Helen Yau, Chief Operating Officer of Koln3D, is originally from Hong Kong and has been living in Geneva, Switzerland, for the past 30 years. She came to Switzerland with her mother to escape Hong Kong’s retrocession to China. After studies in mathematics and computer science applied to the humanities, complemented by a master’s degree in educational sciences focusing on e-learning, Helen developed a passion for the human aspect. She joined Koln3D, a company offering comprehensive tailored medical solutions.
An interview with a determined woman who believes that innovation should serve humanity.
How was Koln3D founded?
Koln3D was established in Hong Kong in 2015. Mr Yau, the CEO of Koln3D, had a background in manufacturing parts and became interested in metal 3D printing. At the time, a surgeon at a Hong Kong hospital wanted a custom metal implant of a talus. He knew Mr Yau and his company’s reputation for metal 3D printing, though not necessarily suited for the human body. This marked the beginning of their adventure. The operation was highly successful, and extensive follow-up over several years resulted in a thriving patient. Building on this success, they began printing other body parts such as hips, shoulders, and maxillofacial components.
What is the process for creating these parts? Do you have specific certifications?
Each printed part is custom-made and patient-specific. We collaborate with surgeons who explain their issues and needs. We then handle the technical aspects, covering the entire value chain from concept to polishing and delivery to medical professionals.
Once the part is implanted, the surgeon monitors its acceptance by the body. Today our focus is solely on medical 3D printing. Extensive scientific studies have been conducted to determine suitable alloys and better adapt parts to the human body. We closely follow scientific research from top universities worldwide.
By leveraging the collaboration between doctors and medical engineers, we are committed to providing high-precision personalised implants, templates, and surgical tools tailored to each patient’s unique anatomy and the specific requirements of the surgeon. Our supplier of metal powders (our raw material) is internationally renowned. Koln3D holds ISO 13 485 certifications, which specify quality management system requirements for the medical device industry. We have certified not only the processes but also biocompatibility tests.
In which field does your company operate? What are the main activities? What services and products do you offer?
We offer various products, apart from custom implants, including cutting guides. These guides aid orthopaedic surgeons in precisely cutting bones and reducing operation time. The cutting guides are also custom printed based on the bone’s surface. Since bone surfaces vary between individuals, it is important that the part is a perfect fit to the person’s morphology. These guides ensure accuracy for novice surgeons, as there is only one way to cut, thus minimising the risk of human error.
Why did you choose the Canton of Neuchâtel to set up and expand your business?
Koln3D Switzerland was established in Geneva in 2020. After two years, our CEO wanted to begin production in Switzerland. To scale up, we required significant industrial space. I explored Geneva, Lausanne, Yverdon-les-Bains, Neuchâtel, Sainte-Croix and other French-speaking cantons. Ultimately, we chose Neuchâtel due to its compelling medtech ecosystem and the warm reception from the service of the economy, notably Mr Vincent Von Arx. His support, assistance in finding partners, and locating industrial space were invaluable for a small company like ours. Competitive rent prices in the canton were also decisive. Neuchâtel is a canton where innovation is very important, featuring academic and industrial players, making it an ideal location for us.
We are on the verge of launching a research project with the EPFL in Neuchâtel. Discussions with several hospitals are also ongoing.
Who are your main customers and competitors at present?
Currently, we cannot market our products in Switzerland and Europe. For instance, we are in the process of obtaining CE certification for our cutting guides. In the near future once we acquire the CE certification, we will be able to sell our products in Europe.
Some partners are interested in our products, but without certification, we cannot sell. The certification process is time-consuming, especially due to recent regulatory changes within the European Union which created quite a few problems for us.
Regarding competitors, a few companies are active in 3D printing in general, with specialization in areas like dental implants. However, we specialize exclusively in custom medical 3D printing, making us unique in the market. This emerging market is still taking shape.
How do you perceive and cultivate innovation within your company?
Neuchâtel is the cradle of nano and microtechnology. The canton features entities like CSEM, EPFL, Microcity, and HE-Arc. This stimulating environment facilitates our expansion and the recruitment of qualified German-speaking personnel. This will enable us to develop the Swiss German market. We always strive to be at the forefront of innovation, closely following scientific publications related to surface treatment, 3D modelling etc.
How do you see your company in 5-10 years?
We aim to develop both the French and German-speaking Swiss markets and promote our implants. Our goal is to offer high-quality products for patients. With our cutting guides, surgery time could be significantly reduced, subsequently lowering operation costs.
What aspects could the canton work on to improve its attractiveness to businesses?
Reducing corporate and personal tax rates would make Neuchâtel even more attractive for companies and individuals.