Entrepreneurial university: “All students should experience entrepreneurial spirit with us”


Recognition as a place of entrepreneurial thinking should become part of the ZHAW’s distinctive profile. After all, entrepreneurial spirit is not only important for startups, but also for existing organisations as a basis for making the economy and society fit for the future, says President Jean-Marc Piveteau in the interview below.

In your view, what are the three most important characteristics that set entrepreneurs apart?

Jean-Marc Piveteau: If I were to focus on three, they would be enthusiasm, a willingness to take risks and perseverance.

Why these three characteristics?

Enthusiasm is an extremely important quality if you are to motivate and convince both yourself and others of your ideas. A willingness to take risks is key, as you have to be prepared to try something that perhaps nobody else has done before. And finally, perseverance is also essential as you are bound to encounter setbacks or failures along the way.

The characteristics you have mentioned are certainly also important for the president of a university. How do you keep your entrepreneurial mindset fresh?

Where better place is there to do just that in everyday life than at a university, a place where new things are being developed all the time? During inspiring encounters with researchers, lecturers, students and graduates, you get a real sense of the courage and enthusiasm that underpins their desire to work on something new or establish startups. And this mindset is infectious.

“As a university, we want to attract more people who want to grow by tackling complex and difficult challenges.”


The ZHAW sees itself as an entrepreneurial university. What does this mean for you? 

The entrepreneurial spirit that I would like to see at the ZHAW is a question of attitude. As a university, we want to attract more people who want to grow by tackling complex and difficult challenges. The university should promote self-initiative, aim to create added value on a sustainable basis and make itself amenable to interdisciplinary collaborations.

Are there any role models that already embody this university profile?

In the EU and the English-speaking world, there are already universities that refer to themselves as “entrepreneurial universities.” For me, however, it is extremely important that we as the ZHAW develop our very own profile. For our university of applied sciences that is firmly rooted in the Swiss educational landscape, my primary concern – and I see this our educational mission – is to ensure that all students have the chance to experience entrepreneurial thinking during their studies with us and get to embrace this mindset themselves.

To achieve this vision, what do our educational programmes have to look like?

In future, students should be able to take on more personal responsibility for plotting the course of their educational journey at the ZHAW. Outside of the curricula, there should also be activities, such as summer and winter schools, where students from different disciplines can meet and work together to develop entrepreneurial skills and an entrepreneurial mindset. In workshops and laboratories, students should be able to experiment more, produce prototypes and learn from their mistakes. Furthermore, there should be places where they can present the projects that they are passionate about. Their project assignments and theses are already very practice-oriented. Moving forward, we also want to promote more open discussions and co-creation formats with industry and society.

When people think of entrepreneurship, it is usually startups that first come to mind.

Exclusively associating entrepreneurial thinking with the foundation of new companies and technical innovation is too narrow a way of looking at things. Entrepreneurial thinking has to be experienced and taught as part of all degree programmes. For example, the new Social Entrepreneurship Lab at the School of Social Work is an exciting development. Here, focus is not only turned to IT, artificial intelligence and technology, but also to progress aimed at advancing our social coexistence. 

How do you want to realise the “entrepreneurial university” in concrete terms?

Promoting entrepreneurial thinking is nothing new at the ZHAW. This is something we have already been doing for years.

Where can we see examples of this?

The School of Management and Law, for instance, is home to the Institute of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, which has been conducting research, teaching and providing advisory services in the focus areas of business innovation and entrepreneurship for years. In doing so, it has established itself as a leader in this field. In the Master of Business Administration, we offer a specialisation in Innovation and Entrepreneurship. And since 2015, the ZHAW Startup Challenge has been held for students on an annual basis. The School of Engineering also has an entrepreneur initiative to support students who want to establish a startup. It also offers them help in finding mentors or provides them with bridge financing. Mention should also be made of the new Master of Science in Preneurship for Regenerative Food Systems at the School of Life Sciences and Facility Management. This programme gives students a very large say in putting together their own individual course contents. And last but not least, our Sustainability Booster chiefly works to promote the business ideas of students that have a positive impact on the environment. There are also many other things I could list here.

“The new ZHAW entrepreneurship initiative is intended to provide an additional boost to already existing efforts. We are now shifting up a gear.”


And what is new about the ZHAW entrepreneurship initiative that was launched at the end of 2021?

The initiative is intended to provide an additional boost to already existing efforts. We are now shifting up a gear. It is important that there is good interaction between all of the initiatives that are already in place. With ZHAW entrepreneurship, which is headed up by the Co-Directors Anita Buchli and Hanna Brahme, we are currently focussing on two action areas: on the one hand, we want to establish a community of entrepreneurs at the ZHAW. This is the idea behind the ZHAW Visioneur initiative. On the other hand, a university-wide innovation process is to be established. As a university, we also have to rethink and transform our structures and the way in which we work. During the current pilot phase, we are examining which activities and formats can be used to promote a culture of exchange as well as a mindset characterised by enthusiasm and risk-taking within the university. The aim of the current Innovation Challenge is to foster the emergence of new ideas.

Entrepreneurial thinking is a characteristic that sets human intelligence apart from artificial intelligence. In times in which an ever-increasing number of job profiles are disappearing due to artificial intelligence, this quality could become even more important.

The changes taking place in many industries, companies and educational institutions, as well as in society as a whole, require employees with entrepreneurial skills and mindsets. We want to train and develop these individuals, so that our graduates become even more attractive on the labour market. They should have the tools at their disposal to tackle the challenges of the future with courage. 

How many startups and spin-offs have been created in the ZHAW environment in recent years?

In terms of spin-offs – or new companies that emerge from innovations created at the ZHAW – there are five or six, with a few others still in the pipeline. Putting a figure on the number of startups is a little difficult, as we don’t always hear about the foundation of new companies. However, the number is probably many times higher than in the case of the spin-offs. Eight startups have emerged from the winners of the annual ZHAW Startup Challenge alone, while at the School of Engineering more than 40 new companies have been founded since 2013. After completing their studies, however, the lion's share of our students will go on to work in already existing organisations as well as in medium-sized or large companies. Nevertheless, the economic, social and environmental challenges that we all face mean that entrepreneurial thinking is of course also expected there.

“Exclusively associating entrepreneurial thinking with the foundation of new companies and technical innovation is too narrow a way of looking at things.”


Have you ever considered starting your own business?

Honestly, no. I am not an entrepreneur, but rather an intrapreneur. Prior to joining the ZHAW, I worked at Ascom, a listed Swiss telecommunications and services company. As a research engineer, I was tasked with acquiring clients and selling products. Later, during my time in the IT department at UBS, entrepreneurial thinking was also expected. For this reason, I am convinced that we must think in broader terms when considering entrepreneurship than merely within the context of startups.

What will the ZHAW look like as an entrepreneurial university in five to ten years?

All of our graduates should be able to say that they studied at a university at which entrepreneurial thinking is something very important and that they have really experienced this entrepreneurial mindset and embraced it themselves. Within the Visioneur community, people will exchange ideas and information on innovations, and the number of startups and spin-offs emerging from the ZHAW environment will increase. The ZHAW will be a place where people who think and act entrepreneurially will meet, grow together by tackling challenges and help shape the future with their creative skills.


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