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“They tell us in a very direct way if something isn’t good”

Eight ideas, eighty startuppers and experts and two days of intensive work – that is the SwissCompanyMaker (SCM) Workshop described in just a few words. Co-organisers include the NCCR PlanetS. This year the SCM took place in Bern in April. A team from the University of Bern was also represented and benefited from extensive expert knowledge.

Jörg Jost at the SwissCompanyMaker workshop in Bern. (Photo SCM)

Under the direction of Prof. Peter Wurz, the Space Research and Planetology Division (WP) at the Institute of Physics at the University of Bern has perfected the art of mass spectrometer construction for space travel for many years. Jürg Jost and his team, consisting of Mario Gruber, Pascal Gubler, Michael Gerber and Alain Péteut, have been working for some time to transform this famous Bernese speciality into a spin-off product. The end product is supposed to help many people on earth. “For years we have been miniaturizing mass spectrometers for space travel at the university. A tremendous effort is being made and in the end, we fly into space on a mission,” says Jürg Jost. “In the meantime, such a mass spectrometer fits into a shoe box. That’s unrivaled!” This knowledge is now to be used for terrestrial applications.

But it is a long way from the initial idea to the commercialisation of a product that is intended to appeal to a broad market. It is often the case that visionaries are the absolute cracks in their field, but they know very little about marketing. That’s why Jost and his team are taking part in this year’s SwissCompanyMaker Workshop in Bern. The workshop that is co-lead by the NCCR PlanetS supports the participants in the early phase of an innovative idea in science and technology to move on to the concept phase, to determine the economic value and marketability of their idea or invention and to lay the foundation for their business plan.

“The brake is released”

Building a company is nothing completely new for Jürg Jost. He has had a small company for about 11 years. “So I know how to develop a product and bring it to market.” He has been working on the new idea for about one and a half years. “I spent all my spare time on the project. At the beginning of 2018 the ‘brake’ has been released; at the end of February we founded a company. And we are already in contact with customers,” says Jost. “All in all, it got off to a very good start. But when it comes to money and investors, we could use some help,” says Jost.

The American Mark Wilson invented the workshop. (Photo SCM)

Not just a team

This is exactly where the SCM comes in. Each “Idea Champion” – as the person with the idea is called – is supported by a team of experts and MBA students. Flavia Spasiano is one of the coaches. For 20 years, she worked in the industry in the field of product development. Today, Spasiano works as an independent consultant and supports start-ups in the initial phase.

She has been involved in the SCM workshops for several years. “It’s always a great way to learn about new technologies and new products while helping people who have a vision,” says Spasiano. This year she is at the disposal of Jürg Jost’s team. What particularly stands out about this team: “They are not just a team, they behave like friends. They work very well together. Each of them has a specific role which is respected by the others. And they listen to each other, to us experts and to the MBA students.”

Flavia Spasiano sees the challenges in Jürg Jost’s group in the fact that the team consists entirely of engineers. “To make sure they move the project forward, they need to complement the team with people who have skills they don’t have. For example, in marketing. This team is also aware of what a good starting position is,” says Spasiano. Jost confirms this assessment: “We are well positioned for the technical sector. What we lack, and we are currently working on it: We need someone who has the network to industrial investors.”

Practical insight

Andrea Carpio Mosquera and Sandrine L’Homme are also participating in the SCM workshop. They are MBA students of the University of Fribourg. “We are in the role of consultants for the Idea Champions,” explains Sandrine L’Homme. “Our task is to contribute the business part to the project. Everyone on the team is an engineer. We show them what the economic part of your project should look like.” Of course, it is good that the team already has contact to potential customers. “But ultimately they must be able to sell the product to make a profit, win new customers and develop their company. We contribute our knowledge.”

In return for their participation, the students gain an insight into the startup reality. “In our studies we learn a lot in theory. We read books and work on cases of successful companies with established products such as Facebook or Google,” says Andrea Carpio Mosquera. “Here at SCM we experience a real example from practice. We directly see the challenges a startup has to face.”

Coach Flavia Spasiano. (Photo SCM)

Extremely intensive

Jost and his team mates appreciate the support of the coaches and the students. “They all have experiences we don’t have,” says Jost. “They tell us in a very direct way if something isn’t good. A certain honesty is required of us.” The first day of the workshop was extremely intensive. “We got in very motivated. We’ve got a lot coming to us. What particularly overwhelmed me was the persistence with which figures were asked. Values are buzzing around somewhere in the head. But to formulate these clearly is another matter,” explains Jost.

Accordingly tired and with mixed feelings he went home on the evening of the first day. “We were wondering ‘Are we doing everything right?’ ‘Are we on our way?’ It’s been on our minds a lot ever since.” In the week leading up to the second day of the workshop, intensive basic work had once again been done. “We’ve worked out the weak points more clearly and now we want to see what we can do with them.”

Coach Flavia Spasiano is convinced that Jürg Jost and his team will succeed: “They will build their company and have a product on the market. They are ‘dreamers’ with a vision, which is great. But they are also very realistic,” says the expert. Jürg Jost recommends the SCM Workshop to anyone who is still early in developing ideas. “It can be frustrating at times,” says Jost. “But there are also its good points: If you’re still convinced of your idea after the workshop, it is really worth.” (Guido Schwarz)

SwissCompanyMaker (SCM) Workshop
The SwissCompanyMaker (SCM) Workshop is here to start a new project. Participants in the early phase of an innovative idea in science and technology are supported in moving from an idea to the concept phase, designing their venture ideas, determining the economic value and marketability of their idea or invention and laying the foundation for their business plan. The workshop is organized annually in Switzerland. Co-organisers include the Bernese NCCR PlanetS, NCCR TransCure and NCCR RNA & Disease.
More information at www.swisscompanymaker.ch

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