Twenty years ago, Swissnex began with a vision to unlock the innovative potential of Switzerland. Today, that vision has expanded across the planet with a global network that fosters the exchange of knowledge, talent, and ideas. We had a chance to speak with Malin Borg, CEO of Swissnex in Brazil, on how diverse perspectives across science, art and innovation come together to create real, positive change.
Hi Malin! Can you tell us more about how your journey with Swissnex in Brazil began?
In a way, it was luck – which is very often a key ingredient in everything we do. I was already in Brazil when I was invited to a reception at the Consul General’s house. He introduced me to Swissnex and said it was something to do with education and innovation.
And so I went to their website, and even though I didn’t quite understand what it was, I felt it was exciting. I reached out to the appointed CEO who was still in San Francisco then, and as soon as she arrived, I was hired as the first staff member here in Rio. From there, we worked to build the office literally from brick and mortar. Then we focussed on setting up the team and starting new projects. And just like that, three years had gone by!
What was the key to building Swissnex in Brazil from the ground up?
For an organization like Swissnex, the people are the key ingredient of success. I was lucky to have a very inspirational boss, Gioia Deucher, who had been sent here to open the office. We made sure to have a mix of local Brazilian staff and Swiss staff to bring together the best of both worlds and to create a culture that helped us set up shop in an environment that was so different from Switzerland.
What’s been the one collaboration that has inspired you the most?
Here in Rio, marine litter is a big problem. Toothbrushes are significant pollutants. They’re almost always made of plastic. An average person goes through around 200 of them in a lifetime. So, we wanted to rethink the toothbrush.
Back in 2015, we organized a Cradle-to-Cradle design workshop together with innovators, researchers, designers, architects, and engineers as part of a collaboration with a Swiss toothbrush company, Curaprox. Fast forward seven years – which also shows that our impact isn’t always measurable immediately – we launched Curacycle, an initiative together with a local university and Curaprox. The idea is to recycle toothbrushes that can be brought back to the dentist’s office and, together with an NGO, artworks are created from these old toothbrushes.
This was the first step. And now, we’re addressing the second step –to find a more sustainable plastic for these toothbrushes. For me, this is a story that shows how we address the innovation demands of companies that, like in this case, would say, “we tried to find a solution, but nothing is as good as plastic!”.
The collaborative spirit seems to be at the heart of Swissnex. How do you manage to work effectively across countries and teams?
No matter where we are in the world, we try and make working here as people-centric as possible. So, when the pandemic began, we began to work more as a network. It became easier to just reach out to your colleagues in India, for example, or your colleague in North America. That happened before, but not to the extent that it does now.
We organize events and webinars together and regularly collaborate across all the different disciplines. Almost daily. And I think that really makes the network stronger.
Brazil is an extremely early adopter. People are on their phones for around 6 hours per day. There are more cell phones than inhabitants. And people are not very risk averse, contrary to Switzerland. So, it’s actually a very big and diverse market.
What are some indicators you look out for when evaluating projects?
For us, as a partly government-funded organization from Switzerland, it’s always important to have the buy-in of our Swiss partners. Brazil is not usually the first destination for international collaboration. Often, we need to pitch the country or pitch the opportunities – to explain what is possible and what is not.
And then, we need to evaluate the real potential of this project. Does it show promise from the start, or does it feel lukewarm? If it feels lukewarm, then usually, even our best efforts won’t help.
And if it shows promise, then having a strong partner in Switzerland and a strong partner in Brazil to help implement the idea is what gets us the best results.
What is your definition of wealth beyond money?
Of course, part of wealth is to have the financial means for some tranquillity. But true wealth for me is having the freedom, the time, and the flexibility to do what I’m passionate about. To not have to work from 9 to 5 just to pay bills, but to live a life where I can be passionate about what I do all day while also not compromising on my personal life.
Do you feel there’s a gap when it comes to the link between money and how it can be channeled toward pursuing their passions?
I think it’s been neglected. In the world we live in today, with all the different tools and resources available, you don’t need to be an economist or a banker to think about how to manage wealth.
To think of money and wealth also requires a more holistic approach. To dream of the big vision but also to be pragmatic and know how to make it happen. Which, in the end, usually requires financial skill.
Brazil feeds 10% of the world’s population but also encounters a lot of challenges in sustainability technology – an area where Switzerland could play a big role.
What piece of advice would you give to those struggling to turn ideas into successful projects?
I have two.
First, have the right mix of people. It’s crucial. I’ve worked in a lot of different teams and seen a lot of different startups take off. And some that don’t. For success, you need creative, passionate minds with great ideas. But just as important, although less glamorous, are the pragmatists that pick at the details and focus on practicality.
Second, try out ideas before they are perfect. Because if you just think about it, it will never be the best solution. You need to test it. Swiss startups usually develop a product, test it in Switzerland, and then maybe expand to Germany or Austria because it’s comfortable. Then they think of America. Or Asia, if they’re adventurous. And then maybe Latin America.
We say you should start global right away. Brazil is an extremely early adopter. People are on their phones for around 6 hours per day. There are more cell phones than inhabitants. And people are not very risk averse, contrary to Switzerland. So, it’s actually a very big and diverse market.
One last question – what are some of the upcoming goals and milestones for you and for Swissnex?
I think for Swissnex in Brazil, a big milestone would be to change the perception a little bit in Europe about the opportunities that Brazil offers. Specifically, we have two big focus areas.
The first is the future of food. Brazil feeds 10% of the world’s population but also encounters a lot of challenges in sustainability technology – an area where Switzerland could play a big role.
And then the other topic is bio-economy – everything related to circular economy and biodiversity. The Amazon rainforest offers great opportunities. We see a lot of interest from our partners in Switzerland and see an opportunity for Swissnex to facilitate collaborations. Not only to preserve the lungs of the world but also to identify all the opportunities that the rainforest has to offer.
We hope to see you achieve these milestones soon. Thank you, Malin!
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