Simon Zumbrunnen - “You have to allow time to make mistakes”
Founding a start-up is an adventure with an uncertain outcome. Simon Zumbrunnen is CEO and co-owner of the company ReseaTech and has acquired invaluable experience on the long journey from graduating from BFH to setting up his own company.
Your company ReseaTech makes measuring devices for very small volumes of liquid. How did you come to specialise in this technology?
I was involved in the development of a micro-valve as part of my bachelor thesis at BFH’s Institute for Print Technology. The industry partner was ReseaChem, a BFH start-up. I wanted to work on a project for industry rather than write a thesis that would end up filed away in a drawer somewhere.
What did you do after your bachelor’s degree?
I was fortunate enough to be offered a Master Research Fellowship by BFH. This allowed me to complete a master’s degree programme over two years while also receiving an assistant’s salary. This meant I was able to pick up with my master’s thesis where I’d left off with the one I’d written for my bachelor’s degree. My goal was to develop a sensor that measures liquid flowing through the micro-valve.
Your solution was awarded the Burgdorf Innopreis.
Receiving this award provided me with a great deal of motivation. After my master’s thesis, I’d produced a functional model of a sensor on which functionality testing was successfully carried out. We also registered a patent.
How were you able to develop the technology at BFH?
After spending a year abroad in the USA, I had the opportunity to develop the dosing and measuring technology as part of an Innosuisse project being conducted by BFH and ReseaChem. By the end of the project, we had prototypes that worked very well.
And when did you decide to bring the new technology to market with your own company?
ReseaChem held the rights to the technology after the project. The company offered me a position – together with my colleague Philipp Haslebacher, who was responsible for the electronic aspects of our technology right from the outset. However, my preferred option was to set up my own company. Fortunately, Stefan Berger, CEO of ReseaChem, came on board. In 2015, we founded the start-up ReseaTech. Five years had already gone into the development of our innovation by that stage.
Did the start-up phase of the new company run smoothly?
Initially, we wanted to develop our product – a micro-valve with a flow sensor – ourselves and sell it directly to users, such as bio-tech companies, for example. Then it wasn’t marketable in this form or at this price. So we turned our attention to supplier companies and then a level higher to the manufacturers of laboratory equipment; and finally, to the manufacturers of device components, such as pumps and valves. It was here that we began to enjoy some success. We had to modify our product several times by this stage.
Were you perhaps a little naive at the outset?
Every business plan is good until you test it on actual customers. We presented our product and learned from the feedback. It was a matter of learning by doing and proved a long journey. However, that’s the same with any start-up. You’re breaking new ground with an innovative idea. Customers are also presented with something they’ve never seen before or didn’t believe possible.
How did ReseaTech keep its head above water financially during this set-up phase?
We started out with some equity capital put in by the four founders and then won the Ypsomed Innovation Prize shortly before founding the company. That helped us at the start. The fact that Philipp and I were still working part-time at BFH’s Institute for Print Technology at the time was also a key factor. My advice to anyone thinking of starting their own company would be not to put all their eggs in one basket right away. We were always too optimistic about initial revenues. You have to allow time to make mistakes and try out a second approach before the money runs out.
Did you ever doubt that your company would succeed?
I obviously always tried to remain positive. We always somehow managed to carry on. I was also quite successful at securing funding (he laughs). We obtained support from the start-up funding programme Venture Kick and from the Inventus Foundation. My advice would be to think carefully about which funding programmes and innovation prizes you’ve genuinely got a chance with as there’s a tremendous amount of work involved in the applications. In 2019, we finally found investors which enabled us to go full time with ReseaTech.
How do you see the future?
We’re not one of those start-ups that will make a quick profit and then disappear. The lifecycle of our products can be 20 years. Although, once they establish themselves as components in systems, we have a very long-term-oriented business model. I hope to see us posting a profit within two or three years.
You’ve developed from a specialist into an entrepreneur. What have you learned in the process?
Being good in business doesn’t necessarily mean your start-up will be successful. In a start-up, there’s nothing to manage or optimise as you’re starting from scratch. Listening to the advice of people who’d launched their own start-ups was extremely useful. They helped me the most.
What advice would you give to students considering founding their own start-up?
Not being alone and having people to support you is a huge advantage. I would also recommend having a plan B up your sleeve, for example part-time employment until the business really starts to take off. It’s important not to be discouraged by the many doubters. Some Swiss people are quite sceptical about start-ups. However, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
CEO and co-founder