Michael Dillhyon is a US entrepreneur and investor living in Zug. Originally, he moved to Switzerland and only wanted to accompany the exit of a US spin-off company. But a growing family and new plans made him stay – he even discovered he has roots in this small country.
In our interview, Michael Dillhyon talks about his past and latest projects and explains what Swiss entrepreneurs do differently from US entrepreneurs.
What brought you to Switzerland and how did you end up staying in Zug?
Michael Dillhyon*: In 2003, I founded a company in the United States called «Netelligent». And we had an opportunity at Netelligent to spin-off a software company called «ActiveObjects» in Europe. The original plan was to be in Switzerland only for a short time until the exit took place and also to enjoy Europe. But in 2004, about two weeks before we were to leave Switzerland, I came home from the office and my wife said: «I’m pregnant.» We already thought that moving to Switzerland was a big change but on top of that, we were even going to have a child in this country.
Originally, you planned to return to the US afterwards. What was your reason to stay?
We liked our life in Switzerland a lot and saw that it was a good place for our children to grow up, but there is also another side to the story. As you may have noticed, I have quite a unique last name. My father discovered that his grandfather’s original name was «Jaeger-Blützinger» – and he was from Glarus. So you see, we moved to Zug firstly for economic reasons, then we stayed for the family and in the end it turned out that I have my roots in this country!
And the European expansion worked out for Netelligent?
Yes, it just evolved! In the end, ActiveObjects was acquired.
What made you become an investor in Swiss companies?
When I sold my stake in Netelligent and we sold ActiveObjects around 2010, I held some board roles and small jobs. Until then, I was not really involved with Switzerland business wise. I thought this was an interesting country and therefore decided to use my entrepreneurial skills. I travelled around Switzerland and realised that the Swiss do not think of themselves as entrepreneurs. But I can see that the idea of entrepreneurship is very strong in Switzerland; however, most of the people are more «lifestyle entrepreneurs». There is a big difference between this and «growth entrepreneurship». Risk capital doesn’t usually get invested in lifestyle entrepreneurship.
What projects are you following now?
When I travelled around Switzerland to make investments, I found that there weren’t enough companies that were ready that I could invest in. So I wanted to change the whole environment to create more investable alternatives. The idea was to change people’s mind-set. The difference between Europe and America is: The European community is all about stakeholders; but in America, in particular, Silicon Valley, it is about shareholders. The workforce here in Europe is not as flexible as it is in the United States.
There are many who think that Switzerland should be imitating Silicon Valley – what is your opinion?
The conservative market economy and the liberal market economy are very different and Switzerland should not try to be Silicon Valley. What’s missing in Silicon Valley is building sustainable long-term businesses. Everybody expects things to happen in three to five year increments. But a Raiffeisen or a Nestlé in Switzerland has a different approach. That’s why healthcare represents an unbelievable opportunity for Switzerland. These companies need long-term planning. The top 100 health software companies with 50 million or more revenue, aren’t fast-burners. Most of them take some time to reach 50 million in revenue and by that time, they are strong and solid.
So what should Swiss entrepreneurs do better?
I talked to many people here and invested in several small companies in Europe and the US between 2008 and 2012. If I approached a company in Switzerland and wanted to know plausible value-enhancing steps about how they were going to return my invested money, I usually got nice product descriptions but no business idea. It seems that for the engineering type of entrepreneurs in Switzerland, talking about figures and future steps are very difficult. They can tell you everything about their product, but they don’t know how to sell, how much money they need as an investment or when they will be able to return my investment.
But they have a business plan, don’t they?
The problem is that you get a cost-curve that goes up and an investment curve that goes down. But nobody can tell you at which steps you are getting to the break-even. I need to hear whom they will be calling to sell their product to.
So what you are saying is that we need more sales people in Switzerland?
Yes! Switzerland has a great history of micro engineering and bioinformatics; it’s the life sciences Mecca! It has the highest number of Nobel Prize winners per capita. But if you ignore Novartis and Roche, there are not many innovative companies left. The Swiss Government is very brave. It puts a lot of money on the table for early stage life sciences research. The problem is, the companies receiving the money need to sell their ideas to investors, to clients and to the media, etc.
But how can innovation be fuelled then?
Clusters of innovation are driving the innovation and building ecosystems. Rather than taking Swiss entrepreneurs to boot camps in Silicon Valley, we need more people who want to be part of this environment like lawyers, designers or marketing people. Because that’s the great thing about Silicon Valley, you can be in any room and create a team overnight because you have all the experts there.
So there aren’t enough talented people in the startup environment?
In the US, everybody is eager to work for equity and wants to be part of the next Facebook. But in Switzerland, nobody wants to be paid in shares and the most talented people take high-level jobs in large pharma companies and in the financial industry.
The big Swiss companies that make up for the innovation index were not built with venture money but with bootstrap money i.e. private people financing them. Is that still a good approach?
I totally believe in this. It shouldn’t be your goal to sell the company; you should rather see if you can sell your stuff. In Switzerland, we have far too many accelerators and incubators where companies easily get seed money! That is not enough; we need to build an ecosystem!
Doesn’t an ecosystem build itself? There is no agency of Silicon Valley.
No it doesn’t build itself; you need to seed the ecosystem. I believe that Silicon Valley got started because of the success of one company called «Fairchild Semiconductors» that triggered the development of the area. Here in Switzerland, we have the pharma business, but none of the big players has a real pipeline. Facebook for example has a serious, game-changing plan underneath the hood but I don’t see this in pharma. Switzerland is a great country to start something in - it is small and has a great setup to build a company. I think we would have a Fairchild in Switzerland if the key players were not so closed and so large. A very innovative company in the healthcare space is needed.
So your big bet on the future is «Healthbank». What is this?
«Healthbank» started in June 2012 and we have a long-term plan. The idea behind it is a platform to hopefully create the next Fairchild. In healthcare, it is still very difficult to trade data back and forth. There are many platforms to have data on, but you can’t trade it. Without a central platform, there is no open healthcare data and therefore, there is no collaboration. A company like Google can’t trade your data, because another big player like Microsoft will never plug into that. A middle ground is needed and our system, Healthbank, is completely unbiased. It’s self-sustainable and we have deep trust and complete interoperability. We started it as a Genossenschaft because this legal form has a long-standing tradition in Switzerland. The idea is that if you give us your personal health data, you become a member of the Genossenschaft.
What is Healthbank doing with my data?
Healthbank is not storing the data, but instead the transactions happening with your data – like credit cards. As a Genossenschaft, we have the trust of people. We are interoperable because the data can be shared through our platform and it acts as an intermediary. It is scalable because health data means a lot of money, as there is a very long supply chain and there are a lot of cross-sectional data. If a pharma company needs data for a study, we can tell you that and you can make the decision. You tell us if you would like to provide your data and then pharma receives it. Plus you receive a bit of money for your participation – it’s very simple.
How has this idea been developed so far?
Healthbank is still going through funding, as it was a bit difficult to find risk capital for a Genossenschaft. Personally, I’m leaving Healthbank as CEO for my next venture, which is to kick off a disruptive biosensor company in Europe. But I believe so strongly in the idea of healthbank, that upon my decision to step down as CEO, I made sure the reigns would be passed to a strong Swiss leader in eHealth. Mr. Reto Schegg is the new CEO of healthbank.
*Michael Dillhyon was until mid-2014 the Founder/CEO of Geneva-based Healthbank, a citizen-owned, global open health data cooperative. In 2013, he was the first Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) for SystemsX, Switzerland’s largest (800M CHF) early stage life sciences fund, and served as a mentor for the ETH Entrepreneurship Lab. Prior to 2013, Mr. Dillhyon served as Chairman of Genebio, a bioinformatics software firm, and sat on the Strategic Advisory Committee for HealthTIES, an EU-backed consortium of four of Europe’s top regions in biosciences, medical technology and health entrepreneurship.
Previous to his move to Switzerland in 2004, Michael Dillhyon co-founded two US-based firms: Netelligent Corporation and ActiveObjects, where he held the roles of President, Chairman and CEO respectively. Mr. Dillhyon holds degrees in Biochemistry and Anthropology, as well as a MBA from the Olin School of Business.