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Innovation awards tap Swiss tech prowess

The annual Swiss Technology Awards always offer a cross-section of this country's innovative and technological prowess.

This content was published on February 18, 2003 - 12:14

The winner this year, SwissProbe, which was founded by University of Basel (UniBas) researchers, is a case in point.

It makes a powerful microscope, which is used by researchers and product developers working on next generation computer hard drives.

SwissProbe comes from the same University of Basel department that worked with Nobel prize winners Rohrer and Binnig on the research that lead to their pioneering scanning, tunnelling microscope.

Insiders say SwissProbe will be commercialising not only the high end microscope being used by the likes of hard disc manufacturer Seagate, but it will also be selling a range of innovative devices, including a product that is a collaboration between the UniBas researchers and IBM.

The jury is no doubt hoping that a team has finally emerged that is ready to commercialise the university's high-end scanning probe microscopy innovations.

It has always irritated people here that the technology which enables the world to look at the nanoscale was invented by Swiss-based researchers. But the leader in the field is Veeco, a California-based company, which has practically cornered the market via a series of savvy acquisitions.

Innovation versus commercialisation

It is a case of the Swiss being better at making the instruments, but of others being far superior at marketing.

A case in point is the Mars mission.

Back in the nineties, American researchers came knocking on the door of another Basel-based firm, also a spin-off from the same department: a startup called NanoSurf.

The Americans had a problem. NASA needed a small, easy to operate microscope to send on its Mars mission, but the team that had been given the assignment could not deliver.

It was a team that went on to become the core of Veeco's microscopy business today, and that included micro-fabrication experts from Stanford University.

Together with the University of Basel and the University of Neuchatel, the startup firm managed to solve the problems and deliver a hockey puck-sized microscope that could be used in space.

Today NanoSurf is growing and profitable, but is tiny compared to Veeco.

Building on strengths

One of the most intriguing projects was the entry known as Speedscript. It is the invention of a youthful elementary schoolteacher-turned-inventor, Raphael Bachman.

His invention, if he can market it, may just do for handheld computers and mobile phones what the QWERTY keyboard did for the typewriter and computer.

TRIMO is another intriguing winner in light of this country's semiconductor machinery sector, dominated by names such as Unaxis, ESEC, and Schweiter Technologies.

The project might end up being the basis for standard equipment in next generation photonic and optoelectronics foundries.

The TRIMO project emerges from Leica Geosystems and the department of robotics systems at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology at Lausanne.

The idea behind it is to automate certain aspects of optoelectronic and photonic devices manufacturing. Many parts of manufacturing in this industry are still be packaged and assembled by hand because of the high degree of precision needed to mount them properly.

The TRIMO automates the assembly, the picking, placing and fixing of micro-optical elements - components no larger than 1.5mm.

A project from Thales Technologies AG, a university spin-off, was also selected.

Innovative products emerging from companies Avelon, Cetex and Piexon won in special industry-funded categories, as did Elca Informatik.

Changing times

This year, as every year, the finalists will travel to the Hannover Exhibition, one of the world's largest trade fairs.

Participants benefit from the press attention that the awards draw, as well as having the opportunity to forge partnerships and find venture capital investors via the contest's jury.

At Technopark in Zürich, the location of the awards this year, 20 finalists were selected from 90 applications, an increase from last year.

It is the fourth time this reporter has covered the event, which is run by business development agencies from the cantons, supported by the State Secretariat of economic affairs and the CTI Startup programme.

Ironically, the winning teams are becoming more professional, more focused and more enthusiastic, but the number of sharp-suited venture capitalists and investment bankers attending and supporting the event is diminishing.

It was a different story in 1999, when the event was held at the glitzy Swiss Stock Exchange in Zürich's financial district. The investors were knocking each other over trying to get to the project teams and CashTV was on hand with its glamorous moderator and camera crew.

The money flowed, as did the free drinks. In retrospect, the growth trajectory of some those teams looked like a "Roman Candle".

Since then it has become tougher to raise capital, but maybe that is the way it should be.

Much of the capital invested at that time was wasted on poor management teams and weak business models that had no relation to the industrial and technological clusters here.

Nowadays, only the best projects receive capital, including quite a few of the winners of the Swiss Technology Award.

Last year IP01, Dartfish, and IR Microsystems managed to close venture capital funding rounds in 2002. They all were recognized in previous Swiss technology awards events.

In fact two of this year's winners, Thales and Piexon, received venture capital long before even entering the competition.

Valerie Thompson

Key facts

Swiss technology awards were presented at the Technopark in Zürich this year.
The winning team was a team from the University of Basel, called SwissProbe, with a microscope used to view nanoscale surfaces.
Other winners included TRIMO, Avelon, Cetex and Piexon.

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