Sports fans around the world watched the New England Patriots battle their way to victory in the 2019 Super Bowl, the most prestigious event in the US sporting calendar. New England is synonymous with excellence, not just in sports, but also in science and industry. The Boston region has the highest concentration of leading universities in the world. Some 60 universities and research institutes are based here, of which Harvard and MIT are merely the best-known examples. The region also boasts a thriving high-tech industry.
A foothold in the Mecca of innovation
Patrick Anquetil has been president of the New England Chapter of the ETH Alumni Association in this innovation hotspot since 2016. The 44-year-old son of a French father and German mother is a graduate of ETH, MIT and Harvard, and a medtech entrepreneur. In many ways he is the perfect embodiment of what ETH empowers its graduates to aspire to: a career unfettered by boundaries and driven by curiosity. Anquetil, who calls himself an “avowed fan of ETH”, is passionately committed to the alumni network. As a mechanical engineering student who left France to come to Zurich, he felt very much at home at ETH. “The singular education I received here and the contacts I made during my studies had a formative influence on the path I subsequently followed. My commitment to the alumni network is my way of giving something back to ETH.”
The New England Chapter of the Alumni Association was founded in 2010 and currently has around 300 members, making it one of the biggest chapters outside Switzerland. “An ETH connection between Zurich and New England was long overdue, especially as a means of supporting the university’s search for new talent,” says Anquetil.
A sense of community from day one
A second incentive for founding the chapter was the huge store of knowledge held by ETH alumni. “We are responsible for reality-checking research and teaching. Our hope is that the questions and problem-solving strategies that ETH graduates encounter in their daily work will be incorporated in ETH curricula.” Non-technical experience is also important to create the kind of “social glue” that has made universities such as Harvard and MIT the envy of the world.
Does Patrick Anquetil know the secret to achieving that? “Well, they manage to forge an incredibly strong bond within the community from the very first day of the course.” Students at Harvard Business School are instilled with such a strong sense of camaraderie “that they will literally leave everything hanging if someone from the network contacts them”. These universities have placed a major emphasis on nurturing ties with their alumni. “That’s also connected to their search for financial support, however,” says Anquetil. “Most of the top universities are organised under private law and are dependent on the goodwill of private individuals – which in many cases means their alumni.”
The best kept secret
Viewing ETH study programmes as singular products that provide the key to success is a message that Anquetil emphasises time and again. He argues that anyone with in-depth knowledge of universities soon realises that “ETH offers a premium class education at a ridiculously low price!” He insists that people’s awareness of ETH is still lower than it should be, based on the university’s outstanding reputation for research: “ETH may well be the best kept secret in the world of higher education.”
So what are Boston alumni doing to change that? Firstly, they are making networking more systematic. “The links to ETH and between the chapters themselves have been restructured over the past few years to make it faster and more efficient for ETH alumni to communicate with each other,” says Anquetil. If an ETH alumnus arrives in Boston from Tokyo, he immediately has a point of contact and can start networking.
Secondly, the network serves as a platform to nurture people’s passion for research and technology – a platform that all ETH alumni share and carry over into their own sphere of activity. “Thirdly, the alumni regard themselves as ambassadors of ETH Zurich and of Switzerland as a centre of knowledge. That’s a great opportunity for ETH, particularly here in Boston.” An ideal hub for this activity is Swissnex, the Swiss network for industry and research situated close to Harvard and MIT.
Anquetil notes that the most popular events are those held when the ETH President visits the chapter. So what will he be asking Joël Mesot if he gets the chance to meet him? “The most important question would probably be how ETH is aiming to develop solutions not just for the problems facing Switzerland, but also for major worldwide challenges such as climate change, food security and global population. And, above all, how can we support ETH in that task in our role as alumni? We’re looking forward to playing our part in finding solutions.”