The 1st of December 2017 marks the day another Slovak high-tech company entered the hall of fame of Startup Awards. The winning title for the best Slovak startup of this year went to a spin-off from the P. J. Safarik University in Košice, SAFTRA Photonics.
Established 3 years ago, the company is changing the process of water pollution analysis. SAFTRA Photonics groups together a team of researchers and experts in the field of photonics science, nanotechnology and organic chemistry with a business unit. The company is led by prof. Pavol Miskovsky, the head of the Center for Interdisciplinary Biosciences at the P. J. Safarik University.
The company primarily focuses on testing, analysis and controlling processes applied in medicine, environment, and cultural heritage. In the previous years, SAFTRA Photonics participated on projects developing a new drug for autoimmune diseases and on analyzing cultural artefacts in Slovakia.
The disruptive product that won them Startup Awards is a small portable device which embodies a new technology called NanoScreen that can identify “Persistent Organic Pollutants” (POPs) in food products and water. It has the potential to become a true game-changer with impact on quality of life. The European Union has recognized the market potential and SAFTRA Photonics received a financial support of EUR 1.2M from the Horizon 2020 SME Instrument Phase II, a EU programme bringing breakthrough innovation to market.
We spoke to the project manager Miroslav Konecny about what steps precede a product hitting the market, the length of a technological development, use of “NanoScreenTech” as well as the importance of having an international team.
Miroslav, who came up with the idea to apply for Startup Awards 2017?
Our company has been operating for three years now. Our CEO, an ambitious and competitive man, told me at the beginning of the year: “Miro, I want to win the Startup Awards this year!” We signed up, prepared thoroughly and won!
You mentioned that the development and research of the NanoScreen project was in the making for years.
Yes, research and development took more than 25 years. The team has made some discoveries fairly recently and it has accelerated the emergence of our company. In analytical chemistry, our method is not very much used and our product will certainly revolutionize water monitoring. NanoScreen is a new technology that opens up entirely new possibilities.
The process from a prototype to a valid certification can take a long time. What stages you need to go through?
In this field, development of a product takes years. It’s not like a software app that one can code in two months. There are many steps that are needed to complete technological solution. It is necessary to stabilize the product at a desired quality. One thing is to have a prototype, the other is to achieve production quality. Afterwards, the product can be validated.
If all goes well, a certified laboratory will issue a confirmation that the product is working as expected. This sends a clear message to the market and customers. The next step is certification. But even without it, our validated product can be used in some applications as an indicative tool e.g. for “triage”, preliminary sorting of samples. This is our plan for the next two years.
Is there any way to speed-up the process of certification?
What we do is basically a miracle. In this business, product development takes 10 years plus. Our plan to make a finished product within three to five years is super-ambitious. There are a lot of steps to be taken for getting a certification and it is a truly demanding process. Especially, if we talk about a life-saving application. Take an example of medicine. Before it can enter the market, it could take more than 10 years. We work in a similar field and users must be sure that they can rely on our technology.
Imagine this situation: I am a backpacker in Thailand and I would find a stream of water I want to drink from. I would use your product and test if the water is safe to drink. Is that the final product?
It’s not a bad thought since it really describes the essence of our product. A little difference is that in such a situation, one needs a solution to neutralize water more from bacteria, not from industrial pollution we are concentrated on analysing. Sprinkle some solution into water, mix it and the water is completely drinkable.
Can you give an example then?
Our solution is aimed more at companies who make products containing water from natural sources, e.g. a food business that utilizes a stream of water and needs to make sure it’s safe. Such companies are required to conduct reliable water analysis for the presence of organic pollutants every day.
Our NanoScreen technology may also be of interest to public bodies or non-governmental organizations, who would do tests by their own rules and not rely solely on big laboratories. It will be both cost-effective and affordable. The device will cost around ten thousand euros. This will allow for a “guerrilla” monitoring that is not possible at the moment. Also, we make the water monitoring affordable for poor countries that don’t have expensive labs.
How do you look for the best people to join your team?
As in every field, people are among the key factors for achieving success. In our industry, top scientists usually lack a sense of corporate culture or the experience with product finalization. On the other hand, there are people familiar with business but lacking the needed degree of excellence.
For this reason, we are currently looking for technicians and engineers to prepare the product for its launch into production. We are also working on creating international marketing, which will help us to find key customers and get orders abroad.
What people are you mostly looking for? For marketers and retailers or rather researchers and people from your industry?
Everyone is needed. As for marketers, they must be the kind of people who can build a brand and deal with big companies. This is not a mass-market, we are in B2B. In the first step, we need to convince corporations that our solution is effective for laboratories. This is the way we want to go. The second route is a joint venture for our so-called “One-Box-System”, a product that can fully analyse the water sample.
However, we want to create a wider team for the future production. Additionally, we acknowledge that international marketing cannot be done with a predominantly Slovak team. We must grow and build a world team for the world success.
Photos: Startup Awards