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Dr. Christian Brönnimann: Technology that convinced me!

Dectris is now a world leader in detector technologies and sets the pace for the market. © Dectris AG
Dectris is now a world leader in detector technologies and sets the pace for the market. © Dectris AG

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Christian Brönnimann has spent half his working life at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). Until twelve years ago, he was group leader of the Swiss Light Source (SLS) Detectors group at PSI. The 52-year-old now heads the company Dectris in Baden-Daettwil; it employs over 100 people and has revenues of more than 30 million Swiss francs.

PARK INNOVAARE: Mr. Brönnimann, you have a doctorate in physics and were a successful researcher at the Paul Scherrer Institute. But actually, as you once said, you never wanted to become an entrepreneur. Why did you then change your mind and establish a start-up?

Christian Brönnimann: When I was group leader for detector development at the Paul Scherrer Institute, I actually had a dream job. And for physicists, the streets weren't exactly paved with jobs at that point. I was inspired to launch the spin-off when I saw all the work we had put into the research and what my team had achieved. We had developed a technology that was disruptive and – above all – also really worked. The quality of the images and the speed of the first camera had convinced my research colleagues at Swiss Light Source (SLS) so much that I saw market potential for it. After all our efforts, I didn't just want to license the results to a foreign company, i.e. for patriotic reasons I felt we should harvest the fruits of our labor ourselves. That was the point at which I began to think about the business model for a start-up. I convinced myself and others that it was possible to make money with it. The most important prerequisite was my being convinced that I would be successful taking this step. This led me to quit my permanent job at the age of 40 and set up my own company. When you have a family, that's not the first thing you would think of. It was definitely a step that earned me several sleepless nights.

What were the biggest hurdles in your entrepreneurial career at the beginning? How did you overcome them?

We got off to a very successful start because our approach was pragmatic and focused. We concentrated on selling the systems we had developed at PSI. The biggest hurdle was to get this technology – which had worked in PSI's laboratories – up and running in another location. We moved to Baden and duplicated all the PSI equipment. We had to invest a lot of money and get our module production up and running, i.e. we had to industrialize the production of prototypes. That was the biggest challenge that kept us busy for the first four to five years.

The production of your specialized equipment (high-performance X-ray cameras) must have been quite capital-intensive from the beginning. Who supported Dectris in the initial phase?

We focused intensively on selling the first devices as early as possible so that the company could obtain liquidity. And that actually worked for us. PSI also supported and backed us up . We didn't need any external investors to get more funds. While I'm sure we would have been able to find investors, we saved a lot of time because we did not need any additional funding. This helped us get started very quickly.

How much of your working time can you personally invest in research and product development? And how much do you have to spend on other obligations like marketing or sales?

Of course, the time I’m obligated to spend on those things is decreasing. While I'm still involved in technical meetings to some extent, my role is now more in strategy: defining visions and goals, setting the direction, finding answers to the question of where we want to go. I'm helping our departments set their goals. It is also important to ask how we intend to reach our goal. But I am having less and less direct influence on how strategic decisions are implemented in detail. As the organization grows, it is important for my colleagues to be able to find the way themselves. It is an illusion to believe that one can contribute top-down to technological developments with heroic commitment; that is what my specialists are supposed to be doing. In cooperation with the management and senior management, I need to create the right conditions.

Even today, the management team of your company largely consists of scientists. Is it possible that marketing or sales expertise is not really necessary at the board level, or have the scientists acquired the relevant skills?

You have to adapt to the market; it depends very much on the customers. Our customers, who are manufacturers of analytical instruments and other high-tech companies, frequently assign their scientists to be our contacts. You have to speak the customer's language. We have two important mainstays. One is the synchrotron market, i.e. large-scale research facilities such as PSI with the SLS, of which there are about 50 to 60 worldwide; in this context our dialog is exclusively with researchers. You have to be a scientist to be able to know this market very well. The industrial market is an OEM business (original equipment manufacturer); we supply our corporate customers with detectors that they integrate into their analytical equipment. In this case, too, you have to have a very precise understanding of the customers' requirements in order to win them as customers. So in this case it also helps to have a scientific background to be able to sell our products.

You are a child of the Paul Scherrer Institute, so to speak. To what extent do you still profit today from the contact to the research facilities of the Institute and your related network?

As PSI is a shareholder in Dectris, and since we maintain contact with the PSI Detectors group, our contact with PSI is still very exciting for us. On the other hand, it is not true that PSI is the headquarters of our development department.

What would you say have been your company's most important successes or products involving the use of Dectris high performance X-ray cameras?

There are several aspects. The biggest success is the fact that more than 50 percent of the protein structures determined recently originate from data recorded by our cameras all over the world. I would never have thought that our detector technology would make us so dominant in structure determination. Up to 2012 we experienced huge success in terms of sales and turnover figures with the products we had developed at PSI. One thing we did very well after delivering as many detectors as possible was that we concentrated on the successor products. It is important that after some initial hype with a first product, a company delivers a follow-up product. This is the moment of truth: will the company be able to supply the successor products that show the customer that things are moving forward? We did that very well. Another success: our X-ray detector contributed decisively to enabling a team of scientists from England, Brazil and the U.S. to determine the atomic structure of an enzyme that can degrade PET bottles – an important contribution to environmental protection. Or the Zika virus story: scientists at the French basic research center Institut Pasteur have used our X-ray detectors “Eiger” and “Pilatus” to determine the structure of the surface proteins of the Zika virus. Drug research can now develop active substances against the virus. New active ingredients against tuberculosis have also been developed. There are very many examples.

Dr. C. Brönnimann

Dr. Christian Bönnimann, CEO Dectris AG and the member of the selection committee of BIC of CERN Technologies

Which fields of application would you like to address in the future?

We currently intend to invest in the development of cameras for electron microscopy (EM). Cryo-EM is a complementary method for determining the structure of proteins by means of X-ray crystallography. It is a large but competitive market. We will have to adapt our products to the special requirements of this market in order to be successful. We are also looking at the medical market; we are receiving very good feedback from the universities and research institutes we cooperate with, including research groups at PSI.

Dectris now employs more than 100 people, and your company has a turnover of about 35 million Swiss francs. Have you set goals for yourself for the next five years in terms of your company's key figures?

We have a vision of where we want to go: we want to remain strong in our traditional markets, invest in the EM market and lay the foundations for the medical market. It is clear that we have ambitious goals. But the most important goal for us is to be profitable and independent.

Today, if you were to meet a colleague from the natural sciences who also works in research and has a business idea, what would be your three most important pieces of advice?

First of all, you have to be very clear: where is my market? What market is there for my business idea? And in this context, of course: what kind of USP do I have? What is the unique selling point of my product that will enable me to survive on the market? The second point: focus, i.e. think carefully – what is my goal? How will I get there in a focused manner? What problems are most important to me now, and how can I tackle them effectively? Third: believe in your own success, and that will give you the energy to cope with all the setbacks. You have to believe that the road will lead to success!