Small nano-coated gadgets are in business at DTU

Even before its first anniversary Silmeco already has goods in stock and customers to serve. The project picked up speed when a couple of students from Copenhagen Business School contacted the Technical University of Denmark in search of a case. This led to far more than an assignment.

The laboratories at the Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology at the Technical University of Denmark (DTU) are buzzing with activity as usual. Scientists are working intensely on developing pioneering new technology and testing the latest scientific hypotheses. Yet in one of the laboratories Per Elsted Hansen is up to something completely different.

In just a few hours, with expert routine, he makes a batch of nano-coated substrates that he packs in a clean environment ready to be sent off to customers of Silmeco, the new business start-up of which he is co-founder.

Like all universities in Denmark every square metre of the laboratory is in high demand. How Per, who is neither a student nor a researcher at DTU, has still managed to get a foot inside the door is the story of how Silmeco was born.

First, we need to rewind to the time when researchers Anja Boisen and Michael Stenbæk Schmidt were making some pioneering discoveries at the Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology. They are not featured here but are represented by Tomas Rindzevicius - another researcher at the Department. Together with Per these three scientists established Silmeco.

DTU had everything ready

Anja and Michael had long been working with nanotechnology in connection with a technique called Surface-Enhanced Raman Spectroscopy (SERS). In brief, SERS identifies substances that are only present in very low concentrations for example in polluted water. SERS makes it possible to register the presence of the substance right down to a single molecule.

"In SERS you set up a test with a specific substrate that, in popular terms, enhances the fingerprint of the substance so that laser light can be used to get an image of the substance, and thereby identify it," Tomas explains.

There are a number of different substrates for this purpose. They are all complex to produce and therefore very expensive.

"Before I became involved Anja and Michael developed a method to produce very inexpensive nanomaterial. On this basis we created a new SERS substrate that is extremely sensitive. It is extraordinarily effective at registering substances in even lower concentrations than other substrates on the market so far and moreover it is cheaper to produce," says Tomas.

Anja and Michael were aware that their discovery might have commercial potential. So they expanded the group by hiring Tomas who had the right combination of scientific background and commercial experience from industry.

"I am originally from Lithuania, where I began my physics studies, but I took my Master's and PhD in Sweden where Chalmers University of Technology is a pioneer in the field of nanoscience" Tomas says.

After university, he worked in the industry for three years, where he equired a taste for commercial opportunities. Yet he missed the research dimension.

"When I spotted the position at DTU, I had long had the urge to try to strat up something new so it did not take me long to apply. According to my job description, I was to analyse the opportunities for commercialising the research group's SERS substrate" says Tomas.

No sooner said than done – Tomas became part of the group which now focused exclusively on optimising the substrate for the detection of PCB (polychlorinated biphenyls) in buildings. Since PCB in building materials are a serious health hazard there is a large well-defined need for an effective substrate.

Then one day the phone rang...

Per's business eyes spotted new opportunities

Meanwhile, at Copenhagen Business School, Per was studying business development. His bachelor project required him and another student to create a business plan for a company.

"I've always been interested in the natural science and I took some physics courses at university. So when I started looking for my case for this project I naturally had this field in mind. I'd read a bit about nanotechnology, and had gained the impression that this was a growth area. So the first place I called was the Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology" Per says.

He was put in touch with Tomas and they soon began to work together.

"Until then, no one had considered the project solely from a business viewpoint. The substrate was not optimised for PCB, but it did work for a large number of other purposes and was actually ready for sale. To me it was obvious that an independent company could be created from this, so after my paper had been was written it was just a question of getting started" Per says.

At the age of only 31 Per already had a lot of experience with starting up new companies. A quick glance at his LinkedIn profile soon reveals that he has a strong entrepreneurship gene.

"I'd already set up five companies so that aspect was nothing new for me. But until Silmeco I'd only been engaged in IT activities so this was something completely new. The software products that I've developed are 'just' put on the Internet and then that's it. The substrates are a whole new type of business in a rapidly expanding field. It's really exciting to be part of this" Per says.

DTU also has a big interest in creating viable new companies. In conjunction with its start-up Silmeco was supported with consulting services, sparring, and legal advice from DTU Nanotech, Copenhagen Spin-outs, and Stardust DTU.

CV, Tomas, aged 35

2012-now: Assistant Professor/Researcher at DTU Nanotech - Company Profile

2011-2012: Post Doc. at DTU Nanotech - Company Profile

2008-2011: Process Specialist at Obducat

2007-2008: Post Doc. at Chalmers University of Technology

2000-2007: Chalmers University of Technology, Master's and PhD in Physics

1996-2000: Vytauto Dižiojo University, Bachelor of Physics

Tomas is driven by a passion for science, and adding the business aspect creates the perfect combination. He is married to Kristina Saulyte-Rindzevice.

Thomas on LinkedIn

ABOUT SILMECO

The name Silmeco combines the words in the name of the technology behind the substrate: SILicon MEtal COating. It is called this because silicon is coated with a metal such as gold or silver.

DTU has an objective to support the development of spin-outs. In 2013, the target was seven new spin-outs.

DTU Nanotech is the Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology.

Stardust DTU is a student network for innovation and entrepreneurship.

Silmeco is linked to the Copenhagen Spin-outs (http://www.copenhagenspin-outs.dk/) project, whose aim is to support new business start-ups within biotechnology. The project is a collaboration between research institutions, innovation environments, sector organisations, investors, and research parks.

The inventors of the patented technology are 

Professor, Anja Boisen LinkedIn

Researcher, Michael Stenbæk Schmidt LinkedIn

Tomas Rindzevicius LinkedIn

Today, they are all employed by the Department of Micro- and Nanotechnology, DTU.

Researchers are not allowed to run companies

"Per's approach came at just the right time. We were concentrating on PCB detection, but he was aware that the substrate had a lot of other potential" Tomas says.

In principle, the substrate can be used to identify every type of molecule and therefore appeals to a wide range of users.

"It's primarily used in research and development, especially biotech. Most of our present customers are from the academic world but the industry is also interested in the product, and several sectors have already become customers including the food industry for running tests on contaminated food. There are countless potential applications which means that the sky is the limit" Tomas says.

One limitation, however, is that the technique is not very well-known yet. Training is also needed to be able to use it.

"We're not worried about the challenge of training the users since it's incredibly easy to learn" Tomas ensures, to which Per adds that even he can do it…

Knowledge of the SERS substrate is spreading like rings in water since Silmeco has created a website which is thoroughly search-engine optimised: a Google search for 'SERS substrates' ranks Silmeco high in the hit list. Have a go for yourself - it is pretty impressive.

"We have so to say got everything ready for selling a lot of substrates. We just aren't allowed to do it ourselves..." Tomas says a little impatiently since he would love to do so.

The problem is, that researchers employed by the Department are not permitted to run companies concurrently. So for the time being, Silmeco's operations are entirely in Per's hands. He produces the substrates and then ships them, as well as take care of the accounts, website, and marketing.

Yet Tomas is ready to get involved too because even though he loves his work in the group he is ready to leave it for a job with Silmeco.

Focus on customers

Silmeco not only has its own website with special offers, an ongoing production of substrates, and an active CEO: it actually also has customers.

"We have not met anyone who thinks our business concept is a bad idea. The researchers that have tried out our product have all given positive feedback. So right now we need to raise some capital for the company" Per says.

The key task for Silmeco in the immediate future is to sell and market the SERS substrates. Nanotechnology research and technology are, unfortunately, still uncharted waters with high costs. Untill the company has enough capital to undertake its own research and development these activities take place in cooperation with DTU.

Nonetheless, Per reveals that they are also seriously considering developing software for the product - in due time.

As acting CEO, today Per runs Silmeco on his own at the moment. He is very optimistic about  the future and shares Tomas’ dream of continuously growing and developing the company. First earn more money, then hire Tomas, and then...

CV, Per, aged 31

January 2013-now: Partner and CEO at Silmeco

2012-now: Co-founder of Undisclosed

2012-now: Co-founder of Atlibra.com

2012-now: Copenhagen Business School, MSc in Finance and Strategic Management

2012: Technical University of Denmark/DTU, PhD course

2009-2012: Copenhagen Business School, BSc in Economics and Business Administration

2002- now: Owner of PressPort

2000-2005: Co-founder of Immisceo I/S

Per started his first company at the age of 18 and today owns or co-owns four companies. He specialises in business combined with high technology. 

Per on LinkedIn LinkedIn

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