From the watchmaking crisis to Neuchâtel's Microcity innovation hub

Nico de Rooij, the Dutch professor with Neuchâtel in his DNA, saw it all.

Nico de Rooij, an iconic figure in microtechnology and its boom in the canton of Neuchâtel, is currently retired. He was one of the first four professors taken on by the Institute of Microtechnology (IMT), and in his view, Neuchâtel has the world’s highest concentration of microtechnology stakeholders. His experiences serve as a reminder of an achievement brought about by the canton’s flexible approach and ability to reinvent itself.

Back in the 1970s, the canton helped to create the quartz watch, but did not benefit from the consequences of this revolutionary development. The Jura arc region felt the full impact of the innovation - manufactured in Japan and in the USA - as mechanical watch manufacturers were left behind. At the peak of the watchmaking crisis, an initiative by the canton led to the opening of the Institute of Microtechnology (IMT), then part of the University of Neuchâtel (UniNE). The first research chair was set up in the field of electronics, a position held by Professor Fausto Pellandini. He was followed by Professor René Dändliker in the field of optics, and Professor Arvind Shah in photovoltaics. Nico de Rooij arrived in Neuchâtel in 1982 to take the chair of miniaturised sensors and actuators. The world of microtechnology gradually became established in the region. In 1978, a first agreement with EPFL resulted in a single study plan being produced to train engineers in microtechnology. In 1989, the four IMT professors were appointed part-time professors at EPFL’s new microtechnology department; a joint microtechnology laboratory (LMT) was opened in Neuchâtel.

In 1999, an agreement was signed with CSEM to fund a research programme, offered and delivered by IMT. For IMT, the affiliation with EPFL appeared to be the most effective way of putting microtechnology training, research and technology transfer on a durable footing and of increasing its federal funding.  IMT was incorporated into EPFL in 2009, giving rise to EPFL’s very first satellite institute. The canton agreed to fund a new building to host EPFL’s satellite in Neuchâtel, which quickly went from having four chairs to 12.

For Nico de Rooij, incorporating IMT into EPFL was the right choice. Ever since, cooperation between the EPFL’s Neuchâtel satellite institute and CSEM has intensified, with some professors holding EPFL-CSEM dual appointments. And for IMT, the recognition brought by an institution such as EPFL boosted a region that is highly skilled but often reluctant to speak about its success. From a small group of just 30 people at IMT in the early 1980s, there are now hundreds of researchers, professors and students working in the Microcity district today.

With the new generation of connected scientists from the Microcity innovation hub, research into “advanced manufacturing”, and the creation of the micro-manufacturing research centre (M2C), Nico de Rooij is convinced that innovation in the canton of Neuchâtel will bring the region global acclaim.

Written by Victoria Barras

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