Turning a hurdle into a product that pleases clients (and investors)

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Editor’s note: Based in Germany, thinXXS produces and develops microstructured components, including its signature micropumps. The company raised about $4.5 million in venture capital in 2001 and received another $2.5 million in late 2004. It has a development site in Mainz and a production site in Zweibrucken.

May 10, 2005 — Interestingly enough, we did not have the feeling of embarking on an adventure when Lutz Weber and I founded thinXXS four years ago. Perhaps that’s because you sort of stumble into it. You are so preoccupied with organizing yourself and the business that it is only with hindsight you tend to think of it this way. It is also from today’s perspective that I see how I have changed. Not so much as a person, but concerning my perception of the world around me.

What were the lessons that brought about this change, which, under different circumstances, probably would have taken four decades instead of four years? I suppose that some of these lessons are of the kind that can neither be taught nor be conveyed in any other way. Meaning that you just have to live through them. One is that money and a valid technological basis in the forms of machines and processes are fundamental, but that it is actually the people in and around your business who make the success. This may not sound very witty as an insight, but I feel it important to stress it just the same.

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A second major experience is related to time. Time is obviously the most precious resource of a young company, as the patience of the investors tends to be limited. Contrasting to this is my observation that everything always takes much longer than you (or your investors) ever anticipated — even if you are the cautious kind.

I tend to believe that it has to do with the time each newcomer needs to build up a reputation. For a snack bar this is likely to work within weeks or months; for a high-tech company in the supplier industry it takes years. In this phase, a lot depends on finding the one or two customers who will get you started with large-scale production, because most other customers will sooner or later ask for your references in this domain. It is a bit like job advertisements in which young graduates with 20 years of professional experience are sought.

A third lesson that comes to mind is a very personal one. ThinXXS develops and produces microfluidic systems. What we offer is directed both toward customers who turn to us for contract services in the domain of lab-on-a-chip devices and those who want to buy OEM components. A major key to our business model is our micropumps. These had been developed and tested in the 1990s at the Institute of Microtechnology Mainz (IMM). Feedback from the initial customer suggested that little effort was needed to turn this into the star of our product portfolio.

We soon came to realize, however, that the scale-up of the production process posed insurmountable problems. After giving it some thought, Weber and I agreed that the only possible way out of this dilemma was to start designing a new micropump from scratch right away. By doing so, a considerable amount of the short-term sales forecasts in the business plan became futile — which we naturally had to “confess” to our investors. Well, confess we did, and to our pleasant surprise our heads even remained intact. Today, all the shareholders are quite reassured that the decision was the right one: because the response to OUR micropumps has been, and still is, simply awesome.


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