Can innovation be learned? How a CEO and a conductor turned disaster into opportunity

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic transformed the way we work, play and communicate. However, it's at times like these that we see some of the most brilliant examples of innovation, particularly by entrepreneurs or small and medium-sized enterprises.

Can innovation be learned? How a CEO and a conductor turned disaster into opportunity
Pic: Rutger Verhoef
As we’ve all seen on social media, many people have used lockdowns and time working at home to create, innovate, and learn new skills. Some have performed concerts in their living room, while others have started businesses delivering groceries and other essential goods.
The Local has teamed up with GetSmarter, which provides online education courses in collaboration with leading universities such as the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), to take a closer look at how innovation thrives in adversity.
Need some inspiration yourself? We spoke to two readers of The Local – the CEO of a car-leasing company and an orchestra conductor – about the bold ideas that have allowed them to adapt. 
Driving a deal (no matter what)
Rutger Verhoef saw the writing on the wall as reports of the seriousness of coronavirus became more prevalent last year. As the CEO of car-leasing firm Gowago, based in Switzerland, he knew business could stall. Once it was clear that it would be difficult for customers to access car dealerships due to public health restrictions, he and his company quickly shifted into gear. 
Firstly, they established a cross-departmental taskforce to look for solutions. “Here, we highlighted all the problems we saw and could foresee, prioritized the biggest ones and started brainstorming,” says Verhoef. “We saw that doing the whole process online, including home delivery and automating the process were very important.”
Through clever use of commerce platforms, automation and networking, Verhoef and his team adapted to ensure “a customer can get a car without ever having to leave their house”. The CEO says this makes things much easier for customers by removing “complex processes and difficult face-to-face meetings with dealers”. “It also allows customers to get great deals at dealerships far away from their home,” he adds. 
Photo: John Axelrod
This pivot to digital has paid huge dividends. “Due to our transformation, we had a 60 percent month-over-month car sale growth on average last year since May. In terms of dealership growth, we had a 200 percent increase of dealer sign-ups over the course of the year, in comparison to what we had before the pandemic started.” 
It’s the skills required to make these sorts of snap decisions in the face of challenges – the ability to be flexible, resilient and think in a lateral manner – that LSE prioritizes in its Competitive Strategy and Innovation online certificate course, delivered in collaboration with GetSmarter. On the course, you’ll learn how to develop strategies to deal with sudden challenges on the macro and micro scale, an essential tool in the ever-changing 21st century. 
The music maestro who says the show must go on 
It’s not just small or medium enterprises that are innovating and turning adversity into an opportunity. American conductor John Axelrod, who divides his time between Switzerland, Italy and France, has devised ways to continue entertaining audiences and nurture the next generation of musicians. 
“I realized I’d be without music when cancellations started lining up from March 2020,” says Axelrod. “I realized I had to be more innovative when faced not only with lost revenue but also a loss of contact with others. As a conductor, we are dependent on an orchestra of musicians. In short, musicians play the instruments, and the conductors play the musicians. Without musicians, the rest is silence.
“However, study is a constant activity. Having a mentor to master the technique and repertoire not only helped my career, but I understood I could share my experience and help others during these turbulent times.”  
After starting Conductors Masterclass, in which he tutors upcoming orchestral conductors online, he quickly gained over 25 students from around the world. “Thanks to wifi, Skype and Zoom, I am again with musicians and reconnecting with more people than I did during my busy touring life,” he reflects. 
This is not Axelrod’s only innovation. Stuck at home during the pandemic, he knew he had more to give. 
“With the coronavirus closures, I was not only confined to my home in Chardonne, but I also immediately recognized the need to support my community and contribute to the local economy and tourism of my resident city,” he says. “Chardonne already has the benefit of an award-winning chef, Mathieu Bruno of Là Haut, and outstanding wines. What was missing was music at the highest level. 
“Drawing on my relationships, and with support from Chardonne and the Society of Development for Chardonne-Mt.Pélerin, I was able to establish the Concerts Culinaires de Chardonne. We successfully premiered our first event on September 26, 2020.”
These concerts, staged with a strict seating limit, and within pandemic guidelines, have allowed discerning customers to enjoy fantastic music and food, while providing much-needed work for musicians and chefs in the Chardonne region. 
So, has his inventive approach to the crisis led to increased attention and revenue? “I actually have received more views, likes and comments leading to increased inquiries and purchases,” he says. “The visibility and sales have generated new business revenue that I otherwise would not have experienced, including more economic activity in Switzerland.
“Following the Mozartian principle to turn a necessity into a virtue, I found new ways to express my entrepreneurial interests, allowing my motto to remain meaningful:  Eat, Drink and Be Musical!”


Why ETH Zurich has been ranked the ‘best university in continental Europe’

A new international survey of universities has ranked Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETH) the highest in the world outside the US and the UK. How does this school excel?

Why ETH Zurich has been ranked the 'best university in continental Europe'
ETH's main hall. Photo by

The Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings 2022 have placed ETH in the 15th place (out of 1,600 surveyed worldwide). The school dropped from the 14th-place ranking the previous year.

Universities in the United Kingdom and the United States hold all of the top rankings ahead of ETH Zurich.

But as the top 14 are not in continental Europe, this means ETH has the unofficial title of the of best in Europe.

What is ETH and what does it do?

It is a public research university focusing exclusively on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

It has a “sister” school located in Lausanne, the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), which specialises in natural sciences and engineering. 

The EPFL ranked in the 40th place in the survey.

Why has ETH scored so high in the study?

“Our strategy is derived from our federal mandate to conduct fundamental research, train specialists and transfer new knowledge to the economy and society,” said ETH President Joël Mesot.

University ranking methodology is based on scores for high-​level indicators relating to teaching, research, international perspective, and collaboration with industry.

“ETH’s overall scores show improvement in teaching, research, and publication citations”, the university’s rankings expert Paul Cross said.

However, it dropped slightly in terms of industry income and international outlook.

“Competition is fierce at the top tier of the rankings”, Cross noted. 

Here are some interesting facts about ETH:

  • It was founded in 1855 by the Swiss government to train engineers and scientists.
  • Today 18,000 students from over 100 different countries study at ETZ, 3,800 of whom are doctoral students.
  • So far, 21 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to researchers who have or had a connection with ETH Zurich.
  • While tuition in the top-ranking schools in the UK — Oxford and Cambridge — costs well over 10,000 francs each year, and in the in the US universities, such as Yale, Harvard, Stanford and Caltech, the annual tuition exceeds 50,000 a year, at ETH it is 1,460 francs.

In all, Switzerland is home to seven of the world’s top universities. Aside from ETH and EPFL, they are University of Zurich (75th place), University of Bern (101st), Universities of Basel and Geneva (103rd), University of Lausanne (176th).

Complete ranking can be seen here.

READ MORE: Why Switzerland leads the world in innovation (Partner content)