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Swiss Terahertz – a rollercoaster ride through the first year of entrepreneurship

Swiss Terahertz dream team: Dr. Gustavo Santiso-Quiñones (Crystallise! AG), Corinne Brodeur, Dr. Mostafa Shalaby, and Dr. Gunther Steinfeld (Crystallise! AG)
Swiss Terahertz dream team: Dr. Gustavo Santiso-Quiñones (Crystallise! AG), Corinne Brodeur, Dr. Mostafa Shalaby, and Dr. Gunther Steinfeld (Crystallise! AG)

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(This information is only available in English)

Swiss Terahertz LLC is implementing some of the globally unique terahertz technologies developed with the new X-ray free-electron laser SwissFEL at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI). The start-up initially focused on the production of nonlinear organic crystals (NOCs) that are used to emit and detect terahertz frequencies. It is now expanding into the field of terahertz uncooled microbolometer technology. Founded only one year ago, the company is already on its way to disrupting the market. We met with Dr. Mostafa Shalaby, founder and CEO of Swiss Terahertz, to flash back to the past year and learn more about how he is growing into his “new shoes” as an entrepreneur.

PARK INNOVAARE: Swiss Terahertz is striving to advance terahertz technologies. Where exactly can they be applied?

Dr. Mostafa Shalaby: Think of them as something like the X-ray that we are all familiar with. For example, you can use terahertz radiation in security scanners in airports. However, unlike the X-ray, terahertz is not hazardous for human bodies. We are all aware of the danger related to X-ray radiation. Therefore, terahertz body scanners are becoming more and more widespread. They are now being used in most western airports. Terahertz has a great deal more to offer various industries. It can be used for industrial quality control purposes, for example. With a small, affordable THz-machine, you can tell if the envelope in your mailbox has some toxic materials in it or whether the food at your local supermarket is really organic as opposed to being contaminated with pesticides. You can even tell the freshness of a product based on its levels of water, which terahertz is very sensitive to. The terahertz technology applications in Switzerland’s core industries are uncountable: pharma, food, precision manufacturing, automation – just to name a few!

What distinguishes Swiss Terahertz technologies?

Our technologies are application-oriented and engineered. That’s it! I was fortunate to be an engineer entering a market dominated by scientists. Scientists know how to come up with a process and understand it, but they spend little effort to make it efficient in terms of time and money. We have been focusing on making technology more accessible by significantly optimizing the process to make it fit the final application and to speed up production. Our process has quickly become scalable and strongly market-competitive. We focus on what customers want and how to help them get the most out of our products.

You recently “transferred” from basic research to entrepreneurship. What motivated you to found your own company?

I am very passionate about what I do; I love my work and put a lot of energy and time into it. I enjoyed basic research, but it was not the right fit for me. I did not want to wake up in retirement having spent the past three decades thinking only of adding one more publication to my resume. I wanted to give my knowledge practical application, to turn it into something with direct positive impact on our world.

How would you sum up your first year in the role of “young entrepreneur”? Did you achieve all your goals?

Rollercoaster ride! Dynamic! Thrilling! Stressful! More than 60,000 air miles! You know this exponential growth plot that investors like? We have one, a very good one, and in real numbers. Started off counting my pennies. Dreamed big but still set realistic goals. Ended up extremely outperforming initial expectations. We had one target – to survive our first year. When you start a company with a bit more than a dozen thousands of Swiss francs on your back account and no investments, your worst nightmare is to run out of liquidity and shut down or sell out for crumbs. We never approached any investors. We had our first income by Christmas. Things have been positive since then. We broke even early in the summer and are now deep in profit, filing positive income taxes in our first year. We now export 100% of our products while paying local salaries, thus bringing value to the Swiss economy. Honestly, I am impressed with how things have developed!

What were the major challenges you faced? How did you overcome them?

Infrastructure! We needed occasional access to chemistry and laser laboratories. They were not easy to find. But we overcame that. We partnered up with Crystallise! AG (editor’s note: another resident company at PARK INNOVAARE), which supported us with their chemistry lab. We made new friends all over Europe, who supported us with laser labs. But the infrastructure challenge is persistent, thanks to our continuous expansion and the limited lab space at Crystallise! AG.

What helped you through this first successful year?

Our success triangle consists of PARK INNOVAARE, my team, and our international network. I had a hotline to PARK INNOVAARE, which was always supporting me with advice, action, and more importantly, their fancy coffee machine (just kidding). They overloaded their evenings and weekends, helping me on all levels, even emotionally! I had an amazing team of world-leading experts in crystallization from Crystallise! AG and Ms. Brodeur supporting me in business development and sales. I was just lucky to have met them. As a foreign researcher (editor’s note: PhD from Canada), I had an extensive international network. This greatly helped us reach markets beyond Switzerland. Every bit as important as my team were the cantonal Immigration Office and the team from the local promotion agency (editor’s note: Standortförderung Aargau). They helped tremendously with the formalities; everything went perfectly smoothly and fast because of them. They even removed the language barrier and communicated in English! They just wanted to help us. These people are wonderful.

Swiss Terahertz is off to a good start. What are you aiming to achieve next?

We have one target and we know it well: we want to go public. Stock is the eventual venue of any successful company. Until then, we will establish market value by selling 5% of the shares every year starting in 2019 and use this money to buy shares in well-established corporations. We have endless tools. For example, we are set to be on solid footing in China, the world’s largest consumer market, and preparing for the launch of a breakthrough THz product. A couple of patents for newly-invented materials are currently lining up. We are investing heavily in R&D to stay on top. Our R&D partners are mainly Swiss companies and European research institutions. Now that we are financially strong, we will raise the risk bar all the way to the top. Our theme for 2019: thrill ride!

To learn more about Swiss Terahertz GmbH contact