Nurturing startups during the pandemic

July 27, 2020
Trumpf, the German maker of laser machine tools, is encouraging employees to build startups. And it works.

The global pandemic has disrupted supply chains, and sales processes in the industry came to an abrupt halt earlier this year. Trumpf, the German manufacturer of laser machine tools, was hit hard by these events. Their financial year has ended on June 30th and they saw sales decreasing by around 8 percent and a decline in orders received from 3.7 last year to 3.3 billion euros now. Which was softened already by their ongoing sales of CO2 -lasers for EUV generation.

And even if things relax now in Germany and Asia, the problems on the international sales arena do not vanish: “We launched far too few new projects in March, April and May” said Peter Leibinger, the CTO and owner of Trumpf, on a recent press conference. Many large investments need several months of negotiations until the contract is signed. Therefore, he expects reduced revenues in the autumn as well.

In order to maintain the necessary liquidity on the one hand and to enable social distancing on the other hand, Trumpf has reduced many activities. Still, they try to retain their most precious asset: Innovation.

The in-house startup program

With more than 10% R&D spending, Trumpf does a lot to stay on top of laser technology development. In 2016, they founded their own venture capital company, to engage with new technologies at an early stage. One year later, they went one step further and started an internal program to encourage their own employees to build startups. It is called “Internehmertum”, which could be translated as “Intrapreneurship”.

How does it work? Employees can develop an idea during a part of their regular working hours. Six weeks after submission of a short draft they are invited to present their ideas in a one-day event. At such an event 30 to 50 ideas are presented, just about 10% are promoted to the next level. Three months later a decision is made on cancelation or foundation of a real startup.

After four such rounds three startups are active in the market and another two are in the process of registration as a legal entity. The new companies move out of Trumpf, in separate locations. New IP becomes property of the startup, Trumpf remains the owner of the startup. The whole program has been extended from Germany to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. A further expansion is on the roadmap, as Christof Siebert, the manager of the startup program, confirmed.

Selling AM machines for 55 k€

One Click Metal is one of the new foundations. The team started from Trumpf’s program for additive manufacturing (AM). This technology of laser-based 3D-printing has raised a lot of interest in recent years. But so far, the high price of the machines is a major obstacle in the introduction of AM. One Click Metal developed a machine that will sell for less than 55,000 Euro, which is a fraction of what regular industrial machines cost.

They use a diode laser and simple x-y-kinematics instead of a fast scanner. “On every screw we asked ourselves: do we really need it?” said the startup founder and CEO Björn Ullmann. “And for the first prototype, we focused very much on the point that we can make every piece in our workshop.” The actual working chamber is 150 mm by 150 mm by 150 mm, which is good for 80 to 90% of what customers demand says Ullmann. A few pieces can be made this way, those who want to set up series production may still consider a larger machine.

One Click Metal presented its first machines at a 2019 tradeshow, currently the startup enters the next phase with 20 employees.

Trumpf has nurtured more startups: One named Peers is dedicated to education processes in companies. Another one, Q.ant, targets quantum sensing technologies. As Peter Leibinger said in a press conference on July 23, two more companies will complete legal matters within the next one or two months and get started as well.

Leibinger, who cares personally for each of the startups, is expecting even more startups to evolve. Trumpf offers the backing of a large company combined with the freedom of a startup. Thus, he hopes that program becomes more popular among employees and attracts the most gifted people. "We are looking forward to the next round, and we will definitely continue."

About the Author

Andreas Thoss | Contributing Editor, Germany

Andreas Thoss is the Managing Director of THOSS Media (Berlin) and has many years of experience in photonics-related research, publishing, marketing, and public relations. He worked with John Wiley & Sons until 2010, when he founded THOSS Media. In 2012, he founded the scientific journal Advanced Optical Technologies. His university research focused on ultrashort and ultra-intense laser pulses, and he holds several patents.

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