“Time Tagger” is the name of the “stop watch” with which the three alumni of the University of Stuttgart Helmut Fedder, Michael Schlagmüller, and Markus Wick founded their startup Swabian Instruments. “We manufacture measuring devices that can detect electrical signals particularly quickly,” explains Fedder. “What makes them special is that they can measure individual light particles with extremely high temporal precision.” The conventional fields of application for the Time Tagger are quantum physics and quantum technology.
Fedder and his colleagues are discovering more and more research areas and technology platforms that can use their instruments, such as drug research and tumor and virus diagnosis. In virus diagnosis, DNA building blocks are marked with fluorescent dyes. As soon as the right molecules dock to each other, the measuring device lights up briefly. The instrument also counts how often and in which color it lights up. “Microscopy of single molecules sounds exotic, but it’s a promising development that will hopefully enable us to determine DNA more quickly in the future,” says the 42-year-old.
Swabian Instruments: Research meets practical application
Fedder got the idea for the Time Tagger when he was a postdoc at the Institute of Physics (3) at the University of Stuttgart from 2008 to 2016. “For my own research I needed measuring instruments that didn’t exist,” the physicist recalls. “So I started developing my own devices.” Prof. Jörg Wrachtrup from the Institute of Physics (3) supported him as a supervisor, and, together with the later co-founders Schlagmüller and Wick, the team had the first measuring instruments ready after a very short time. Fedder is particularly proud of the good cooperation within the team and the commitment of his fellow founders: “We worked together across institutes. That’s not the rule in science, and that’s what has produced high-quality work.” Networked disciplines and interdisciplinary cooperation, the so-called “Stuttgarter Weg" (Stuttgart Way), is a trademark of the University of Stuttgart.
Becoming a technology leader in one year
On recommendation of Prof. Wrachtrup and Prof. Tilman Pfau, Institute of Physics(5), Fedder, Schlagmüller, and Wick applied for the EXIST startup grant from the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. Through measures such as an annual salary, money for material costs, coaching, workspaces at the university, and a mentor, the grant takes the load off founders. This allows them to write a business plan and concentrate on their work. Swabian Instruments used the grant to commercialize and market their product.
In the process, the company was supported by the Technology Transfer Initiative (TTI) [de] of the University of Stuttgart. The TTI GmbH advises students on all startup-related questions. “While receiving the grant, the most important thing was to sell to universities worldwide,” says Fedder. “And we launched the Time Tagger Ultra, the big brother of the first Time Tagger. We had the best time resolution worldwide on the market relatively quickly. We grew incredibly fast and soon even became a technology leader.” That’s why TTI suggested we apply for the Baden-Wuerttemberg Innovation Award. The innovation prize is awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises from industry, trade, and technological services. The state of Baden-Wuerttemberg honors the development of new products, processes and technological services, and the application of modern technologies. “In the case of the Innovation Award, there are five award winners and one special prize,” Fedder explains. “We expected to win the special prize at best, since we were still a very small company. The other award winners have about 500 employees. We were about six at the time.” But the three Swabians convinced the jury and made it into the top three.
As if that wasn’t enough, in 2019 the team was nominated for the German Startup Prize, where Swabian Instruments again made it into the finalists. The prize package included media training at ZDF (a German public service television broadcaster), a professional corporate film, and coverage in various media. The startup now has 16 employees and works on the technical level of Intel or Google. In addition, Mr. Fedder and his team are still involved in research projects at the university. “We are supervising doctoral students in cooperation with the university. That’s fantastic,” says Fedder. “We are pleased that the professors actively support us and that we can do so much creative research in our small team”.
The startup struggles to find real estate
“In retrospect, you have to say that it simply went very well,” Fedder says happily. “But there was actually one point that cost us some nerves: the real estate situation in Stuttgart.” It took the founders about a year and a half to find an office. “At times, we were seven or eight people working in a 40-square-meter space. After a short time, our EXIST garage was bursting at the seams,” the physicist recalls. The company has now found a new office in Zuffenhausen near Stuttgart.
Tips for founders
Mr. Fedder gives two tips for setting up a successful startup. The most important thing in the beginning is to sell something: “When I have an idea, I need to ask myself: Can I sell it? I need to be as specific as possible and ask: If I now go to the pedestrian zone in Stuttgart, how many people can I sell this to? If I now call all my colleagues, how many will buy it? Then I have to call them and really ask them. And then I ended up selling three items.” It’s very important to do business in a concrete way, Fedder emphasizes. “I shouldn’t wait two or three years to finish development and then hope that somebody will help me sell it, but sell it myself from the beginning.”
The second tip is a good team: “We said that the most important thing on the team is good co-workers. We’ll always take the time to look for them - it just takes time to get the good people.” You don’t necessarily have to have many different specialists on the team. There may well be three engineers, or three marketing students. However, it must be clear who does what in the team, and all business areas must be covered. “This has determined our growth rate,” Fedder explains. “From a financial point of view, we could have built the team and hired more people faster. But we told ourselves, first of all, we want good people, and secondly, we’ll take the time to train them well.” This allowed Swabian Instruments to build up financial reserves, which now pays off in times of corona.