Switzerland has serious ambitions for the digital future. The country released a digital manifesto in November 2016 with eight points to help it play a leading role in digital transformation in the world. Digitization concerns all parts of life, but for a while now, the financial sector has been in the eye of the tornado. FinTech startups are competing for the core business of banks who in turn face mounting pressure from regulators. The outcome of the story lies somewhere in the future, but one thing is clear: Digitization has a big impact on the future of financial hubs in the world. Switzerland is one of them.
FinTech in Switzerland: Where are we today?
The strain between traditional banking and FinTech sets the stage for the first documentary film about Swiss Fintech, FinTech Made in Switzerland (2016). The film shows a moment in time in the financial sector of the traditional bankers’ nation at a crucial turning point. It features interviews with bankers, politicians, startup founders and investors who explain their approach to FinTech and their plans to catch up with other established FinTech startup hubs such as London or Berlin. All 41 interviews from the project stream online in full length, making it the first interactive knowledge platform about Swiss FinTech.
For the project, filmmaker Manuel Stagars conducted over 60 hours of conversations with the movers and shakers in Switzerland’s major banks and FinTech startups, and a clear message emerged: Switzerland has the know-how and entrepreneurial talent to be a leader in FinTech, but to advance to the next level, new and old players in the financial sector must meet at eye level and collaborate. This article sums up some of the main points from the film.
“If finance can’t improve the lives of people, we have no use for it.”
Adriano B. Lucatelli, founder of a Swiss roboadvisor and senior lecturer at the University of Zurich, says at the beginning of the film “If finance can’t improve the lives of people, we have no use for it.” This sets the bar high for entrepreneurs and bankers who explain how they plan to bring the financial sector into the digital future.
Andreas Kubli, head of digitization at Switzerland’s biggest bank UBS describes the effect of technology on competition from startups: “If somebody has a good idea today, he can get to market much more easily. But the same is true for us banks as well.”
Hanspeter Rhyner, CEO of Glarner Cantonal Bank (termed “Switzerland’s most digital bank”) follows this statement with the need for tangible results in the digital offerings of banks: “If we simply made our digital services for fun with nothing to show on our balance sheet, I don’t believe people would call us the most digital bank in Switzerland. The impressive thing is that we tried something new and are successful with it.”
Why is Switzerland still not a FinTech hub?
Despite the good intentions, Switzerland is still lagging behind in the world’s FinTech rankings. Several reasons for this exist. Johannes Hoehener from Swisscom, Switzerland’s main telecommunications provider, believes that established players need to be more open for innovation coming from outside their own turf. He says “Innovation in business is not coming from inside companies. There must be exceptions, but in general it does not come from within. […] It is extremely important for a company to open its doors to accept new ideas and new business models into its own culture.”
Christina Kehl, co-founder of the insurtech startup Knip and managing director of the association Swiss Finance Startups (SFS), describes some of the frustrations of the Swiss FinTech community. She says “Switzerland as a financial center should collectively make the decision to move forward. Instead, there is a lack of coordination and financial resources. Some people think everything is OK. This is just not true. When I speak with politicians I find most of them have no clue what FinTech is.”
Marc P. Bernegger, serial entrepreneur and investor in global FinTech startups, points toward the need for greater ambitions for Swiss startups: “What we are lacking are Swiss FinTech companies that succeed beyond the Swiss German or the French German market. Those that want to become market leaders in Europe or in the world in some areas.”
The need to work together
The film puts startups at eye level with banks. Niklas Nikolajsen, founder of Bitcoin Suisse, explains why Switzerland is a good base for startups in cryptocurrency or blockchain. He says “[As an entrepreneur] it would be sad to invest so many years and sacrifices only to find that you were in a jurisdiction that will pull the carpet away from under you. Switzerland has an excellent jurisdiction not only for FinTech or blockchain technology but in a large number of areas.”
Philip Kornmann, co-founder of Advanon, a Swiss startup pioneering factoring for SMEs, says “In the beginning, how the public saw it was ‘Banking is going to be dead in ten years.’ I don’t think that is the way to go. To be successful in the market both being a bank or a FinTech company, see where your interests overlap and where you can find collaboration opportunities to grow together.”
The documentary packs 19 interviews in 45 minutes, which gives an overview of the status quo of FinTech in Switzerland in the year 2016. For those with an interest in the details of the conversations, all 41 interviews from the project are available in full length on the website of the film. FinTech Made in Switzerland has a clear message: banks, tech companies and startups need to work together to take advantage of digitization. The result of this collaboration should be happier customers who enjoy financial services that are faster, cheaper, and more convenient.
Of course, this applies to other banking hubs beyond Switzerland as well.
The film streams online in English and original Swiss German.