Elena Nedelkoska - “My advice for all young people – simply give things a go!”

“Although my first attempt wasn’t successful, I still gained valuable experience,” explained Elena Nedelkoska. The wood engineer and research associate at BFH was initially unable to achieve her vision of launching a start-up. But she still took a big step forward.

Elena Nedelkoska, you came to Switzerland five years ago to take a master’s degree programme in Wood Technology at BFH. What inspired you to do that?

I’d completed a bachelor degree in interior and furniture design in my native North Macedonia, where I then spent five years working as an interior designer. I felt as though the time was right for a fresh challenge. I was interested in the other side of the products I’d worked with previously – in other words, the material itself. A degree programme in Wood Technology at BFH was the ideal option. Even during the degree programme, I spent 50% of my time working as a research associate on timber compression, a topic I then wrote my master’s thesis on. BFH has been conducting research for some time into technology which enables indigenous wood to be processed in such a way that it practically acquires the properties of tropical wood.

She then applied the experience she had gained in timber compression to her WoDens Technology project. What’s the idea behind it?

When I saw and touched compressed wood for the first time in our laboratory, I was completely hooked – I absolutely fell in love with the material! From then on, I thought a great deal about how I could make furniture or jewellery out of it. I was fascinated by how the wood could be dyed with any colour during the compression process. The aim was to add value to Swiss timber by using eco-friendly methods.

How important is the environmental aspect to you?

Using domestic raw materials and products is good for the environment as the transport of goods is avoided. We certainly can’t do without all imports, but we should move in this direction.

How challenging was it to develop a product for market?

It was my boss who suggested that I should set up a start-up with the wood compression technology. I thought it sounded like a really interesting opportunity. Even as a child, I always dreamt of playing a creative role as part of a team and designing solutions that would be useful for other people. This was an ideal opportunity. However, we were right at the start of the process. The technology required further development. Before launching a company, you need to work out the business model.

What was your business model?

It was a B2B concept. WoDens Technology would produce wood based composites with specific properties for furniture or jewellery manufacturers, for example. So it didn’t involve designing our own items. I’d like to do that at some point but you have to take things one step at a time. Firstly, we decided to take part in the ‘First Ventures’ programme run by the Gebert Rüf Foundation. This supports students developing innovative business ideas which they wish to implement as part of a spin-off after graduation.

So you had to submit a project proposal.

Yes, and the business model also had to be set out in great detail. That was all new to me – I had to do some research and conduct market studies. I received support from my colleagues, the lecturers but also from students at BFH’s Business School. This meant we effectively had an interdisciplinary team of experts where everyone benefited from one another’s knowledge. My professional experience as an interior designer also stood me in good stead. My job had involved supporting customers from the initial concept right through to project completion. I always attached great importance to communication. I was able to draw on this experience when visiting companies in various sectors to determine their requirements as part of my market research.

Although you won a ‘First Ventures’ funding contribution, nothing came of the spin-off WoDens Technology. Why was that?

WoDens Technology is not yet mature enough for a company but we will continue to work on it as part of Innosuisse projects and with industrial partners. We now know exactly what’s lacking to create a product with a good chance of market success. We’ve got to overcome a few technical challenges and reduce the costs of our procedure. We’re currently addressing these issues.

Are you confident that your vision will one day become a reality?

Flexibility and an open mind are key requirements when setting up a company. I’d obviously be delighted to see the concept prove successful at some point.

But you’re not disappointed that it wasn’t an immediate success?

Absolutely not. That’s just part of the journey and it’s not the end of the world if things pan out differently to how you planned. Nobody likes to fail a test; and it’s exactly the same with a business idea and a company. Nobody wants to fail. Although my first attempt wasn’t successful, I still gained valuable experience. Then that’ll benefit me at some point. You can’t fail if you don’t assume any risk but then you miss out on gaining invaluable experience, too. My advice to all young people would be to give things a go! If it doesn’t work out, you’ll have learned something from which you’ll benefit. Who knows where your path will take you…

Elena Nedelkoska Enlarge image
Elena Nedelkoska, WoDens Technology project