NUONEX – A new start-up with roots at the SNISNI INSight May 2019, Success Stories
Thomas Stohler and Silvan Häfeli founded their start-up, NUONEX, in March 2019. The two young entrepreneurs plan to launch a device known as the CryoWriter, which allows optimum sample preparation for cryo-electron microscopy. The CryoWriter was developed over many years at the laboratory of Dr. Thomas Braun, a member of the research group led by Professor Henning Stahlberg (C-CINA, Biozentrum, University of Basel) and was largely funded by the Swiss Nanoscience Institute (SNI).
Adaptation to cryo-electron microscopy
Since Professor Jacques Dubochet was awarded the Nobel Prize for the development of cryo-electron microscopy (cryo-EM), everyone has been talking about this new technique. Thanks to a shock-freezing process, the atomic structures of complex proteins can be depicted and determined in precise detail within their natural environment. Cryo-electron microscopy has long been the focus of research in the group led by Professor Henning Stahlberg, who earned his doctorate under Dubochet.
As conventional sample preparation methods are not tailored to the cryo-EM technique, Dr. Thomas Braun’s team has spent a number of years adapting the sample work-up to meet the needs of cryo-EM.
Numerous students from the nanosciences degree program, as well as doctoral students from the SNI PhD School and collaborators on the Nano Argovia projects SCeNA and MiPIS, have already put a great deal of time, energy and passion into this task. They have developed a device – known as the CryoWriter – that allows tiny sample quantities (less than 100 nanoliters) to be applied to an EM grating in a fully automated process under controlled, adjustable conditions. This grating can then be immersed in liquid ethane in order to shock-freeze the sample.
Fascinated by the CryoWriter even as a student
Another person to have worked on the CryoWriter was Thomas Stohler, who joined the C-CINA team for a project as part of his nanosciences degree. “Among the students, word got around that Thomas Braun’s group does some really exciting R&D work and has a great working atmosphere,” he recalls. After completing his project on single-cell analysis using cryo-EM, Thomas Stohler also worked with the CryoWriter for his master’s thesis, where he applied it to single-cell analysis in proteomics. “I was immediately fascinated by the device’s capabilities,” says Thomas. “There are so many areas of application that, even during my master’s project, I was already thinking about founding a start-up in order to market the instrument.”
Thomas Braun supported this idea from the outset: “The CryoWriter is now at such an advanced stage that we’re able to use it on a routine basis. On the other hand, we also want to continue with its development. Ideally, we’d have a second device available for our day-to-day work. Other research groups have also shown an interest.”
From the idea to NUONEX
In order to commercialize the CryoWriter, it was necessary to grow the idea into a start-up. A significant part of this task fell to Silvan Häfeli, who was the first partner and launched the project together with Thomas Stohler. When Silvan came on board, he had just completed a master’s degree in business administration alongside his job as an engineer specializing in laboratory equipment and was therefore an ideal team partner.
“I was really attracted to the idea of co-founding a start-up, because I’d like to take on a position of responsibility,” says Silvan Häfeli in our interview. Accordingly, the team made all necessary preparations with a view to founding NUONEX in March 2019.
A thrilling and intense time
The two young entrepreneurs describe it as an exciting time. The tasks at a start-up touch on a wide range of areas, but the top priority is the product. This is vital to the survival of NUONEX: “We had to take a step back and consider not only what the CryoWriter can do, but also the needs and expectations of potential customers,” they say.
In order to develop the CryoWriter quickly and to a high standard, Thomas and Silvan decided against developing the device in-house and will instead work with professional service providers, who will assemble a perfect laboratory instrument in the shortest possible time. Having spoken to numerous companies that are interested in cooperation, they have now begun developing the device with the most appropriate partners.
At their newly established joint stock company, they are currently dealing with three main tasks: “At the moment, the main focus and the vast majority of our work lies in device development, scientific projects and customer interaction.”
Outstanding support from the university
The two young entrepreneurs are keen to praise the excellent support provided by the Innovation Office at the University of Basel throughout the process. “We receive some truly outstanding coaching and support from Christian Elias Schneider and his team. On top of that, our contacts at Innosuisse and BaselArea.swiss are a great help.”
In founding NUONEX, Thomas and Silvan have taken the first step in a long process. It will be some time before they know the answer to the big question: how their scientific target audience will respond to the CryoWriter once development is complete. However, they are both confident that the device will enjoy a positive reception: “We have a major advantage because we can demonstrate that the prototype works extremely well at the Braun lab – and there are numerous scientific publications to prove it. Accordingly, we hope we’ll soon be able to persuade customers that NUONEX is a forward-looking and worthwhile investment.”
More information about NUONEX and the Nano Argovia projects that have contributed to the development of the CryoWriter.