'Deep tech' entrepreneurs share their Swiss start-up journeys

Swiss universities are rolling out numerous "Deep Tech" spin-off companies that are taking research from the lab to the commercial arena. Manuel Stagars

Although Switzerland is championed as a world leader at innovation, it is less celebrated for its start-up culture. Does the country have what it takes to produce, finance and nurture the technology of the future? A new documentary explores that question.

This content was published on July 12, 2020 - 11:00
swissinfo.ch

In his three-part miniseries Start-Up, set to be released on July 16, director Manuel Stagars follows several Switzerland-based entrepreneurs as they attempt to convert their cutting-edge “Deep Tech” innovations from laboratory research into viable Swiss businesses.

Along the journey, Stagars is introduced to concepts such as intelligent drones, neuromorphic chips and 3D silicone printing. He asks the brains behind these projects how they made the leap from science to business, what it takes to be an entrepreneur and what Switzerland does (or doesn’t) do to foster start-ups.

Getting started

“I often draw a parallel between entrepreneurship and sport,” says Michele Puddu, CEO of Haelixa – a company that creates DNA-inspired markers to prove the authenticity of goods as they travel from production site to the consumer. “They can both be extremely rewarding and enjoyable, but at the same time require discipline, a constant level of commitment, the acceptance of fear or failure – and both can have a very positive social impact.”

Fabio Oldenburg and Elian Pusceddu decided at a New Year’s Eve party to create a new generation of battery membranes, making storage of renewable energy more efficient.  But when the champagne corks stopped popping, they had to face up to the realities, and risks, of founding the Gaia Membranes company from scratch.

“At the beginning I thought we could do everything – build a whole manufacturing site in Switzerland, develop this technology for all kinds of battery applications, capture the biggest market share and call out a revolution of energy storage,” says Oldenburg. “I am now a bit more realistic about what challenges make sense for us to take on and which are better outsourced to industrial partners.”

From university to market

Most of the start-ups featured in the documentary began as research projects in Swiss universities. The ETH Domain, which includes two federal institutes of technology and four research centres, has seen more than 750 companies spin off from its laboratories since 1973.

Many of the entrepreneurs featured in Start-Up said that world-class standards of research and education – plus support for young firms from educational institutes, the government and start-up accelerator programmes – make Switzerland an excellent location for start-ups.

But there are also some challenges to starting a business in Switzerland. There appears to be no shortage of investors willing to support companies that are just starting out, but access to larger investments (CHF10 million and above) is far more restricted.

“It’s going to be difficult getting rid of the ‘start-up’ label,” says Ning Qiao, CEO of Synsense, which makes biomorphic chips that seek to mimic the human brain. “The ticket size for investments is very small – less than CHF1 million. Once you ask for more than that, it’s very difficult.”

Scaling up

The small size of the Swiss market is also a constraint on growth, forcing some of the featured start-ups to contemplate scaling up in larger countries. This includes the PET plastic recycling company DePoly.

“There’s just not enough plastic in Switzerland for us to use, so we will probably have to leave Switzerland relatively fast,” says CEO Samantha Anderson. “PET plastic is what runs our company, so we need to make sure we are where the feedstock is. It can be here for a little bit, but at some point it’s going to have to be elsewhere.”

Reasons for launching

And what motivates these entrepreneurs? For some, it’s the appeal of turning their years of research into a practical application.

“Money is not the main reason that I do this,” says Timo Müller, CTO of drone-maker Voliro. “For me it would be super cool if we can see the technology from the labs making its way into a product that gets used in the field.”

Others spied a gap in the market. Spectroplast co-founder Manuel Schaffner was inspired to create 3D silicone printers, which produce prosthetics and parts for the medical, watch and automotive industries, because he could not find a reliable 3D printer for his research.

For the team behind DePoly, the lack of movement from other companies on the issue of plastics recycling provided an opportunity. “There is a really big issue of plastic in the world and a lot of companies out there that say they are going to do something but don’t,” says Anderson. “We thought: ‘If they aren’t going to do it fast enough, then let’s do it first’”.

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