• Story

Tech start-up Swiss Cluster: “Showing how it can be done better”

30.05.2024 From the ranks of our university to a successful deep-tech start-up: Swiss Cluster is a good example of how research can be turned into business, in this case with a new coating manufacturing process.

Key facts

  • Thin films make products more body-compatible, more robust, lighter and more water-permeable.
  • They are composed of countless nanolayers.
  • There are two ways to build up nanolayers: the PVD process and the ALD process.
  • Swiss Cluster combines the two manufacturing processes.
  • As a result, thin films are cheaper to produce.

The Spiez-based technology company Swiss Cluster manufactures coating equipment in a very precise, reliable and flexible way. Such coatings or “thin films” are used practically everywhere, from medical implants to computer chips and solar cells.

The aim of a coating is different depending on the application. Sometimes a product needs to be more body-compatible, more resistant, lighter or water-permeable. “Our coatings are particularly in demand in the watch and luxury industry, as well as in the microchip industry, where protective coatings are required,” explains co-founder Carlos Guerra.

About Swiss Cluster

With modular, scalable coating systems and the ability to combine different coating processes, Swiss Cluster helps customers save time and money in the development of new products and shorten production times.

Innovation: a new combination of the familiar

“What we do is not revolutionary from the ground up,” says Guerra modestly, “unlike the materials that are created on our devices”. Guerry worked and researched for a long time at the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research (EMPA), while the start-up’s co-founder Kevin Lücke learnt the tools of electrical engineering at BFH.

Together, they have turned their research findings into a business idea: “Part of our innovation involves combining two existing technologies in a new way.” When a machine from Swiss Cluster builds up a coating, atomic layer deposition (ALD) and physical vapour deposition (PVD) are used. The fact that customers can combine these two manufacturing processes in one machine is new.

The materials developed on our devices are sometimes revolutionary.

Carlos Guerra Co-founder of Swiss Cluster

However, this seemingly trivial new combination solves a whole series of problems that occur with traditional systems. The main advantage is that the component does not have to be moved when switching between coating techniques.

This means that even complex coatings, which often consist of countless different nanolayers, can be produced fully automatically and efficiently. The fact that the integrated machines take up less space in the laboratory and reliably deliver high-quality results is also a plus point.

Das Diagramm zeigt mit welchem Prozess das Start-up Swiss Cluster Materialien beschichtet.
Complex thin films are built up using two methods: atomic layer deposition (ALD) and physical vapour deposition (PVD).

Business model: listening to needs, creating trust

"Swiss Cluster came about because we already had requests for better coatings when we were at Empa and BFH," explains Carlos Guerra. Thanks to these enquiries, it was recognised early on that there was a great need for new coating solutions and therefore a solid business model.

Die BFH unterstützt Unternehmertum

The Entrepreneurship Office at BFH supports founders, start-ups and companies from the initial idea, through any research projects, to the foundation and beyond.

Nevertheless, Swiss Cluster has also had to deal with the scepticism that is typical of start-ups. "Potential customers are still asking whether we will still be able to deliver in two years' time," says Guerra, describing the cautious attitude towards his company. People still like to assume that deep-tech start-ups are science projects in disguise.

He therefore often says to interested parties: "Send me your component and I'll show you how we can coat it faster, cheaper and better". According to Carlos Guerra, trust is established when customers can see the product for themselves.

Die Mitarbeitenden des Start-ups Swiss Cluster posieren für ein Gruppenfoto.
The Swiss Cluster team

Success is easier with a pinch of luck

Thanks to its close relationship with the Swiss education and research landscape and its skillful positioning in the thin film deposition niche, Swiss Cluster is well positioned for the future and is growing steadily. But here too, Guerra puts his own success into perspective: "Especially in the beginning, it takes a lot of luck, the right encounters at the right time and people who believe in you."