One of Europe’s most valuable and mysterious technological resource is buried 100 meters underground, extending across the Swiss-French border.
And its commercial impact extends even further, reaching the ski slopes of Austria, a team of art forensics experts in Czechia, “smart” agricultural farms in Norway and police officers in Geneva.
Welcome to CERN, the operator of the Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator which helped discover the Higgs Boson “God particle” and which is now quietly investing in European startups.
Today there are more than 30 European startups out there with around €200k each to support their applications of CERN’s cutting-edge technology to a mind-boggling variety of products, from extremely fluffy artificial snow to acoustic sensors detecting street violence.
But there’s friction at the intersection of particle physics and entrepreneurship. Good science does not necessarily mean good business, with a number of CERN-supported companies seemingly falling into a black hole.
Like all good scientists, CERN sees the setbacks as just one step in a trial-error-repeat process. The entrepreneurial division, which is called CERN Knowledge Transfer, is rethinking its strategy.
The fluffy snow machine
Austrian startup Neuschnee stands out among the CERN startups for a number of reasons, not least because of its unusual product: artificial, fluffy-textured snow perfect for certain winter sports such as “snow skating”.
Unlike most of the applicants to one of CERN’s business “incubators” (there are 10 across Europe), Neuschnee already had a market-ready product and a patent when it entered the programme in Austria.
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Michael Bacher, Neuschnee's chief executive, says that while they already had a working product, he jumped at the chance to have CERN’s support to help “perfect” his snow.
The Austrian ski resort business is “very conservative”, says Bacher, so he needed a product that was leagues better and cheaper than the snow-cannon companies, which sell “high-density” (i.e. firm) artificial snow, to convince buyers to try something new.
It seemed like CERN could help him optimise the machines, using a numerical modelling technique developed by their scientists.
Unfortunately, the three months of intense collaboration didn’t quite work out. It did lead to a new technique for creating better super-fluffy snow – a scientific success. The problem is that this new technique would take 20 years to perfect and commercialise, and so was a business failure.
“It was successful in terms of science, but not in terms of application,” Bacher explains. “We could not use the results in the way we had hoped, because in the end we saw that it needed much more work to produce a real-life improvement at the scale we needed.”
The CERN startup accelerators have produced a number of success stories, including Swiss startup Securaxis, which pivoted in 2017 from a data-driven security intelligence software platform, to focus on “smart city” sound sensors.
Securaxis exemplifies CERN’s stated vision of supporting startups with a unique business proposition, but who could save time, money and resources by leveraging CERN’s tools.
In this case, before applying to CERN’s newest incubator near Zurich, the startup was already working on plans to use small acoustic sensors and machine learning algorithms to detect abnormalities in various contexts, like gunshots on the street, early signs of cracks in bridges or vehicle traffic surges.
Gaetan Vannay, the company’s chief operation’s officer, says their proposal happened to be a perfect candidate for CERN, because the acoustic sensors could use CERN's sophisticated system for collecting and controlling data from experimental sensors. In fact, a CERN engineer had also built his own acoustic sensor as a "pet project" and was interested in collaborating.
“Using CERN’s data acquisition system has been very important to us,” he says. “We didn’t have to develop it from scratch, and it’s been very powerful for our product.”
Without CERN’s support, Securaxis would likely have had a much longer journey to get to where it is now, says Vannay. The startup is running a number of proof of concepts, monitoring the safety of windmills and bridges, measuring the volume and direction of traffic and detecting gunshots on the street. The sensors have the precision to identify the type of gun from the acoustics alone, says Vannay
Vannay also credits CERN for increasing the interest Securaxis receives. This is in part because the power of CERN’s reputation has opened doors for the young startup.
“Last week we were at a fair in Hannover and we showed the CERN logo on our screen and told people we were backed by CERN, and there was an immediate reaction,” he says. “People from all over Europe were impressed immediately.”
“The CERN incubators are all about knowledge transfer, this is what makes them different from others. Where the incubator is based there is a lot of technological expertise, business coaching, and it opens access to finance because funds are always looking at what is happening in this business park... It gives us visibility.”
The CERN brand has also been influential for Czech company InsightART, which uses CERN scanner technology “to safeguard the world’s artistic heritage” by unmasking forgeries and aiding restoration projects.
In practice, however, InsightART’s team, led by business development manager Jan Sohar, has had little-to-no direct interaction with CERN or its researchers.
InsightART’s 2D and 3D scanners use CERN’s particle-detecting chips to create extremely precise high-contrast x-rays of paintings and sculptures. The company is part of CERN’s other channel for commercialisation: a collaboration project for businesses to license and use the chips in their own technology.
“For us, as a startup company, it is very important to have CERN as a strong partner behind us,” Sohar says. “It opens many doors.”
But Sohar feels that working more closely with CERN in practice would hold back, rather than support, the company’s commercial efforts.
“In theory, we could cooperate more with CERN but in practice, CERN is fundamentally a scientific organisation, whereas we are focused on our final customers,” he says. “The technological development we do is simply not comparable to the scientific development at CERN.”
Turning students into startup founders
Silje Uhlen Maurset knows firsthand how hard it is to build a startup using CERN’s technology. The Norwegian entrepreneur has two (abandoned) CERN startup projects under her belt, and has now joined the CERN team to develop the student entrepreneurship summer programme, learning from the challenges she herself has experienced.
Maurset’s more promising startup initiative was Apico, which used a CERN software platform called Quasar to integrate data from different types of sensors across Norway’s farms.
She learnt about the software during her entrepreneurship programme at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, a different style of CERN partnership in which students spend one intensive week at CERN to develop a product idea using a specific technology.
Apico startup was founded as a result. CERN’s technology was a perfect solution to the problem, she says, but ultimately Maurset didn’t feel she was the right person to implement it in Norway.
Student entrepreneurs are good at generating commercial ideas for CERN technology and assessing the market potential, Maurset says, but applying CERN’s tech in practice requires deeper expertise. Trying to run a CERN technology company in Norway with the much-needed experts firmly based in Geneva turned out not to be feasible.
“These technologies are really specialised for what they do at CERN,” says Maurset. “When you do find an application area, you need the technical expertise on hand... it is too difficult if you can't bring your technical expert with you to every meeting with potential customers.”
Maurset believes that CERN’s support enabled the Apico team to continue pushing forward with the business for much longer than they would have done otherwise. Now she’s trying to transform CERN’s student entrepreneurship summer programme for recent graduates, hoping the changes will help create more sustainable startups.
Primarily, this means focusing much more on creating strong founding teams around a product idea, so that all the important expertise stays with the entrepreneurs when they go back to their home countries. Maurset’s vision sounds like Entrepreneur First for people interested in particle physics technology.
“We really want to have an impact on society through startups,” she says, “but it takes time.”