SNI Innovation Workshop – From lab to start-up

The team of Thomas Mortelmans and Antonia Ruffo not only won the first prize at the Innovation Workshop, the two young nanoscientists also talked about the approach they took and what they learned during the workshop in a short video. (Image: SNI, University of Basel)

Doctoral dissertations at the SNI largely revolve around questions of fundamental science, but potential applications are sometimes just around the corner. Topics such as innovation and the founding a start-up are therefore of great interest to doctoral students. With this in mind, Dr. Andreas Baumgartner, coordinator of the SNI PhD School, worked closely with the Innovation Office at the University of Basel to create the “SNI Innovation Workshop: From Lab to Start-up” for the SNI PhD School. Early in June, doctoral students from the SNI had their first chance to develop ideas for a start-up of their own with the support of the Innovation Office and to have these ideas evaluated. Three of the ideas were subsequently awarded a prize.

The challenge set by Dr. Andreas Baumgartner, coordinator of the SNI PhD School, may have been short, but it certainly wasn’t simple. Around 30 doctoral students from the SNI were tasked with developing an idea for a start-up based on the results of their own doctoral dissertation, for example. As part of a two-day workshop organized and supported by Leonie Kellner, Alessandro Mazzetti and Maarten Van Winckel from the Innovation Office at the University of Basel, the plan was to develop, flesh out and present these business ideas.

Professional jury
In the first round, a jury consisting of Andreas Baumgartner and the Innovation Office team was responsible for choosing the six most promising approaches. Once the six projects were selected, all participants were assigned to one of them for further work.

The experts from the Innovation Office gave the doctoral students individual hints for improvement and guidance on what information to include when giving a short, professional presentation to investors on a particular business idea. Distributing the tasks in the groups, the potential entrepreneurs discussed, researched and polished their “pitches,” which were delivered on the second day of the workshop.

A well-prepared start
This friendly competition was ultimately won by the team led by Thomas Mortelmans along with teammates Antonia Ruffo, Tamara Aderneuer and Shichao Jia. The idea for a start-up by the name of “MagnoCell,” which remains imaginary for now, was formulated in sections by Antonia, Tamara and Thomas a few weeks prior to the workshop.

The three researchers joined forces after reading the official invitation to the doctoral students, in which Andreas Baumgartner suggests the possibility of forming teams. The teammates met several times before the workshop, systematically preparing for the competition. “First of all, we each created a slide summarizing our capabilities,” says Thomas Mortelmans, whose team later selected him to be CEO of the company. “Next we discussed which of our doctoral dissertation projects was most suitable for the potential start-up that we wanted to present at the workshop.”

Noninvasive temperature measurements
They ultimately chose the project created by Antonia Ruffo, who is developing a noninvasive method for measuring the temperature inside fuel cells at the Paul Scherrer Institute.

When it came to preparing for the first presentation, the team shared out the work based on their individual strengths. Tamara worked on the design, Antonia set out the science underpinning the idea, and Thomas dealt with the introduction to the topic and the potential applications. He also went on to deliver the successful presentation.

Thomas clearly conveyed  that the company would offer a feasible solution to measure the temperature inside fuel cells — without having to open or modify the interior. So far, this has not been possible using existing methods. Noninvasive temperature measurements are key to further developing fuel cells, as it is essential to verify that the operating temperature is within the optimum temperature range.

The new method is based on ferromagnetic iron particles enclosed within the fuel cell. When exposed to a beam of neutrons, these particles exhibit different magnetic properties depending on the temperature. In the optimum temperature range of 80–100°C, the randomly arranged magnetic fields cause depolarization of the neutron beam. Above these temperatures, the nanoparticles lose their superparamagnetic proprieties and no longer affect the beam’s polarization.

This would be an ideal method for research laboratories developing fuel cells. Indeed, the worldwide boom in fuel cell research suggests that there is also a growing market for diagnostic methods that can be used for this technology, with a sizeable market world-wide.

Although the team had prepared before the workshop, they still benefited significantly from the discussions and assistance provided by Leonie Kellner and Alessandro Mazetti. For Thomas Mortelmans, who presented the business idea at the workshop, the two-day event was a great opportunity to “think outside the box,” as he puts it. “Normally we’re so immersed in scientific questions that we generally don’t give any thought to how our results could be translated into a product.”

The winning team clearly demonstrated how the temperature of fuel cells can be measured – without having to penetrate the interior of the fuel cell. (Images: Thomas Mortelmans)

Electronics for the quantum computer
Jann Ungerer also did some thinking prior to the workshop and prepared a presentation. His business idea was to develop electronics that are needed in future quantum computers.

“We’re currently seeing huge advances in the construction of quantum computers,” he says. “At the moment, however, researchers can only link up a modest number of qubits. In the future, this number of coupled qubits will grow considerably — and electronics will need to keep pace with this development,” he adds.

In his first presentation, Jann managed to win over the jury as well as some of his colleagues from the Department of Physics. David Jäger, Moritz Weegen, Gian-Luca Schmid and Lukas Sponfeldner joined his team after the first day of the workshop. Maarten Van Winckel from the Innovation Office then supported the five young scientists and directed them towards a professional presentation on the second day. This presentation earned the team second place in the competition.

As CEO, Jann argued persuasively that the imaginary company “Q-CIRC” would be capable of supplying scalable electronics for the exponentially expanding quantum computing market, thereby allowing the vast power of quantum computers to be put to effective use in the future.

“I had a really great time at the workshop,” says Jann. The young nanophysicist had already been involved in the student company “Telejob” (ETH Zurich) and can definitely see himself getting involved in the start-up scene in the future.

Nanoparticles as transport systems
Unlike many of her colleagues, Shabnam Tarvirdipour had little opportunity to get to grips with the workshop in advance. As she was in the last throes of her doctoral dissertation and had her defense at the start of July, there simply wasn’t time to work on a presentation for the Innovation Workshop.

Her approach to developing intelligent nanoparticles for gene therapy made so much headway on the first day that the jury selected the project in the first round. Shabnam therefore had the opportunity to develop her business idea further — which she did successfully with a team consisting of Claudio Alter, Mehdi Heydari and Piotr Jasko.

“The tutors provided some fantastic guidance and support. In an extremely short space of time, they communicated the key aspects of founding a company,” says Shabnam, who acted as CEO of the imaginary company “Genotech.” This enabled the team to quickly prepare a presentation that secured them third place in the competition.

The four young researchers presented their plan for treating cancer with gene therapy, in which liposomes or peptides would be used to smuggle genes into cells. These genes would contain the necessary information so that a response of the immune system could be stimulated within the cells. In contrast to a number of existing transport systems that use viruses, the team relies on liposomal and peptide-based nanoparticles that dissolve inside the cell to release their cargo. The method could be used to combat various diseases that arise from genetic defects. Initially, however, the team has decided to focus on the constantly expanding market for cancer treatments.

Intense and informative
The workshop was an intense two days for the doctoral students who took part, but it gave them plenty of new insights to take away with them. Even the organizer, Andreas Baumgartner, learned a thing or two — and he was very impressed with the presentations that the teams gave at the end of the event: “At times, I could no longer work out which projects were made up and which were about to be listed on the stock market. We all gained a lot from the workshop, and we’re now planning to hold a similar event for the SNI PhD School on a regular basis.”
The workshop also provided some fascinating insights for the experts from the Innovation Office at the University of Basel. “From the first day onward, the participants showed a great deal of entrepreneurial spirit and were eager to develop their scientific discoveries into workable business ideas,” says Leonie Kellner, Entrepreneurship Program Manager at the Innovation Office. “They worked in teams to improve their pitches and get them ready for the presentation to investors. The winning teams showed the biggest improvements and were able to communicate their ideas both persuasively and succinctly. It was a pleasure to work with the doctoral students over the course of the two-day workshop!”

Her colleague Alessandro Mazzetti, Manager Innovation Alliances, also offered some very positive feedback: “The two things that impressed me most were the general quality of the ideas, which are not only founded on solid science but could also have implications for the fundamental societal or technological challenges of our time. Moreover, the doctoral students demonstrated an ability to put what they had learned into practice quickly. Each of the participants can be proud to have developed the pitches from zero to start-up quality in just two days. At the Innovation Office of the University of Basel, we’ll be proud to support ideas of this kind, which could be converted into real and effective business undertakings!”

Further informationen:

Innovation at the University of Basel

LinkedIn page, Innovation Office University of Basel