Swiss school keeps spinning out
small tech firms at dizzying pace

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July 30, 2002 — Ofttech SA of Lausanne, Switzerland, recently won a contract to provide its compressors for 5,000 gas microturbines manufactured by Bowman Power Systems.

Ofttech, whose oil-free turbo technology recovers escaped gases to increase the efficiency of small turbines that convert gas to electricity, is one of dozens of spinoffs from the Lausanne branch of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL).

EPFL sponsors a business incubator, Federal Science Park (PSE), which has spun out 100 companies since 1993 — a significant number of them involved in micro and nanotechnology.

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At a May awards ceremony, Solant, soon to become another EPFL spinout, was honored with a $34,000 prize for work done by its two founder/researchers, Stefano Vaccaro and Ferdinando Tiezzi. Their commercial project combines a solar cell and antenna for portable phones. Crystal Vision Microsystems, which makes a lab-on-a-chip for chromatographic analysis of biological materials, was similarly honored in 2001.

At the same event, Ayanda Biosystems received a $7,000 prize for being the 100th PSE tenant. Ayanda is working on a screening platform for cell-based assays and genomics applications based on their proprietary biochip array technology that combines molecular surface engineering and electrochemical detection.

“Technology transfer has been very aggressive. We are now at cruising speed of one startup per month,” said Stefan Catsicas, vice president of research at EPFL and member of the PSE board.

Professors are strongly encouraged to move toward commercialization so they and the school can profit from their research. Practical Swiss taxpayers expect value for their funding contributions, said Nicholas Henchoz, EPFL communications chief.

As a consequence, Swiss higher education programs include activities that will attract an international teaching staff and students, Henchoz said. Other research involves development of metal composites, field emission devices and “Swiss quality” nanotube tips for atomic force microscopes.

Companies are headed by the researchers who develop new technologies, usually after the firm lands at least one big contract or customer. The fledgling companies are coddled all along the way, with government, business and academic advisers helping them find customers and funding.

Other micro and nanotech companies that have spun out of PSE and other EPFL departments include:

  • Mimotec SA, based in Sion, Switzerland. Mimotec uses a patented MEMS technique, developed over a three-year period at EPFL, that combines the low cost of ultraviolet lithography to etch designs on extra-thin resins and a photoresist called SU-8, an epoxy used in making micromolds developed in collaboration with EPFL and IBM.
  • BeamExpress is still housed in an EPFL space. The company develops small tech telecommunications components for optical networks. Its products are based on proprietary technology and research developed over several years at EPFL, including quantum nanostructures, quantum dots and quantum wires.
  • Gnothis, based in Sweden and Switzerland, does research and development in single molecule detection and analysis as well as microstructures and microfluidics.
  • IR Microsystems makes infrared detection systems that analyze gas mixtures and biochemicals.
  • Xoliox SA develops nanostructured materials to deliver improved batteries based on lithiated metal oxide nanomaterials. Markets include electric vehicles, power tools and other portable applications. The company was acquired by NTera of Dublin, Ireland, in October 2001. Together with Altair Nanotechnolgies of Reno, Nev., researchers have developed nanomaterials for use in rechargeable lithium ion batteries.

Similar, but less active, efforts are under way in other parts of the country. All are linked to the national technical school (ETH) system.

Stefan Bieri, chief executive and vice president of the ETH system board, said Swiss science policy includes a commitment to spend a significant amount of money on education annually: $1.3 billion to be distributed among the six schools, about $1.6 billion among the 10 cantonal universities and about $500 million on the seven universities of applied sciences.

Swiss companies are global leaders in older industries, such as drugs and chemicals, food, banks and insurance, but the country’s leaders know that an educated work force is critical to reaching the same heights in new technologies.

Part of the policy zeros in on nanotechnology with a combination of industrial and government funding for National Competence Centers throughout Switzerland. The Swiss started funding nanotech very early — and today all of the technical schools are players in nanoscience, Bieri said. Each institution is free to use federal money as the administrators choose, and they are also free to find other sources of income, which they freely do, with industry grants and income from licensing technologies developed at the schools.


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