manufacturing and launching satellites. In order to back European industry and encourage innovation in this difficult context, ESA has relevant mechanisms at its disposal for the co-funding of industrial activities that are close to the market - including Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs). Other mechanisms are becoming increasingly effective at encouraging the use of spatial data and technology transfer. These include the European Network of ESA Business Incubation Centres, which addresses the needs of start-ups. This network has had a very active centre in Switzerland since 2016. ESA has thus managed to create cutting-edge European expertise in all links of the industrial chain.