“When I get up in the morning, I look forward to the day.” The 29-year-old mathematician Simon Grüning is chief technology officer of the UZH start-up askEarth and still feels “passionate”, as he says. “I love what I do.” Founded at the beginning of the year by four colleagues, askEarth is an online platform that allows users to download aerial images of any place on Earth onto their laptop for free. The technology behind it is highly complex and relies on Earth observation by satellites. The data is sourced from the European Space Agency (ESA), but the founders want to ensure the platform is simple to use – the aim being that anyone in the world can request images of Earth from an aerial perspective.
The idea is promising and new. And the young entrepreneurs Simon Grüning, David Berger, Manuel Gerold and Gaetan Petit are intrinsically motivated. This means that two important conditions for a future success of the young UZH start-up are already met. “What’s required now is a need, a societal demand for the tool,” says Manuel Merki, community and program manager at the UZH Innovation Office, which supports students and researchers at UZH who want to found a company. Whether a market for askEarth exists or can be created is currently being explored by the young entrepreneurs. They are showing their innovative platform to as many people as possible, to find out “who is the most excited by it,” as Grüning puts it.
“Innovative founders who are willing to take risks can highlight new solutions for social challenges,” says Manuel Merki, who is in contact with various UZH start-ups. He considers societal recognition to be an important incentive for those founding of a company. “Highly trained specialists in the technology sector can get extremely well-paid jobs in renowned firms. By founding a start-up, on the other hand, they are taking a considerable risk,” adds Merki. It’s all the more important, Merki feels, that their commitment is valued and that there’s support for their ideas, despite the risk. This then acts an enormous incentive to really go for it. Simon Grüning certainly confirms this: “The fact that people believe in us is just fantastic.” Grüning is currently being supported with a UZH Entrepreneur Fellowship.
The successful company founder Deana Mohr, CEO and co-founder of MUVON Therapeutics, agrees. She clearly remembers the excitement she felt seven years ago, when the EU awarded her one of the sought-after grants that are available for consortiums. After completing her PhD thesis in radiopharmacy at ETH and further specialist studies in regenerative medicine at UZH, she had applied for a Horizon 2020 grant from the European Commission together with four partners. Their success catapulted the idea to develop a treatment therapy for stress incontinence in women within the realms of possibility.
The EU grant enabled Deana Mohr to spend the following five years working intensively on bringing the therapy, which was effective in the lab, closer to practical application. And she hired the first employee, Jenny Prange, who is now CTO at MUVON Therapeutics. Together they are focusing on the next steps in moving the therapy from laboratory to real-world application. Mohr attended several courses in entrepreneurship at UZH. At the Innovators Camp, she got to know the economist Steve Kappenthuler, whom she was able to employ thanks to a UZH Entrepreneur Fellowship. He went on to become co-founder and is now the company’s chief business officer. During this time, Mohr also gained her mentor Daniel Eberli. As urologist and senior physician at the UniversityHospital Zurich, Eberli is an important member of the scientific advisory board of MUVON Therapeutics.
“Before founding the start-up, I put together a matrix,” Deana Mohr recounts. “What kind of co-founders do I want? Which qualities, expertise and personality traits should they have?” That was five years ago. The start-up is currently at a point where it needs to grow before it can take the next hurdle of meeting further international regulatory requirements. Deana Mohr planned the staff expansion carefully, defined the core values of the start-up and communicated them clearly when interviewing candidates. “Hire slow, fire fast,” is her motto. A start-up, even a successful one like MUVON Therapeutics, can’t afford to get it wrong when hiring. Those who join need to have what it takes.
Equally important is that new staff members fit well into the team. In that respect, Mohr feels she can rely on her gut instinct. “More often than not, I’ll know within the first few minutes of the interview whether someone is suitable.” During the trial period, she has regular chats with the new people. Together they analyze what’s working well and what isn’t just yet. If she realizes that someone for instance isn’t able to respond flexibly enough to the specific requirements at MUVON Therapeutics, and there are also “negative signals” from the existing team, she ends the employment relationship within a suitable timespan. Fortunately, that happens quite rarely. “A high-performance team can only grow on healthy ground,” Mohr emphasizes.
What the newly hired don’t need to do is think and act like the boss – on the contrary. “I don’t need another Deana, I know what I already know. I need somebody who complements my strengths, who can be the next piece in the puzzle of mastering the challenges that I don’t know about or don’t want to tackle.” Although she is still directly involved on many levels, the core tasks of management have been defined and allocated. Deana Mohr has passed all aspects of production to Jenny Prange, and the business and commercialization strategy to Steve Kappenthuler. Mohr mainly concentrates on funding: “From a certain point onwards, we needed capital sums with a few extra zeros attached.”
The start-up askEarth can’t yet afford to pay salaries for staff. The four founders would have liked to include the experienced innovation manager Nina Walker in the founding team. But in the end, she decided on a job that offered greater financial security. Having worked together for many years, the askEarth team and Walker are now exploring ways in which they can best support each other. “We founders are all very young and have fewer private commitments,” Simon Grüning acknowledges. “That’s why this is the best time for us to say ‘yes, let’s do it!’”
“Building a well-functioning team is challenging in virtually every start-up,” says Manuel Merki from the UZH Innovation Office. askEarth and MUVON Therapeutics handled it well. “Many make the mistake of looking for similar people when expanding their team.” Or they employ people who can’t match their skills, thereby doing themselves a disservice. According to Merki, the most successful model is where “a team consisting of several founders hires employees who are more skilled in a particular task than everyone else and who believe in the company’s potential.” This was the case with MUVON Therapeutics.
When a company is facing something big, new, unfamiliar, the core team usually doesn’t have the necessary expertise. “That’s when we get the expensive specialists in,” says CEO Deana Mohr. After every hurdle that MUVON Therapeutics overcomes in the development of its therapy for regenerating muscles with early indications of stress incontinence, the regulatory requirements become stricter. The company then has to invest and hire specialists. But as a rule, the motto is to do as much as possible yourself.
For the askEarth team, which is still in the very early stages, it’s no different – sometimes questions come up that none of the four founders has asked themselves so far. That’s when they draw on their extensive network. Gaetan Petit and Manuel Gerold are the networkers in the team and have a wide range of contacts they can tap into. These include coaches and professional experts at the UZH Innovation Hub, staff at the Swiss Space Center and ESA, and colleagues at ARIS, the Academic Space Initiative Switzerland. A large network is extremely useful, agrees Deana Mohr, and it needs nurturing. It’s not enough to attend events and conferences, or to have the occasional coffee with someone on the UZH entrepreneurship courses and then simply leave it at that. It takes time and energy, but it’s an investment that pays off. “That’s also how you might suddenly gain access to the right investor,” says Mohr. To ensure it remains at the forefront of the information exchange on regenerative medicine, MUVON Therapeutics also proactively seeks out networks specifically in this sector. One such networking source is LinkedIn, where the whole team can engage in conversations. This generates contacts which might turn out to be useful in the long term, even if they’re not of immediate benefit.
For every start-up there are phases when swift action is required. That can lead to mistakes being made. “In such situations, it’s important to test one’s own assumptions as quickly as possible,” says Manuel Merki from the UZH Innovation Office. “You have to look at the reasons for the mistake without feeling personally judged, and learn from it for the next situation.” Termed “failing forward”, this strategy is about recognizing the mistake as quickly as possible, discussing it openly and proceeding with new insight. Through continuous improvement, a company can progress despite mistakes.
Finding out whether the company is still on the right track or whether more than just details need changing is very challenging, says Grüning, CTO of askEarth. The company’s founders come from entirely different fields of research and six months in, none of them sees himself as the CEO who dictates the direction. So they’ve established their own culture of information exchange. At least once a week they sit together in person and talk. If things are perceived differently or views are drifting apart, “then we carry on talking until we understand each other’s viewpoint and we’re all in agreement with each other again,” says Grüning. “Taking the time to do this is invaluable. And in the end, it also makes it much easier to keep the shared vision alive.”
Manuel Merki says this concept of “liberating structures” enables a team to focus on its core aims. Research has shown that clear decision mechanisms and a system of regularly checking in with each other have a liberating, rather than constricting, effect. Provided the start-up encourages open communication and a good feedback culture. Where this is the case, clear structures are as helpful as a well-known ritual that one has learned to appreciate. Addressing different approaches within the team becomes a matter of habit and the team members learn to make constructive use of controversial discussions, rather than playing off opposing opinions in an aggressive or derogatory manner. The slogan here is: “It’s not either or – it’s both and more.”
“In the beginning, we were all in charge of countless different things,” askEarth co-founder Grüning remembers. Now, just over a year later, a division of tasks has emerged within the team. The four founders are aware of their strengths and weaknesses and mutually support each other. “I’m very passionate, but also a little impulsive,” Grüning says of himself. “I have a thousand ideas, and I’m often here, there and everywhere. Networking isn’t really my thing.” He’s glad that the others are different. “For instance, Manuel Gerold, the business manager, has a plan, a timeline, defines milestones and brings steadiness and structure into it all.” Gaetan Petit is the strategist, he has experience and an extensive network of contacts. The division of duties came about “very organically, in a way that felt right for us,” says Grüning. The process was helped along by “lots of communication and soft skills, to empower the other person.” It also means that “we look out for each other,” he emphasizes. His colleagues for instance make sure that their impassioned CTO takes a holiday every now and then.