The sky’s the limit for engineers

Martin Bosshardt: ’Discussing technical developments with ETH computer sci

Martin Bosshardt: ’Discussing technical developments with ETH computer scientists gives us an idea of where technology might be heading over the next few years.’ (Photo: Daniel Winkler)

Changing the world with the power of ideas - that’s what Martin Bosshardt finds so fascinating about being an engineer. And no matter which industry he works in, he always draws on what he learnt at ETH.

Some moments in life are so special that we never forget them. Martin Bosshardt vividly recalls the time he spent in Japan as an ETH student working on his Master’s thesis. In this context his team had set the goal of building an atomic microscope. "Constructing a device that could make individual atoms visible was something that had only recently become possible, so it was a truly groundbreaking project," he says.

The team faced challenges on multiple levels. In addition to needing lots of knowledge of physics and electrical engineering for the hardware side, the developers also required sophisticated software to control the machine and analyse the data. Whenever it was night in Zurich, the team used a mainframe computer at ETH to produce an image of the results. Bosshardt still recalls the magical moment when they saw the first atom. "It felt amazing, like landing on the moon," he says with a smile.

Many other special moments would come over the course of his career. Fresh out of university, he was employed as a commissioning engineer by the company ABB and put to work on getting a combined cycle power plant up and running in Malaysia. He also worked as I&C lead engineer on a similar site later in Indonesia. "We had 3,500 people on site, everyone focused on their own specific task," he explains. "It was fascinating to see how so many specialists could work together. Nobody really understood the entire plant in all its complexity, yet we managed to bring it on grid right on time," recalls Bosshardt. He also recalls one occasion when engineers at the Baden headquarters sent enhanced control data that boosted the plant’s output by seven megawatts overnight. That was when he realised just how powerful software and networks could be.

A sudden turning point

This was one of the reasons that prompted him to leave ABB and join the web agency Futurecom. It was here that he experienced the first major boom of the internet age: "Our headcount rocketed from 20 to 120 employees in just four years." But the bursting of the dot com bubble turned everything on its head. "A lot of companies went under, but we actually came out of the crisis stronger," recalls Bosshardt with understandable pride. They stayed afloat by rethinking the business on every level and becoming more than just a supplier. "We had to learn how to identify business cases and sell products," he says.

Open Systems, a company founded by fellow ETH student Florian Gutzwiler, was also hit hard by the crisis. Gutzwiler hired Bosshardt as his new CEO to navigate the company through this period of upheaval. When the storm hit, Open Systems had been developing internet security services for banks, but this business model quickly collapsed. The company needed a new focus, so it switched from protecting portals for banks to protecting and building secure networks for industrial enterprises. Today, it offers a powerful network solution that enables companies to carry out distributed manufacturing across multiple sites. Some 3.5 million end users rely on its services.

Secure data transmission is a key part of Open Systems’ business. That’s why the company was keen to become a partner to the-Zurich Information Security and Privacy Center (ZISC) at ETH Zurich and provide it with financial support with the help of the ETH Foundation. "ETH is a hugely important partner for our business - and not only when it comes to recruiting new staff," says Bosshardt. "Discussing technical developments with ETH computer scientists is equally important because it gives us a better idea of where technology might be heading over the next few years."

A passion for technology

Bosshardt took an interest in technology from an early age. By the time he reached secondary school, one of his favourite hobbies was taking apart and reassembling electrical devices. He has never regretted his decision to study electrical engineering. "I can see now what a fantastic education I got at ETH," he says. "As a student, I often felt I was having to learn things I would never need in the future. And I imagine many of today’s students feel the same. But once I started my career, I realised how wrong I was!" He recalls how ETH taught him to break things down into their basic elements: "We learnt the principles of how to analyse problems systematically and find pragmatic solutions." Even today, Bosshardt is impressed by the speed with which ETH graduates learn the ropes when they take on something new.

Bosshardt finds it remarkable how many successful companies are run by engineers. "Even though an engineering degree doesn’t really teach you how to manage a company," he says. In his opinion, people shouldn’t only be hearing about the great technologies developed at ETH: "It’s amazing how many ETH graduates are using what they’ve learnt to lead large companies and make the world a better place."

Thinking ahead

Bosshardt has recently taken a step back from day-to-day business at Open Systems and joined the Board of Directors. He is now focusing some of his energies on his role as Chairman of the Board at Westhive, a company that offers shared workspaces. "I’m confident we’ll see an increasing demand for flexible office solutions," he says. But success relies on more than just flexibility. At Open Systems, Bosshardt discovered that people need to feel happy and satisfied with their job in order to produce good results. That means having meaningful tasks and being able to communicate honestly and openly with managers on equal terms. But it also means having a space where people enjoy working. "We are hugely affected by the environment we work in," says Bosshardt. "It’s difficult to think big in a small space!"

Right now, Westhive is growing fast and planning new locations in other cities. Its users include not only start-ups and one-person businesses, but also larger companies looking for an inspiring city location to base their development team or additional space closer to their customers. "This is a sign of just how much the world of work is changing," says Bosshardt of the current boom in these kinds of services. "The coronavirus crisis has shown us how easy it is for people in different locations to work together. At the same time, we’re learning to appreciate the importance of direct physical interaction in a stimulating environment." He also argues that companies are now realising how much money they can save by adopting flexible solutions.

Although the marketing of co-working spaces and the provision of secure network solutions may appear to have little in common, Bosshardt says he has found a surprising number of parallels between the two industries. Both involve finding solutions that help people collaborate more productively, and both are about making complex things simpler and managing capacity effectively. "The two companies actually have very similar business plans," he says. "They both offer a service that wouldn’t really have been seen as a commercially viable business in the past."

Mountain retreat

We finish off by talking to Bosshardt about his latest project: an old mountain lodge near Savognin. He and his wife Daniela are having the lodge renovated and are planning to reopen it in December. He has spent many holidays in this region over the years, so the choice of location was no coincidence. "I love being in the mountains, far from civilisation, and seeing the stars twinkling in the clear night sky - that’s when I can really relax and connect with nature," he says, scrolling through a series of photos on his phone. "If you’re constantly pushing yourself to the limit, it’s important to slow things down and feel the earth beneath your feet. We want to ’create a space in the mountains that helps people do exactly that."

This text has been published in the 20/04 issue of the Globe magazine.

About

After completing his degree in electrical engineering at ETH Zurich, Martin Bosshardt worked in ABB’s international power plant business before taking on a management role at Futurecom Interactive AG. He joined Open Systems in 2001. The company grew considerably under his leadership as CEO and now provides secure network solutions in over 180 countries. In 2020, Bosshardt joined the Board of Directors at Open Systems and was also appointed Chairman of the Board at Westhive, a company that offers flexible office solutions and co-working spaces. A married father of two sons, Bosshardt enjoys making electronic music in his free time.

Felix Würsten

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