Why did you decide to set up a company?
It wasn’t my lifelong dream to become an entrepreneur, but I was fortunate to be able to base my doctoral thesis around the very practically-oriented “Basel-Landschaft 21 Regional Water Supply” project. The spin-off offered a huge opportunity to continue this exciting work and to remain in this particular field. I am very confident of the potential that our method holds, both from a substantive as well as a business perspective. For example, by deploying automated flow cytometry in the water supply sector, we are doing something worthwhile, which is important to me in my work.
Are the tills already ringing?
We started in March. I haven’t actually paid myself any salary yet, just to safeguard the liquidity of the new company. But the first orders are beginning to come in now, and I will at least be able to earn what I did when I was working on my thesis. We are already planning to take someone else on, and by the end of the year at the latest, I should be earning a post-doc-level salary. The support given to us by Eawag is invaluable, of course. A well-equipped laboratory and the use of expensive equipment would barely be affordable for a start-up company otherwise.
And now? Are you waiting for the best take-over bid, or are you afraid that someone else will copy your idea?
No, certainly not, but we are of course looking for partnerships, and we’re keeping an open mind. But anyway, we will only be an attractive takeover proposition if we are doing our work well. In spite of having registered patents, our technology can nevertheless be imitated. However, we see our strengths as being our all-round competence. This will allow us to offer a very different service to our clients, and to advise them on where the use of our equipment can create real added value. That is clearly much more difficult to copy. Apart from that, we are also working on further developments and new ideas that we want to implement as quickly as possible – not least thanks to our close connection to research.
Have there been any crises on the road to developing the company?
Last year I worked extremely hard, and very long hours. At the same time as finishing my thesis and the extensive project report, I was also working on the formalities and preparations for the spin-off. For six months over the summer I was working seven days a week, and family and friends were very much neglected. But the results have been very rewarding from a research point of view as well as on the business side. These successes have only been possible with the fantastic support from mentors and colleagues, and indeed from Eawag as an institution, as well as from my family and friends.
What advice do you have for other researchers with a start-up idea?
Find partners who will help you as well as act as critical sparring partners. Going it alone doesn’t work, which will already be very clear to anyone involved in research, actually. In contrast to research though, a good technological idea doesn’t necessarily always make it in the market. That is why support from organizations such as the KTI Start-up Coaching are so helpful. To avoid nasty surprises, the potential can and should be well explored beforehand. Admittedly, there comes a point when you have to make that leap of faith – when first setting up, as well as repeatedly thereafter. I think, also, that one shouldn’t work for nothing or for rock-bottom wages for an extended period of time. If the company is not generating a reasonable salary, then it won’t last long anyway.