We met Carlo Centonze from HeiQ a ETH-Spin-off from 2004. HeiQ (pronounced [hi-kew] is focusing on new textile technologies for Outdoor activities – merging the spirit of the hike with hi-quality additives and intelligent materials.
Carlo, Who are you?
I’m Carlo, CEO and co-founder of the ETH Spin-off HeiQ Materials AG. I studied at ETH forestry engineering and did my MBA at the University of St. Gallen. Eleven years ago I co-founded my second Spin-off, HeiQ with Murray Height. My first ETH Spin-off experience was with Myclimate. Apart from that I’m a proud father of two young kids who tries to find every now and then time for jogging.
What does your company do?
HeiQ creates specialty chemical effects for textiles. Our core focus is on textile finishes like fluorine free water repellant technologies such as the ones you get when buying Goretex products, just better. HeiQ offers chemicals that enable textiles to show enhanced properties and e.g. have cooling effects or make them odor free. Today HeiQ has over hundred products offered to the market!
What inspired you to start your own company?
The Swiss Alps! In the summer of 2004 my friend Murray Height and I went hiking with our girlfriends in the Swiss mountains. After wearing for for five days the same Polyester T-Shirt our girlfriends kindly requested the ‘gentlemen’ to keep a walking distance of at least 100 meters ahead. We had a musty bynote indeed! That’s when we realized that there was an unsolved problem in the market for producing synthetic textiles that don’t develop malodours when wearing them for a long time. Having experienced this problem first hand and being two engineers, we quickly came up with a solution by creating a new material and technology that enabled us to functionalize synthetic textiles to stay odorless for days when worn! This technology laid the foundation for our company and the success we have today.
What has been your biggest failure to date?
I believe you fail every day. It is an inherent part of being a young company that forces you to learn how to live with constant failures and at the same time learn from your mistakes. The biggest failure, I believe, was probably for us deciding to start our company without having any clue about the material that we were going to produce, the new manufacturing technology that we wanted to scale up nor the targeted market we wanted to sell to. I think that was our biggest mistake, but after the decision was made, it was already too late and we had to fight it out. Today HeiQ has thirty-five employees with eighteen different nationalities, working in nine countries on four different continents. But having said that, we also have a long list of over seventy ex-employees who either didn’t manage to grow with the company due to their personal skill set or because they did not manage to cope with the high pressure and learning levels that are associated with constant changes that every start-up goes through before finding its right business model and right place in the market.
Why did you base your company in Zurich?
We started out as an ETH Spin-off and founded our start-up in Zurich due to the favorable conditions you receive as an ETH Spin-off, such as reasonably low rent costs at the office space in Technopark and access to ETH’s institutions during the initial research phase. In Zurich, spin-offs get a lot of support to survive during their first, most challenging and most crucial years of existence.
After having proven our business model and making our first experiences, we wanted our company to grow. At this stage Zurich became less attractive and we moved to a more suitable place for a manufacturing company – the canton of Aargau. It offered us full backing on a political as well as a financial R&D and loan level. Among other things, the department of education granted us a million francs in funds to be allocated for our research within universities of Switzerland and abroad. This was essential for the development of our best innovation so far, HeiQ Smart Temp.
Where do you see yourself in five years from now?
(Laughs) Hopefully fishing.
Would you say that your technology has a disruptive potential and if so, why?
Absolutely not. This is something that all start-ups hope for but only very few reach this goal. That is why it is so important to actually do your homework on the business model and study the mechanics of the market. Disruptive technologies occur very seldom. For these to appear we need the right business model and the right technologies, promoted by the right people at the right time and at the right place. Some of our pipeline technologies under development have such a disruptive potential, we think we are ready for it now. Today we run a pipeline of 40 innovations, one of them – if successful – has a potential of being disruptive. But the chances for this to happen are as so often a fair 50/50.
Is time the most important factor for creating disruptive technology?
It is a question of time and of being able to make smart choices: Putting the right people in the right place, with the right business model and making them focus on doing the things they believe in can create a disruptive product. Sadly, many potentially disruptive technologies die off after a few years because the innovators didn’t do their homework on the business model or were not able to go market with their innovation. Disruptive technology by itself is not disrupting anything, it is all about how you manage to make it disruptive and time is a key factor here.
Thank you Carlos, for your time. Visit HeiQ