“.. founding a startup with fellow UNITECHers seems to be a somewhat common occurrence..”

12 Apr 2017 in Alumni by Mireia Hernández Navarro

“.. founding a startup with fellow UNITECHers seems to be a somewhat common occurrence..”

Why not? We founded a cloud storage startup together: Wuala, which was later acquired by the French company LaCie.

“UNITECH is a great way to meet ambitious, competent, and like-minded students. During my UNITECH exchange semester in 2004 in Delft, I met Dominik Grolimund with whom I later founded a secure cloud storage startup. Even though that's not the original intent behind UNITECH, founding a startup with fellow UNITECHers seems to be a somewhat common occurrence. Another example is UNITECH Alumni Manuel Aschwanden and Mark Ventura who founded the successful mobile lens technology company Optotune, which later became a UNITECH CP.” - Luzius Meisser: UNITECH Alumnus 2004

Tell us about you…

I’m Luzius Meisser, Swiss Computer Scientist from ETH and UNITECHer of 2004. I grew up in the Swiss mountains (Klosters) and I currently live in Zürich. I’ve never lived abroad apart from my UNITECH year, where I did an exchange in Delft (NL) and then lived in Hursley (UK).

When my UNITECH year was over, I joined the LCC team in Zürich for a while. From that time, I most fondly remember co-organizing two alumni-events together with fellow alumni Daniel Kägi - one of the most energetic and focused achievers I’ve ever met. Also, I’ve co-founded a cloud storage startup with another fellow UNITECH alumni, Dominik Grolimund.

A slight shift came some years after, when I undertook the co-foundation of the Bitcoin Association Switzerland, completing a second master’s degree in Economics, and deciding in pursuing a PhD in Finance (which I am currently doing). But that all does not count much in comparison to be the proud father of two children.

Together with a fellow UNITECHer, you founded a company right after your studies. How did this come about?

While I was less certain about what to do after my studies, Dominik - who lived with me in the notorious “UNITECH house” in Delft - always was adamant about never joining a large corporation and instead creating his own company which could “revolutionize the Internet”. Why not? We founded a cloud storage startup together: Wuala, which was later acquired by the French company LaCie. Dominik is now doing refind.com, a social bookmarking tool I use daily. This is already his fourth startup, making him a serial entrepreneur with an extremely impressive track record.

What were the moments where you had to make the toughest decision in your life?

Finding the right name for our startup was hard. No seriously, I feel like I never had to take any real tough decisions. I usually had to choose between multiple good options, for example regarding career choice. I don’t consider such choices tough because mistakes aren’t costly. Even in the worst case, I would probably live a good life today. That’s the luxury of modern civilization.

In what professional stage of your life are you at the moment? Where do you want to go to? What is something you are clear about your future?

At the moment I’m back at university doing the aforementioned PhD in Finance. That’s not something I would recommend to others as a career. Academia has seen an enormous growth in the past decades as politicians all over the Western World decided that it would be a good idea to give everyone a University Degree. I disagree with that and think that more practical forms of education such as the classic German apprenticeship should be promoted instead. Anyway, universities are nearing the end of their period of growth. According to UN demographic statistics, the number of potential students (age-wise, excluding Africa) has already peaked, leading to declining demand for professors in the next decade even though most universities are setup to produce an increasing number of academics. This can’t end well and is turning academic careers into an uphill battle. I’m doing the PhD out of personal interest for my particular research topic, not knowing where that will lead to. Also, life as a PhD student is nicely compatible with having a family as it allows me to spend a lot of time at home.

So what exactly is your research interest?

Like many others, I believe that modern economics is stuck in a dead end. It has reached the limits of the traditional mathematical tools. The problem with mathematical models is that they are monolithic, making them hard to scale and very computationally intense when going beyond a basic level of complexity. Instead, I’d like to try out a simulation-based approach. That way, I can also leverage my programming skills. I love programming because it allows you to create your own small worlds and to play with them. That’s a little like those people who build a model railway in their basements in their spare time - only that I’m doing it digitally. If you want to follow my research, you can check out meissereconomics.com. Ideally, I hope this to eventually have an impact on economics research, but to be honest, I’m mostly doing it because I like that kind of work. This, by the way, is something else I would not recommend for your career even though I’m doing it. Generally, it is more advisable to like what you do than to do what you like. In other words: once you accept that increases in happiness are usually of temporary nature, it is easier to change what you like than to change what makes sense to do.

What are you currently doing besides your research?

I’m also serving on the board of Bitcoin Association Switzerland, which I co-founded in 2013. This is basically a Bitcoin fan club, so we are not doing very much besides drinking beer together and promoting Bitcoin to the public in countless presentations. Despite doing not much PR, there currently is an enormous interest in Bitcoin and Blockchain, leading to many press inquiries and invitations to speak about that topic. This shows impressively how being at the right place in the right time can make a big difference, and my most economically rational career choice at the moment would probably be to work as a blockchain consultant or to join a blockchain startup. But I decided against that and to prioritize the vision described above.

Fintechs. Tell us about them.

The financial industry generally is very resilient to innovation. It is dominated by large established corporations that charge high fees for mediocre services. Fintech startups promise to bring the latest technology to the field, thereby bringing financial services into the Internet age. However, there is a big problem for Fintechs to navigate around: the financial sector is extremely densely regulated, and the amount of regulation seems to be ever increasing. For example, I’ve heard that it has become unfeasible to run an investment fund in Switzerland unless you manage at least 100 million in client funds, earning you barely enough to cover the regulatory and legal costs.

Another symptom is that there are fewer and fewer publicly listed companies. Today that number stands at about 6000 in the US. In the 90ies, there were 9000 publicly listed companies so the very regulation that aimed at protecting small investors by imposing more and more rules on companies actually worsened the situation for the small investors as companies like Uber or Facebook postpone their IPOs for as long as possible in order to avoid that regulation. So what inhibits innovation here and allows your credit card companies to still charge you an outrageous 2% on foreign currency transactions is a lack of competition due to high fixed costs cost by over-regulation.

Fintechs can alleviate this a little by either handling the red tape more efficiently, or by circumventing the burdensome rules altogether like Bitcoin does. Fortunately, the Swiss and other governments are slowly waking up and are planning to reduce regulation again in order to allow for more innovation.

In that context, I was recently interviewed by the producer of The Bitcoin Association in Switzerland (see Link), a documentary about Fintech in Switzerland that premiers on November 16th.

The complete interview with is already available online. I encourage you to check it out!

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