Present in the canton for more than 20 years,SUSS MicroOptics is a major player in the photonics and micro-optics industry. Interview with its CEO, Dr. Reinhard Völkel.
How did your business develop in the canton?
After my doctorate in micro-optics in Germany, I came to Neuchâtel in 1994 for a post-doctorate at the ITM (Institute of Microtechnology) formerly located at the University of Neuchâtel and which has since been integrated into the EPFL Neuchâtel.
In 1999, we created a spin-off from the ITM thanks to the investment of the German company Suss MicroTec.
In 2012, we moved to Innoparc, where we invested five million in a new production site. Today, we employ 120 people.
Our turnover increased from CHF 16 million in 2018 to CHF 26 million in 2019, generated by a portfolio of more than 180 customers worldwide.
This year we are building a new production site in the Innoparc IV building at Rue de la Pierre-à-Mazel 39. This will be our second 800m2 clean room.
In 2017, we entered the automotive lighting market. The rest of our business is dedicated to fiber coupling, telecommunications and semiconductors. 10% of our activity is dedicated to the medical sector, for example endoscopes and Nipkow disks that are used in confocal microscopes for optical analysis of medical tissues.
How did you experience the period of COVID-19?
The Covid-19 crisis will have serious repercussions on our company’s activities (revenues, cash flow, etc.) in 2020.
Our main customer Valeo (BMW), which represents 45% of our total annual sales in 2019, was forced to stop production for two months. We have used Working Hours Reduction for 50% of our staff. The construction of the new cleanroom (Innoparc IV) was delayed by two months because our supplier located in Italy was unable to deliver the necessary equipment. Luckily, we did not have any sick people.
We quickly implemented all health measures and encouraged our employees to work from home.
During this period of health crisis, we had many orders for microlenses used for fibre optic connections in the data centres.
How do you live innovation in your company?
Innovation is very important to us. We have very good relations with EPFL, CSEM and research centres in Switzerland.
In fact, with the CSEM, we won a major European PHABULOuS project with 20 partners and funding of 15 million euros. We will host the new European pilot line that will provide highly advanced and robust manufacturing technology for free-form optical microstructures in Neuchâtel.
We are working on Micro-Optics Headlamp Lucid for cars. A normal headlamp consists of almost 200 parts. With our technology, the lamps are the size of a packet of cigarettes, they are very small. This is a plus for electric cars, because by reducing the size of a part, we participate directly in the reduction of the weight of the car. Currently, we have fifteen prototypes in the field of automotive lighting (new lamps and light mats). In fact, 49% of our activity is dedicated to this market, thanks in particular to the launch of a new production line for Wafer-Level Optics (enabling the design and manufacture of miniaturized optics). The light mat is a highly visible innovation, which makes the vehicle exclusive when it is equipped with it, as at BMW. Indeed, today’s cars, regardless of the brand, are very similar in terms of safety and aerodynamics.
On our standard products, such as the microlenses that we have been producing for 20 years, we are continuing research in order to improve their efficiency.
How do you imagine your company in 5-10 years?
I think we are very well positioned in the automotive lighting market. Our core business is developing well too. We hope to continue this growth.
What aspects could the canton still work on to improve its attractiveness to companies?
I have given this question a lot of thought. I like living in Neuchâtel. It’s a beautiful and quiet place with a protected nature reserve that’s just an hour and a half from Geneva and two and a half from London.
In my mind, the canton of Neuchâtel could offer a Neuchâtel “Côte d’or”, such as the Goldküste in Zurich, an upscale location with a view of the lake and the Alps to attract wealthy families, most of whom are currently living in neighbouring cantons.