Felix Moesner: A world citizen from Appenzell
06.03.2017 | Alumni Portraits
By: Felix Würsten
Felix Moesner, an ETH alumnus and current CEO of swissnex Boston, has often felt drawn to far-flung places, but he has always maintained close ties with Switzerland.
Felix Moesner is brimming with enthusiasm as he leads us through the light-filled building with the Swiss cross above the entrance: “Here on the ground floor we have plenty of space for our many events, as well as workstations for visitors; upstairs we have the offices where we prepare our activities.”As CEO of swissnex Boston here on Broadwayin Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA), he heads the world’s first science consulate. The global swissnex network has seen continuous growth in recent years, but the Bostonnode – conveniently located between twoworld-class universities, MIT and Harvard – is an important Swiss hub for cultivating contacts in science, given the region’s status as one of the world’s most important centres of academia. Moesner has spent the past four years at the helm of this consulate, which was expanded in 2013 to include an outpost in Manhattan. “One of our tasks is to establish connections between Swiss and American educational institutions,” he explains, adding: “swissnex facilitates contact between scientists, supports young Swiss startups that want to gain a foothold in the US, and organises events to highlight Swiss research activities.” As one of the world’s leading institutes of technology, ETH certainly makes frequent appearances here, but swissnex itself represents all Swiss universities. ETH Rector Sarah Springman, for instance, recently paid a visit, and former ETH President Olaf Kübler also dropped in briefly not too long ago. He actually still remembered the current Consul, much to Moesner’s surprise, from a meeting years ago. Said Moesner: “When I was a student in the mid-1990s, I wanted to write my thesis in Japan, which was still very unusual at that time. That’s how I first met Olaf Kübler: he was the department head and I had to visit him in person to obtain a permit. When I went there, he asked me if I had a supervisor and said he would be happy to step in if I didn’t.”
A native of Appenzell, Moesner came into contact with foreign cultures early on in his life. His home town has a magnificent view of the neighbouring countries, his father was Austrian and his mother a dual citizen of Norway and France, and at school Moesner met children from Africa and Asia who grew up as orphans at the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen. Nevertheless, it was rather by chance that he later wound up in Japan as a young researcher. Following four semesters of electrical engineering at ETH, he wanted to finally find out what practical use his knowledge could be put to. Moesner accepted an offer from the Far East: at Toshiba, a technology corporation that at the time was still developing industrial robots, he worked on a two-armed robot with intelligence. The technology was used later for the gripper arm of the International Space Station (ISS). Recalling his time there, he says: “Just next door, incidentally, a group was working on a robot that was slated for use in the event of an accident in a nuclear power station. Tragically, that project was shelved after I left.”
Japan – again and again
Back in Switzerland, he decided to obtain a doctorate at the ETH Institute of Robotics, but he couldn’t shake his wanderlust. He convinced his doctoral supervisor to let him conduct his practical research at the University of Tokyo and then write his dissertation at ETH. “It was a very productive time: in under three years, I was able to submit mywork to ETH, publish a dozen papers and even apply for four patents besides,” he says. After that, he accepted a postdoc position in nanotechnology at ETH. “I realised then that academia wasn’t the path for me, so I went into industry and became a consultant at Synpulse, a management consulting firm.” After another three years Moesner returned to Asia working for Credit Suisse, which at the time had just acquired Winterthur Insurance. The bank sent him to Tokyo, where he was to head the IT department for the life insurance division. Moesner recalls: “I was 35 years old then and suddenly I was supposed to manage a team of 50 Japanese staff. That was an extremely interesting challenge for me.”
A year later, when the Swiss embassy wanted to hire someone with a science and technology background, Moesner decided to change jobs again. Although he was practically a perfect match with the job profile, he initially hesitated to accept their offer: “I dreaded the thought of becoming a bureaucrat.” He tackled new ideas right from the start, even if his colleagues at the embassy didn’t always appreciate his fresh approach. Even today, at swissnex, having entrepreneurial scope and being able to implement his own ideas arecvery important to him. During his time at the embassy, Moesner also experienced the Fukushima catastrophe at first hand, and recalls that “the earthquake that led to the accident was severe even by Japanese standards.” The massive tsunami and the subsequent nuclear disaster engendered great uncertainty that also left embassy staff at a loss. Even today, Moesner is visibly moved when he recalls those turbulent days: “I’m very grateful that I received so much support back then, particularly from Switzerland.”
Five years ago, Moesner moved on to swissnex Boston. After ten years in the hectic metropolis of Tokyo, he and his family have now found a new home in a quiet suburb of Boston – much to the dismay of his teenage children. Even if the neighbourhood of the swissnex headquarters seems quiet, Moesner thinks it is simply fantastic to be working in such a privileged intellectual environment. “There are 300 colleges, universities and research institutions within a 90-minute drive. That creates a very inspiring atmosphere.” ETH, as he repeatedly notices from his conversations, enjoys an excellent reputation on the US East Coast. Moesner believes that Switzerland truly does deliver outstanding performance: “We owe it to our dual education system that we were able to achieve such an exceptional position in innovation. We absolutely have to keep this system a priority.” Switzerland could, however, stand to learn from the American error culture: “In Switzerland and Japan, people are anxious to not make any mistakes if at all possible. It’s completely different here. At swissnex Boston, too, we make many decisions within a very short time, and sometimes we also spontaneously try new things. If it doesn’t work, we say: okay, we learned something from it.” Moesner will soon be packing his suitcase again: the next big move is planned for summer, this time within swissnex. In a sort of castling manoeuvre, the world traveller will then head swissnex China in Shanghai. He looks forward to returning to Asia: “I enjoy that part of the world,” he says, “and I get to learn another new language there.” His knowledge of Japanese will serve him well. Ashe explains, “Chinese and Japanese have many similar characters, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to get off to a good start in the new location.” His credo, however, will remain the same there: “I want to give something back to Switzerland through my work, so I advocate for my native country from abroad.”
About Felix Moesner
Felix Moesner studied electrical engineering at ETH Zurich from 1987 to 1993 and obtained his doctorate at the Institute of Robotics in 1996. Following his postdoctoral research at ETH, he switched to industry as a consultant and IT specialist. In 2003 he became the Science and Technology Counsellor at the Swiss embassy in Tokyo, where his achievements included setting up various academic networks. Now he heads swissnex Boston, the Swiss science consulate, where he was appointed CEO in 2012.
Switzerland has been operating science centres – known as swissnex – in selected locations since the year 2000. Each swissnex is responsible for establishing an extensive network of contacts at universities, research institutions and high-tech companies in the host region and making this network available to interested Swiss institutions and individuals. The first swissnex was opened in Boston in 2000. swissnex Boston works closely with swissnex San Francisco and Switzerland’s science advisers in Washington DC and Ottawa. Since 2013, it has run the swissnex New York outpost whose primary activity is promoting start-ups and education.