Entrepreneurship journey of VU spin-off Optics11

Entrepreneurship journey of VU spin-off Optics11

Talking on Dutch television about Optics11 and the collaboration with the Dutch Ministry of Defence, raising €5 million in funding for superior life science instruments and selling products worldwide: Vrije Universiteit spin-off Optics11 is scaling up. At IXA, we were curious to find out about their journey.

Davide Iannuzzi, you are the co-founder of Optics11 and also invented the proprietary technology that the company has been based on. How did you come to start the company?
In 2011, serial entrepreneur Hans Brouwer and I launched Optics11, based on an idea I had in 2006, during an experiment with quantum physics. While running this experiment, I needed a sensor. The ones that were available on the market, were not suitable, so I had to invent something new. I came with this idea of fabricating a small device on top of an optical fiber, and use the light of the optical fiber to measure how the sensor would move. Then I realized the idea could be used in many applications, but it took me a while to figure out how to valorize this idea. This is when I met Hans Brouwer, and we decided to bring the technology to the market. The company was born to bring a new generation of optical fiber sensors to market. By testing the market in different directions, we found out two main lines of products that we could develop, in two different industries: one is the life science instrumentation, so instruments that can help people who study life sciences; the other one is industrial sensing, and focuses more on monitoring different parameters in the environment, like noise, vibrations, electromagnetic waves and so on.

For me personally, it is a great adventure that we started, that we put forward together with a lot of bright people, who made a success of the company. It gives me a huge sense of pride to see how well it grew, how many people there are working now and how many products they are selling around the world. The company just got a new round of investment, which allows the company to solidify growth.

Niek, you are the current CEO of Optics11. How did you come to work at this company?
I studied at TU delft and love technology very much, so I first got to work at the company TNO, where I learned to develop very complex machines from a technical point of view, with software, hardware and optics, but what I missed most there was ‘who uses this, who pays for this, and what impact does this have on the world?’ For that, I really wanted to join a small company, to see how you turn such cool technology into a product that makes a difference for people. I joined Optics11 in 2012 as the Development Manager, where I learned how to build a company around your product, whilst seeing innovation as a top priority. This all interested me very much. Therefore, in 2016 I got the opportunity from the founders, Hans Brouwer was CEO first, to be the Chief Executive Officer of Optics11.

What is so special about the technology Optics11 uses?
For Optics11 Life, we use the unique fiber sensing technology to make a very small but very sensitive measurement probe. This probe enables fast and accurate measurement of something that was not easily measurable before: the local mechanical properties of cells, tissues and biomaterials. Mechanobiology is a field that is growing incredibly fast, and is now making waves in drug development and regenerative medicine. Our unique measurement capability allowed Optics11 Life to develop a high throughout measurement instrument, that enables researchers in pharmaceutical companies to improve the key processes in drug development and regenerative medicine.

Do you see a lot of demand for Optics11?
We are actually in a fantastic position as a company at the moment. In life science, you see that the whole world of drug development and medical treatment is moving from 2D biology to 3D biology. This means: drugs that used to be developed in a container are now being developed by complex small properties. Our instruments are decisive in this process, and it’s taking tremendous momentum. We not only see this with academic customers, but also with the big pharma companies and other companies; there is a great demand for this technology.

In industrial sensing, we see two enormous trends in the market. The first trend is the huge transition to renewable energy, this brings up all new measurement needs. In addition, there is something going on geopolitically in the world. Very prominently certainly, the situation between Russia and Ukraine, but also in the South-Chinese sea, with Taiwan. A very large part of this conflict is being fought underwater, which, for example is to be seen with the damages to the Nordstream pipeline. This is just one small part of everything that is going on underwater, with submarines, underwater drones. What we see is that the need for the very best underwater listening technology is increasing enormously. We have unique technology to offer, this was also the reason why we attended the talk show OP1 and were interviewed by the AD. The fiber optics technology that we have is suitable for making very sensitive hydrophones, an underwater microphone. I’m proud to say that we work very hard with the navy to use this for submarines, but it can also be used by unmanned submarines for surveillance or for monitoring static applications where, for example, you are going to monitor a pipeline, an electricity cable or an internet cable on the seabed to listen to ‘what is happening here’, ‘what kind of ships are passing by’, etcetera.

Davide and Niek, how did you experience support from IXA in growing Optics11?
Niek Rijnveld sees the support from IXA as a really nice foundation, especially for the start of Optics11. Davide Iannuzzi: “IXA (at the time VU’s Technology Transfer Office) helped with the patenting of the instruments, after this I worked with IXA to find an investor who could actually bring the product to market: they got me into contact with Hans Brouwer. In the whole process of starting up, we worked with people from IXA.

In which phase of starting your business do you see yourself right now?
Niek Rijnveld: “We are at a very exciting point for both businesses. We discovered new applications in the market, and basically developed a new market for our technology. This is a slow but steady process. For example, you really have to show the world an answer to the question ‘who needs this product?’. Now, certain megatrends in the world have grown with us. This doesn’t mean it’s easy for us of course, we have very professional customers with major interests. This means we now have to make sure that we get a better position in the market, by ensuring we sell more products, but also by guaranteeing that the quality of the products is high enough to serve those very professional customers well. This is also why we received a great investment recently. However, dealing with this is an enormous challenge. Your sales have to get to a higher level, but also your production and development. In addition, Human Resource is very important as well, to attract the right employees, keep them in the company and to be able to offer them a stimulating career development”.

What would you like to achieve in the coming years?
Niek Rijnveld: “My personal goal is to build and keep building a great company where you really make a difference in the world and preferably in the world of medical treatment, that’s why I’m going to focus on the life science branch. But also on the renewables side and the defence side (a wonderful customer). So building a beautiful company, with high quality products where we can continue to do plenty of innovation, yes that is really the dream.

What are your plans now?
We are actually about to turn our two business units into two independent companies. One company is called Optics11 life. I will become the CEO and fully focus on this part. Then you have Optics11 Industrial Sensing, which is now a separate business unit, but will soon become a separate company, with Juha van Riet as CEO.

What are key learnings in starting/scaling your company that you would want to share with future entrepreneurs, who would like to valorise their ideas and launch their own company?
Iannuzzi: “The key lesson for a professor starting a business is: find an experienced business partner who wants to bring your invention to market. A start-up is not about you; it is a team sport where the chain is as weak as the weakest link. And when it comes to the business aspects of the idea-to-market process, the weakest links, at times, might be the professor.”