Mr Schöbi, we're seeing a boom in start-ups. Does that mean there are also more pioneers around?
I do hope so. Because right across the world, we've never before faced such major, pressing challenges. But not all entrepreneurs are pioneers. We're on the lookout for changemakers who want to change society with trailblazing ideas.
You've injected 100 million francs into 100 pioneering projects over the past nine years. Has that money been well invested?
Investing in society is always a good idea, as Migros founder Gottlieb Duttweiler knew well. Our investments have built-in sustainability; they are meant to help society address challenging matters and bring about change for the better. Take for example our latest project - Thingsy: The aim is to increase the life of electrical appliances. Like many of our other projects, Thingsy isn't about securing a quick return on investment, it's about benefiting society in the long term.
How do you come across these ideas?
They don't turn up all by themselves , we specifically track them down. We have eight scouts who spend every day on the lookout for pioneers in areas such as the circular economy, mobility or technology & ethics.
How does the Migros Pioneer Fund identify the «right» pioneering projects?
We have defined clear areas to scout out – objectives that we think are especially important for planet and society. There's how to decarbonise our atmosphere, how to encourage active involvement in democratic processes, or how digitalisation can solve some of society's most pressing concerns. We mostly start with ideas where we say: «That quite simply needs doing.» That then kicks off a lengthy process of examining and planning a venture, during which we also put the pioneers through their paces.
Good projects are the work of a team. And the team needs to function effectively to achieve its goals in the face of problems and changes.
Stefan Schöbi Head of the Pioneer Fund
How much money do pioneers get from Migros?
On average, we support projects for three and a half years. The funding that each project receives ranges from a few hundred thousand to several million francs.
Your team works with the pioneering projects for between three and five years. How does the coaching you provide differ from traditional programmes and platforms for young entrepreneurs?
Our projects aren't start-ups in the traditional sense. The business plan does matter, but the impact that the pioneers want to have on society is just as important; they want to change attitudes. They will only succeed if the two go hand in hand.
About the Migros Pioneer Fund
The Migros Pioneer Fund was established in 2012 to enable and support innovations for social progress. The fund is part of the Migros Group's social engagement, which also includes the Migros Culture Percentage. It is backed by Migros companies Denner, Migros-Bank, Migrol and migrolino and has an annual budget of around 15 million francs. The Migros Pioneer Fund reached a milestone in mid-September 2021: It has now enabled 100 projects and invested a total of 100 million francs.
What happens if an idea fails?
That does occur – albeit rarely. You can't implement ambitious, visionary ideas without things sometimes going awry. The important thing is that you learn from those mistakes.
What kind of mistakes happen?
All sorts. You might have misjudged customer requirements, or become ensnared by technical minutiae. Sometimes projects also fail if the market moves on or if another competitor arrives on the scene. But the human factor is the most important thing.
Is that because pioneers often behave like divas?
Yes, they do sometimes dig their heels in. They have to be like that if they are going to achieve their ambitious goals. But mostly they aren't acting alone. Good projects are the work of a team. And the team needs to function effectively to achieve its goals in the face of problems and changes.
How important is dialogue between the pioneers you fund?
It's massive! Pioneers from projects past and present come together in a lively network for sharing ideas, whether about their own subject areas or beyond. The community is the key to giving a project even more stability and making it capable of learning.
We have defined clear areas to scout out – objectives that we think are especially important for planet and society.
Stefan Schöbi Head of the Pioneer Fund
What advice do you have for pioneers in search of success?
Be courageous but meticulous in following up your ideas. To celebrate reaching our milestone we are publishing a manual with handy tips and tools, a kind of summary of everything we have learnt over 100 projects. «From 0 to 100 – ideas becoming a reality» will be regularly updated as part of an open process and in dialogue with the pioneers themselves.
You've helped 100 pioneering projects get off the ground. What have your moments of success been?
Almost every project will experience challenging crises. Our biggest success is when these are overcome and a project experiences the breakthrough. For instance, when Stop Hate Speech suddenly discovers its algorithm for identifying hate speech is working. When Twiliner finds its overnight sleeper coach has made it into the media and is attracting customers. Or when revenue for sustainable, regionally made fashion from Laufmeter starts to rise, bringing the break-even point closer.
What have you personally learnt over these past nine years?
Above all that I'll have never finished learning. If you genuinely want to change things you'll learn from other people every day and won't take yourself too seriously.
Going forward, what size will your budget be?
That will depend on the fortunes of the Migros subsidiaries over the coming years. Our budget comes from dividends from Denner, Migros-Bank, migrolino and Migrol. At the moment it's 15 million francs annually.
Where will you be investing next?
In at least the next 100 pioneering projects (he says with a laugh). We will keep monitoring social change, adding to our priority topics and fine-tuning our project scouting.
Stefan Schöbi (born 1977) has been responsible for the Migros Pioneer Fund since it was founded in 2012. Prior to that, he was Head of University Marketing at Zurich University of the Arts. He has a doctorate in German literature and a master’s degree in business administration.
Photos: Jasmin Frei