AO Foundation is a medically guided, not-for-profit organization led by an international group of surgeons specialized in the treatment of trauma and disorders of the musculoskeletal system. Founded in 1958 by 13 visionary surgeons in Davos, AO Foundation today fosters one of the most extensive networks of more than 20,000 surgeons, operating room personnel, and scientists in over 100 countries.
In an interview with us, Professor Geoff Richards, Director of the AO Research Institute Davos explains the local advantages.
AO Foundation has grown to an internationally renowned research center in the last sixty years. How did it all begin?
We originally came to Davos because tuberculosis was assumed to be cured here in the sixties so there were good research laboratories in place. We’ve stayed here ever since because Davos, even though it is a little village in the mountains, has major international connections. We have brilliant research and health institutes in the area such as the Swiss Institute of Asthma and Allergy Research SIAF, which is well-known for its work in immunology.
The facilities in town are also very good for us; even here in the countryside, you can easily get to anywhere you need to. It’s also convenient to reach the airport. I often travel to other countries, and until I get to the airport, I have a “quiet office” on the train with internet access.
Davos is a small village in the mountains, do you have difficulties recruiting talent?
It’s easy for us to recruit talent. We used to be worried that in Davos we might be isolated, but this is not the case at all. We get talent from all over the world, from engineers to biologists, medical surgeons or dentists. Of course, if we look for a very specialized profile like a histologist, then we’re competing with pharma companies. But that’s not a matter of location, that’s a matter of cost. So, no, location is not a problem.
Davos is very well connected in the world, which makes it easy to attract people and to hold congresses. It’s also perfect to bring up children here. My kids grow up learning different languages, and the schools are multicultural and welcome everybody.
The close collaboration between industry and academia is a unique situation here in Switzerland.
Where do you see advantages from being located in Switzerland?
A unique advantage of Switzerland is that it is small but still well connected, and of course that it is number one in innovation. We have lots of networks in Switzerland, so the whole country is like one lab in a way. The Swiss dual education system is another thing I really like about the country: We work with and hire people from universities on the high theoretical level but also from the universities of applied sciences, the hands-on people who start their careers with apprenticeships. This combination covers every area from the more menial work up to the elite theoretical work, and everyone is a team.
I see it as a competitive advantage that we can easily work with top universities on the one hand and industry on the other. When I presided the Swiss Society for Biomaterials and Regenerative Medicine, we were the first society that wasn’t just academic but had the industry involved as well. This helps a lot for research translation. The close collaboration between industry and academia is a unique situation here in Switzerland.
What is special about doing business in Switzerland?
What I like in Switzerland is the balance between the different hierarchies, the relaxed working atmosphere. For example, everyone in this institute calls me by my first name and it’s no-tie. If I’m in Germany, I may put a tie on but in Switzerland, it is very relaxed.
I love it here, I’ve been here since 1991. And I travel all over the world, so I’m used to other places. I like the hard-working mentality, I like that we can adapt to different cultures. It’s easy to attract people to come along to work with us. If somebody wants to move their company and have their headquarters in Europe, Switzerland is without doubt the place.
What does the future hold for your business?
One of our new aims will be spin-offs with innovative ideas. Big companies nowadays want to see a Proof of Concept, which for us means clinical trials, even in humans, so we need to be able to set up spin-offs that can do this. Switzerland is perfect to move this forward, because it’s very supportive of spin-offs. There’s Innosuisse, for example, the national innovation promotion agency, whose objective is to help with this. The ETH in Zurich has spin-off groups and so does the EPFL in Lausanne. Spin-offs are the future, and the future for Switzerland as well.
Spin-offs are the future, and the future for Switzerland as well.