Dr. Alexander Knüttel

Foto von Dr. Alexander Knüttel

Dr. Alexander Knüttel

Founder and managing director of AKmira optronics, a Potsdam start-up in the field of medical technology

 

What do you do for a living and what does your company develop?

I am the founder and managing director of a company that develops components and scanners, so to speak, which can be used in medicine for endoscopic examinations in different parts of the human body. Endoscopes were previously equipped in such a way that they generate two-dimensional images of the parts of the body into which they are inserted. In the future, however, one would like to have the whole thing three-dimensional, i.e. achieve a high degree of accuracy in the examination. To achieve this, our company has developed a combination of an endoscope and a 3D microscope. And that is what will define our product within the next few years.

 

When did you found your company, how big is your company and what disciplines does your team consist of?

I founded the company at the end of last year (editor's note: end of 2020). We currently consist of a team of four people. However, the team should be built up to a size of nine or ten people. So we're a typical start-up company.

Our project encompasses various technical disciplines: optics, electronics, FPGA programming (i.e. extremely fast components with which hardware can be programmed), GPU programming (i.e. graphics cards) and PC programming. We are currently particularly looking for software programmers, CPU and GPU programmers.

 

What did you study? Did you already specialize in optics during your studies?

I am a physicist. During my studies, I didn't specialize in optics, but did a lot in the field of magnetic resonance imaging / MRI. I also did my doctorate there. During my postdoc stay in the USA, I switched to optics.

 

How does product development work? What is it about?

Such a development builds up: First you collect theoretical thoughts, then you maybe simulate something. There are nice simulation tools for that. If we are now talking about our area, the next step is to set up development at an optical table. In order for it to become a product, the individual components must be put together using constructions. The product is initially set up in bulk on the optical table. This is not so easy. The product has to be created in such a way that it can be easily miniaturized later.

 

Is there a constant need for inventiveness and creativity when developing a product?

From my experience I can say that a development is not just a series of ideas that automatically lead to a product. About 30% inventiveness and 70% hard work and perseverance are required for the product to work in the end. In the beginning there are of course the ideas. That is clear. You cannot develop new products without ideas. Developers are not, however, “Daniel Düsentriebs” who are constantly inventing something. You have to deal intensively with the individual processes of a development in order to produce a result. I have already been granted 23 patents in my life and two more are pending. I'm very proud of that. The implementation of the ideas was always the real work.

 

Did you learn how to implement ideas during your studies or was it learning by doing?

I would say that it’s basically all learning by doing. For me, studying was like going to school, it was about having the right to do it. In any case, I was introduced to various topics during my studies, and eventually I specialized in one area which was a great help. However, you don't necessarily learn the creativity and perseverance for development during your studies. It was only in practice that I gained important experience and really developed. For example, after graduating, I learned that things basically don't work at first, and that you always need to evaluate them. Plus, I learned that you only come to success step by step.

 

How do you develop a good product that can also be used in everyday life?

That depends on how long you've been in business. I've been dealing with medical technology for half my life. I learned how doctors tick, what they need and want. But I've also learned what I can and can't do, what I want and don't want. The medical technology sector is very broad. It is impossible to know everything there, all applications, software certifications, etc. A large network is helpful in my work, in which I can find contact persons for specific questions. You can acquire the knowledge you need for your own development little by little.

I also noticed that medical technology courses mainly train generalists. But I attach much more importance to experts from the classic training areas, such as optics, electronics, physics and programming. Medical technology is so diverse. You can't go in every direction.

 

How do you keep up to date with the necessary medical knowledge? Do you have direct contact with the medical professionals?

You always have to be in contact with the end customer. That’s a must. Especially as a newly founded start-up, this close contact is needed, for example when it comes to the design of the product or the device, the handling, etc. The experiences and wishes of the customers have to be taken to heart and here, too, you need to acquire the appropriate knowledge. We are not medical experts and we don't have to be. First and foremost, I'm a physicist who builds endoscopic scanners that doctors will use in the future. I can acquire the knowledge for my work in the medical field through contacts with medical specialists.

 

What are your tasks as the CEO of your company? What are you responsible for every day?

Since we are still at the very beginning, the first thing to do now is to set up the project and that is a process that does not end overnight. This involves investor talks, administration, even mundane things such as dealing with server structures and the like. I also have to train new employees. I'm currently recruiting, which is quite a highlight for me. A project like this stands or falls with the team. I have the ideas, but I need good people to implement them with me. We are a high-potential start-up.

In addition, I have to act within my network and look for cooperation partners there, because we cannot do everything ourselves and I have to keep in contact with the medical professionals.

 

Was it already clear to you during your studies that you wanted to start a business?

No, that came later. During my postdoc phase in the USA, I got to know the American entrepreneurship spirit and I liked that. I wanted to do that too. After being back in Germany for two or three years, I founded my first start-up.

 

Did you just get started or did you have to learn how to start a company?

Here, too, the best way to learn again is through learning by doing. I have attended IHK courses on the subject of founding. However, I have to say that I learned the most when I talked to people or gained my own experience. You don't learn it through courses alone. You have to learn from mistakes. Unfortunately, you will not be spared that. You also need a high level of motivation and very good stamina. You have to want to go through walls and ultimately go through them.

 

How do you deal with setbacks when you can't go through those walls?

In the end, it's about persistence, that is, persevering even in difficult times, such as the Corona crisis now. Setbacks will be there all throughout life. That means, in times of crisis, not shying away from a lot of hard work and long working days, but persevering and giving everything day after day. Luck is also part of it, but not the only thing. 

 

How fast-paced is your area? Do you have a lot of competitive pressure?

The pressure of competition is currently not that high. The main thing now is to apply as much energy as possible to the project idea. It's very challenging. For example, it is about dealing with technical setbacks.

 

What were the last three things you did at work?

1. I have had investor talks. This is necessary for building a start-up company and it preoccupies me constantly.

2. I'm also helping to set up the commercial space, organize the furnishings, etc.

3. Above all, however, I am currently looking for candidates for the team.

 

What do you love about your job?

My job is very diverse. I deal with new ideas and always like to take a mental walk. I am an inventor and I am very enthusiastic about getting something new off the ground.

That is also the reason why I moved to Potsdam. I come from Mannheim and through research I found out that Brandenburg is very open to technological innovations. That made me move the center of my life here. And Potsdam is a beautiful city, even if that wasn't the deciding factor in coming here.