In this interview, Carlos Lee from EPIC talks to Tim Hellwig and Maximilian Brinkmann, joint CEOs and co-founders of Refined Laser Systems (Münster, Germany), a company developing next-generation tunable lasers.
Carlos Lee: What’s the background to you founding Refined Laser Systems?
Tim Hellwig: Max and I both did an MSc and PhD in Physics at the University of Münster followed by postdoc research. Our focus was on nonlinear frequency conversion in optical fibers and the development of fiber-based ultrafast light sources for nonlinear microscopy. We soon became aware that the tunable lasers we were developing were truly unique because they could generate colors and wavelengths that other fiber lasers couldn’t and were ideal for multicolor imaging, particularly in the biomedical field.
Max Brinkmann: We started to present our work at research conferences and the feedback we got from both fellow researchers and potential customers was really positive, so we started to think about setting up a company to commercialize the technology.
TH: Fortunately, we were able to get advice from a very helpful person in the University of Münster’s Technology Transfer Department, who helped us navigate our way through the process of funding applications. This involved getting acquainted with market figures and projected incomes and costs, and writing a business plan. It was a really useful exercise because it forced us at a very early stage to look at things like how many groups were using lasers for similar applications, the potential market size, and how we compared in costs and features. We also had to apply the proof-of-concept to a demonstrator to show what the technology was capable of. In the end, we became part of two 18-month technology transfer programs—one funded by our regional government and the other by the federal government. The result was Refined Laser Systems, a university spinoff, which became operational in 2019.
CL: The usual career path for postdoc researchers is to stay in academia or go into industry. Did you ever consider these options?
TH: I thought about a career in academia, but concluded that because of the oversupply of really brilliant postdocs and scarcity of permanent positions, academia wasn’t any more secure than setting up my own company.
MB: For me, academia was never an option, so the choice was either a job in industry or to create my own company, which seemed like much more fun, and it would give me more freedom to be innovative—to do what I want.
TH: Of course, we knew there’d be risks; however, Max and I had a mindset that saw a startup as an opportunity to try something new and grow ourselves. If we failed, we wouldn’t see it as a personal failure, but just as an idea that didn’t work out.
CL: What have been your main challenges in developing the company?
TH: Having something that works in the lab is totally different from making it work in industry. We’ve had to go outside our comfort zone and learn a lot of new things like market figures, sales channels, how to advertise, and how to place our products. We’ve especially had to learn how to talk to customers—to understand their problems and not try to push the technology down their throats. This has involved getting to know their applications and problems and understanding how we can help them make money or improve a scientist’s research capabilities.
MB: I would add that while you have to be really good on the technical side, it’s important not to love the technology too much; that is, not try to push it into the market without really understanding the customer’s need. If your products are not exactly what the customer wants, you have to be prepared to pivot a little bit and make adjustments. We’ve been quite successful in this respect because we’ve been very open to how we move forward.
CL: What makes your lasers different from the competition?
TH: We entered the market with the very specific use case of coherent Raman microscopy. It’s a type of microscopy that’s used in biomedical research and is on the brink of transitioning into clinics. Hitherto, one of the major challenges with Raman microscopy has been the laser sources: they tend to operate in fixed wavelengths, they are still very expensive, very bulky, and need highly qualified personnel to operate. What we’ve done is to develop a turnkey, picosecond fiber laser source that’s compact and fully computer controlled, and provides an excellent combination of tuning speed and tuning range.
MB: Our laser sources are unique because they are relatively easy to operate, and as they are tunable they can generate more colors and wavelengths at much higher processing speeds than are currently available. We provide a standalone table-top version for hyperspectral coherent anti-Stokes Raman scattering (CARS) and stimulated Raman scattering (SRS) imaging, virtual hematoxylin and eosin (H&E) contrast, and pump-probe experiments. We also sell an OEM version that can be easily integrated into the customer’s imaging device for applications such as portable microscopes and fiber-coupled endoscopes.
CL: Where do you see yourself three years from now?
TH: We now have a growing workforce, which we hope to double in the next year. In three years, we hope to have grown out of the technology park that we're in right now and developed to a mid-sized company providing lasers to customers all over the world.
MB: Yes, to become an established company with several products in the field, but with still a lot of potential and vision to move ahead.
CL: What advice do you have for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
MB: First, just do it—that’s what has brought us to where we are. We didn’t overthink it and we weren’t discouraged by potential failures that lay ahead of us; we just gave it our best and did it. Second, listen to your customers, understand what they need, and if necessary, be prepared to make adjustments to the technology.
TH: It’s also important to understand that you don’t have to do everything on your own. You should listen and learn from people who already have experience in the things you’re trying to do and grow your network. We’ve been fortunate in having a very big support network that we’ve developed through collaborations with other universities and from business coaches we’ve met along the way, as well as from friends and family.