«Failure is part of the process.»

15.09.2022 Professor Sebastian Gurtner knows a thing or two about creating a start-up – and failing spectacularly. Now head of the Institute for Innovation and Strategic Entrepreneurship at Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH), he supports entrepreneurs whose ideas are having a positive impact on society. In this interview, he explains what it takes and what has changed.

Porträt von Sebastian Gurtner
«Very often it’s about spotting opportunities and identifying social issues.»: Sebastian Gurtner, head of the Institute for Innovation and Strategic Entrepreneurship at BFH. Image: supplied

Mr Gurtner, have you ever founded a start-up yourself?

Yes, during my studies at TU Dresden another student and I took part in an idea competition run by Vodafone. Back then, the 3G UMTS standard (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) was being launched and the company was looking for ways to showcase it. We won the competition and set up cameras in various bars, clubs and restaurants. You could watch what was going on at the different venues on your 3G mobile and decide whether it was worth heading there.

What became of the start-up?

It failed spectacularly. We would have needed to concentrate full-time on it, but withdrawing from the degree programme felt like too much of a risk. The main thing I learned from that time is that you need to network and actively approach people. Personally, I’ve never found that easy.

You eventually ended up in academia.

I wanted to continue in the whole area of setting up businesses and after my degree I worked as a consultant for an agency that funded start-ups. A lot of consultants gave advice that seemed to be plucked out of thin air. I had my issues with that. For me, knowledge needs to be based on facts. I need basic principles I can refer to. And, ultimately, I found those in academia.  

What does entrepreneurship mean to you?

Creating value. It’s about using innovation and entrepreneurial skills to generate value for consumers, for the business and for society. The concept has evolved over the past 10 to 15 years.

In what way?

In the past, it was about creating a product or services in order to satisfy a consumer demand and earn money as a business. Today, entrepreneurs also foreground social responsibility. They consider how they can contribute to the positive development of our society by, for example, promoting climate-friendly technologies with their idea. So it’s about making the world a little better through their business.

That all sounds very nice, but does it reflect reality?

We are standing here at the start of a debate that will be argued with increasing intensity. The generations that are entering the job market now, whether as entrepreneurs or employees, want to make things happen. They want to work in a ‘purpose-driven organisation’ that isn’t just there to satisfy shareholders. Our society’s ideals and values are changing and so is entrepreneurship. So to some extent it is already reality.

What skills and personality traits do you need if you want to be an entrepreneur?

Very often it’s about spotting opportunities and identifying social issues. So keeping your eyes open, being ready to take a risk and, when in doubt, choosing to be adventurous. When it comes to solving problems, specialist skills are, of course, important. For example the ability to program an app or develop a business model.

What is BFH doing to train entrepreneurs?

BFH wants to promote these skills, because they can be learned. We are trying to expose all students to the subject of entrepreneurship at the start of their studies. Anyone who is interested can then expand their knowledge and develop their own projects in the context of their degree programme. The Entrepreneurship Office plays an important role here by linking up the different schools (see box).

Can you name specific modules?

In the Business School, all bachelor’s students have to take part in ‘Entrepreneurship Week’ during their first semester. In the autumn semester 2022, students are supporting start-ups as part of their ‘Refining Business Models’ module by, for example, questioning, validating and optimising existing business models. Students in other schools at BFH are also being exposed to the subject of entrepreneurship at an early stage.

Your institute – the Institute for Innovation and Strategic Entrepreneurship – carries out research in the field of entrepreneurship. What is its focus?

A key area of our research focuses on the subject of social entrepreneurship: how can entrepreneurs do something good for society and grow their business at the same time? We are working on a series of Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) projects which are looking to answer questions such as: which factors influence the success of social entrepreneurship, for example when it comes to crowdfunding? To what extent do the entrepreneur’s personality traits affect the success and impact of the business?

And what do you advise entrepreneurs if an idea doesn’t work out?

Failure is part of the process. What’s important is to be active, to try out ideas and to go ahead and set up your business. For most people it doesn’t work straight off. What you need to do then is to reflect, move forward and keep your eyes peeled for the next opportunity.

BFH Day 2022 «Entrepreneurial BFH – future-ready!»

BFH Day will take place in Bern on 2 November 2022. An exciting programme awaits, with entrepreneurs from BFH and the opportunity to meet stakeholders from the worlds of politics, business, society and education. Register here.

Entrepreneurship Office: promoting businesses

BFH opened its new Entrepreneurship Office on 1 August 2022 as part of the «Entrepreneurial University» initiative. «The role of the office is to encourage entrepreneurship and make its social relevance visible,» says Lorenz Probst, co-head of the Entrepreneurship Office, a role he shares with Christine Geissbühler. The goal is to see more entrepreneurs, start-ups and spin-offs emerge from the ranks of BFH and to see entrepreneurship become more sustainable, social and female. «We want the insight from our research and innovation to feed into new businesses and benefit society even more,» Christine Geissbühler explains.

The task of the two heads is primarily to coordinate and link entrepreneurial activities taking place in the eight schools so that existing experience – whether in teaching or research – is available to all. In concrete terms, this means, for example, that Christine Geissbühler and Lorenz Probst bring together students and staff from the School of Engineering and Computer Science with others from the Department of Health Professions and with food specialists from the School of Agricultural, Forest and Food Sciences (HAFL) so that they can work on shared ideas and develop business models which, ideally, will result in the creation of a start-up.

Christine Geissbühler and Lorenz Probst are both working as lecturers with management responsibilities at HAFL. They have wide-ranging experience of promoting entrepreneurship and innovation.


Porträt von Lorenz Probst
Lorenz Probst, co-head of the Entrepreneurship Office
Porträt von Christine Geissbühler
Christine Geissbühler, co-head of the Entrepreneurship Office