Nano solar and other world-changing Swiss tech

Image of the human cornea using software from Bitplane, an ETH spinoff with a "world changing" technology. Bitplane

Swiss research and development figures prominently in a recent report on "ten emerging technologies that will change the world", published in the American MIT's popular Technology Review.

This content was published on March 23, 2003 - 17:40

Mechatronics, nano solar cells, and quantum cryptography are the areas where Switzerland's leading edge is cited.

Each year, the journal tries to identify new technologies that "could transform industries that are fundamental to daily life", including computing, medicine, manufacturing, transportation and energy.

It is an influential publication, read "assiduously" by "inventors and their bankrollers", according to the Chicago Sun Times. But not all agree that it is practical guide.

A venture capital investor told the paper that although he is a "fan" he believes the magazine is "not immediately useful for making investment because the technologies are too far in the future".

He might be surprised that the predictions are not as far out as he thinks. Swiss Venture found several startups with products on the market already, as well as other pioneering research teams who are taking things to the next level.

Quantum Cryptography

Transmitting information in such a way that any effort to eavesdrop will be detectable. "The world runs on secrets," writes TR.

It goes on to say that Nicolas Gisin, of the University of Geneva, is "in the vanguard" of secure electronic communications with his quantum cryptography system. TR speculates that the technology could be a step closer to quantum computing.

Gisin's company, id Quantique, is selling three products and working on more.


The integration of familiar mechanical systems with new electronic components and intelligent-software control.

The article cites Lino Guzzella at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH) as being a leading light in using mechatronics in process engineering.

The same group is doing work on pupil tracking, an important technology for robotics and "wearable" computing applications.

Xitact SA is exploiting mechatronics in tools for surgeons and Mecanex SA has been doing mechatronics projects for years.

The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) offers hands-on courses and the Institute of Mechatronic Systems of the University of Applied Science in Winterthur, has a number interesting projects ready for commercialization, from "smart" parking systems to ultra-precise robotic arms.

Nano Solar Cells

Photovoltaic material that can be spread like plastic wrap or paint. The article cites Michael Grätzel of the EPFL and his work in nanocrystalline dye-sensitized solar cells.

Licensees include GreatCell Solar in Yverdon Les Bain and Konarka in the US. Others Swiss firms that are commercializing competing thin film processes, are VHF Technologies and Unaxis Solar, both based in Neuchatel.

Wireless Sensor Networks

Short range radio links among numerous distributed intelligent agents.

"It is a future pervaded by networks of wireless battery-powered sensors that monitor our environment, our machines, and even us," writes TR. IP01 SA has just launched its first product exploiting wireless sensor networks applied to the "cold chain" market.

ABB division is selling such networks to customers to monitor plant processes.

Injectable Tissue Engineering

Lab-grown alternatives to transplanted organs and tissues. A number of firms in Schlieren are active in the field: Degradable Solutions is an ETH spinoff, founded in 1999 and Millenium Biologix are leaders.

Nisco Engineering sells equipment for tissue engineering. Researchers to watch include, Michael Heberer, Kantonsspital Basel and Dr Ursula Graf Hausner at the Zurich Hochschule who is working on quality control methods.

Grid Computing

A future in which the location of computational resources doesn't really matter. The Swiss Center for Scientific Computing has developed in partnership with Sun Microsystems a test toolkit for grid computing.

The EPFL's Centre for Advanced and Parallel Applications is running supercomputing projects with industry. CERN in Geneva is an early adopter.

Molecular Imaging

A number of techniques that let researchers look at genes, proteins, and other molecules at work in the body. For the past 8 years, Bitplane, a spinoff of the ETH, makes visualization software that lets researchers look at things like neurons and plant cell walls.

Nanoimprint Lithography

How to etch nano-sized patterns into silicon or other materials to enable future generations of high-performance microchips.

Research groups are located at the Institute of Quantum Photonics and Electronics at EPFL and Paul Scherrer Institute's nano lab where a team has had some success in making masters.


New drugs based on sugars that could have an impact on health problems ranging from rheumatoid arthritis to the spread of cancer cells.

The ETH will be home to a pioneer in gylcomics as of this year when Professor Peter Seeberger comes to participate in the "Zurich Glycomic Initiative".

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