It’s entirely appropriate that the man whose research is opening new frontiers in light microscopy has “Hell” as a surname. The term is the German word for “bright.” The future looks very bright indeed for Professor Stefan Hell, the 2014 Nobel Chemistry Prize winner and startup founder who has developed a new generation of fluorescence microscopes that are revolutionizing medical research.
The physicist and chemist comes from the Banat Swabian German-speaking minority in Romania and started his education at the German school in Timisoara – as did Nobel Literary Prize winner Herta Müller. He received his doctorate in physics at Heidelberg University in 1990. Between 1991 and 1993 he went on to develop the 4Pi microscope, a laser scanning fluorescence microscope with dramatically improved resolution over existing microscopes.
Then, as a group leader in the department of medical physics at the University of Turku in Finland, he finally broke through a barrier that had flummoxed microscopy researchers since the time of microscopy and optics pioneer Karl Abbe in the late 19th Century. The team had found a way to make a fluorescence microscope capable of resolving images at half the wavelength of light, providing much clearer images of tiny samples such as cells.
It was for his work in the development of so-called super-resolved fluorescence microscopy that Professor Hell, along with his co-researchers Eric Betzig and William Moerner, received the Nobel Prize.
Now director of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, central Germany, he has founded two companies with former research colleagues, paying tribute to Karl Abbe when he named the startups Abberior and Abberior Instruments.
The companies create high-resolution light microscopes and compete with well-known names such as Zeiss, Leica or Nikon. Gerald Donnert, a physicist and former adviser for McKinsey Management consultants, heads the startups, which employ about 30 people. Recently Ernst and Young selected Professor Hell and Mr. Donnert as their “Entrepreneurs of the Year, 2015.”
The enterprising researcher spoke to the Handelsblatt about his second career as company founder.
Handelsblatt: Professor Hell, you’ve been decorated with practically every important science prize. Is it true that you opted not to study chemistry in your final year of high school?
Yes, that’s correct. In high school in Ludwigshafen I majored in mathematics and physics. At Heidelberg University, where I was studying physics, I just did two compulsory chemistry subjects and a practical. I’m a physicist at heart. The problem for which I was awarded the chemistry prize is a problem of optics. But it crosses over into chemistry.
As a young scientist you had the chutzpah to challenge the laws of optics. The diffraction limit of light has been seen as irrefutable since Karl Abbe’s work in 1873. What gave you the confidence to believe you were right?
I was certainly following a bold idea. Science took it as a given that with a light microscope one couldn’t see any details smaller than half the wavelength of light. Other researchers have attempted to solve the problem, but failed. However, I realized that my idea was physically consistent. There was no fundamental problem, only technical problems.
At the beginning of your research career, you were an outsider without a mentor. You had to go into scientific exile in Finland, because nobody believed in your ideas in Germany.
Because I didn’t have a mentor, and therefore also no research post, out of necessity I took out a patent on the ideas I had at the time. In hindsight that was a stroke of luck, because as a postdoc in Turku I only survived because I got money for the patent from a Finnish company. I had applied to more than 20 universities and applied science institutes in Germany, but got only one invitation. Only the Max Planck Institute in Göttingen had faith in my research and gave me a chance as an unknown.
To what extent is your microscope revolutionizing biology and medicine?
I broke through a frontier. The world of biomedical research was waiting for microscopes like these. Because they allow us to discover in far more detail what’s going on in cells. This also allows us to diagnose illnesses much more accurately.
In 2011 you founded your companies Abberior and Abberior Instruments. What gave you the impetus to be not just a researcher, but a businessman as well?
I’d always had very close connections to industry, as a consultant. I’ve known the high-end light microscopy market longer than some of the managers at Zeiss or Leica. And for my dissertation I was doing research on the premises of a laser microscopy startup in Heidelberg, where I experienced firsthand how a high-tech firm is built and what some of the pitfalls are. When on one day half of the employees had to go, that left a lasting impression on me.
That didn’t frighten you off from founding a company?
No. Founding a company is always worthwhile when you have a real solution for a real problem. In my case it was the discovery of high resolution microscopes, and there’s a global need for that.
Why didn’t you choose to let Leica build your microscopes under license?
Leica had already successfully brought STED (stimulated emission depleted) microscopy, for which I gained the Nobel Prize, to the market under license in 2007. The basic patent has since expired. In my Göttingen laboratory there’s a lot of know-how to further develop light microscopy in other forms and to bring those to the market. Why shouldn’t we researchers bring the fruits of our labors directly onto the world market ourselves? That also creates jobs.
How do you finance the two startups?
We shareholders pulled together a six-figure sum out of our savings. The company’s growth is financed by the cash flow. Our basic ideology to this point has been no loans and no venture capital. Only in this way do we retain flexibility and independence. And Abberior Instruments is still profitable and in the meantime has shown itself to be a lively player in the market. Turnover has nearly doubled this year.
In Germany there have been a few spinoffs from universities which have developed into successful businesses. Qiagen, a specialist in molecular diagnostics, was founded at the University of Dusseldorf in 1984 and today has a billion euro turnover. How big will Abberior get?
Abberior Instruments is definitely not aiming to threaten the big players in the market like Zeiss, Nikon, Olympus or Leica. That’s also really not necessary, because it’s a growth market. In cases where it makes sense for both sides, we’re also ready to collaborate with the big guys.
How big exactly is the market?
That’s really hard to know because the microscopy market is in a massive state of transition. It’s like the change from simple mobile telephones to smart phones. Suddenly we’re able to do things that previously were unthinkable. Many top level researchers are coming to our cutting edge microscopes, instead of us having to go to them. Until now our business focus has been Europe, but we’re starting to establish a presence in the Far East.
Does it help that the chief of Abberior, Gerald Donnert, a previous doctoral candidate of yours, has had experience at McKinsey?
We planned the founding of both firms together. Mr. Donnert’s experience at McKinsey helped with that a great deal. There, he not only learned to be a salesman, but he also developed the ability to analyze business problems and make decisions.
Which talents does one need to succeed as a scientist and as a company founder?
Astonishingly, researchers and company founders need similar talents and abilities. You have to enjoy what you’re doing. Believe in it. Because only in this way can one be truly creative, only in this way can one survive the tough times. And of course researchers, like founders, have to be ready to take risks. As a researcher I’m conditioned not to have any illusions, because nature brings us very quickly back to earth. That’s also very important when one wants to found a company. One can’t have any illusions about what the world is really waiting for, because you’ll be in for a very hard landing.
You’ve knocked back overtures from the United States, the El Dorado of startups. Why?
One can also do outstanding research in Germany. Many Max Planck Institutes, the flagships of German research, are world leaders – on par with Harvard or Stanford. But my Göttingen Institute boasts three Nobel Laureates. At the Max Planck Institutes things can work well because researchers get a high degree of freedom of choice. It is no coincidence that the Max Planck Society discovered me, and not a German university.
One more question. What did you do with the Nobel Prize money of around €240,000 ($262,000)?
I invested the money in Abberior and Abberior Instruments, because it gives me pleasure that my ideas, the ideas that nobody believed in, can be turned into reality.
Katrin Terpitz covers the companies and markets sectors for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org