In March 2014, five graduates of the TU Ilmenau joined forces to put their start-up idea into practice: To design and manufacture microsystems. That was the birth of 5microns GmbH, which has since dedicated itself to the world of tiny micro- and nanometres.
TU spin-offs: What happened to ...
... of the 5microns GmbH? A cooperation at eye level
Microsystems technology is one of the key technologies for a competitive economy. However, experts estimate that industry has 10 to 20 years to catch up with the state of research. The TU Ilmenau is one of the world's leading research institutions in this field and has a unique equipment centre for micro and nanotechnologies in Germany. The idea and credo of 5microns is to make this competence available to industry and thus contribute to the competitiveness of Thuringia as a business location. Lars Dittrich, one of the five founders and today the two managing directors of the company:
We are all engineers with a passion. We are burning for microsystems technology and want to contribute to closing the technological gap between research institutions and industry.
"We wanted to test out whether our approach was viable."
All of the company's founders met at the TU Ilmenau in the Department of Microsystems Engineering, where Lars Dittrich was a scientist at the time. His co-founders Boris Goj, Thomas Geiling and Robert Hebel wrote their theses with him, and Michael Bertko was a research assistant. The driving force behind founding a company together was not least the young engineers' dream of actively shaping their own professional environment and future. Lars Dittrich: "Research and teaching at the university have always been a lot of fun, and the great facilities at the Center for Micro and Nanotechnology (ZMN) are a paradise for technologists. But at some point there was actually the thought that we wouldn't last until retirement in public service. We didn't want to have to reproach ourselves later in life for having had a great idea but not having implemented it. In short, we also just wanted to try it out at some point to see if our approach was viable."
Bridge between SMEs and high-tech equipment
Under the slogan "Microsystems Technology for SMEs", 5microns has been successfully building a bridge between Thuringian SMEs and companies from all over Germany and the high level of competence in research and equipment in the field of micro and nanotechnologies available at the TU Ilmenau for eight years now. This is because companies often lack the relevant know-how, the specialist staff and, above all, the complex and cost-intensive equipment in-house. On behalf of its customers, 5microns GmbH, located in the Technology and Start-up Centre at the Unicampus, designs, develops, characterises and manufactures microsystems from the idea to series production. Co-managing director Dr. Boris Goj:
As engineers, we understand the customers' applications and implement them as a flexible technology and engineering service provider. Our 5microns team accompanies its customers from the initial consultation through prototype or small series production to the transfer to large series production or the establishment of its own production resources and enables medium-sized companies to benefit from various high technologies.
Close cooperation with the TU Ilmenau
Due to the very close and extensive cooperation with the ZMN of the TU Ilmenau, the company was able to offer the entire technological range of microsystems technology - materials, processes and analytics - already at the time of its foundation. This is the prerequisite for the development of market-ready innovations in the field of microsystems technology and at the same time an important unique selling point of 5microns GmbH. Lars Dittrich:
Our team thus has direct access to Germany's only DFG device center for micro-nano integration. This puts us in a position to offer customers cleanroom technologies tailored to their specific needs. This has enabled the company to date to get by without the typically astronomical investments in in-house technological equipment in the field of cleanroom technologies.
It is therefore not surprising that 5microns GmbH was founded in the high-tech sector without an investor and has grown out of its own cash flow to this day. In doing so, the company not only uses the excellent infrastructure of the TU Ilmenau, but also contributes to the further development of the ZMN. "Not infrequently," reports Dr. Boris Goj, "our clients are delighted to receive an exciting guided tour through the clean room laboratories of the center. In addition, numerous student projects have already been supervised and new processes established or characterised together with staff from the respective specialist areas."
The team of the 5microns GmbH tries constantly to remain technologically on the ball and to research itself: On the one hand, there are quite a few customer orders in the development of specific processes and solutions. At the same time, 5microns GmbH is itself an active partner in funded cooperation projects, for example in collaboration with the departments of Microsystems Technology, Electronics Technology, Theoretical Physics 1 and Technical Optics at the Technical University of Ilmenau. Lars Dittrich is also a guest lecturer at the TU Ilmenau.
Engineering service provider with its own innovative product
As a result of the cooperation with the TU Ilmenau and active research, the company has now also launched its own innovative product: the E-PunCh micropump, which, unlike conventional pumps, does not require any mechanical components and can be produced at wafer level. Instead of mechanical pistons or diaphragms, the liquid itself does the pumping work in the innovative micropump. The idea for this energy-efficient and cost-effective innovation originated at the TU Ilmenau. In the meantime, 5microns GmbH has taken over the patent behind it from the TU Ilmenau.
The innovative product is thus also a very successful transfer project and an expression of the pull of the TU Ilmenau for companies in its environment, which, like 5microns, were even founded out of it. Conversely, the entire value-added chain can thus be taken all the way to the finished product. The novel pump can be used in numerous new fields of application and tailored to specific needs. "Due to its outstanding properties, E-PunCh is predestined for use in pipetting robots, automatic drop dispensers, etc. for medical technology, the food industry, cell cultivation or sampling," explains Dr. Goj. "Here, where the most precise dosing is required, manufacturers benefit from our innovative pumping process. The design of the micropump can also be individually adapted with the customer to the respective application."
Highly qualified employees from the Ilmenau Technical University environment
However, the basis for a successful company is first of all clever minds. This is no different at 5microns GmbH: whether mechanical engineers, mechatronics engineers, physicists, electrical engineers - a highly qualified team, primarily recruited from the Technical University of Ilmenau, is ready to take on new challenges and solve demanding development tasks. In other words, much more than just concentrating on maintenance or servicing work. The environment of the TU Ilmenau and the ZMN offers the company ideal conditions for this. 5microns especially likes to involve outstanding students of all disciplines of the TU Ilmenau in current projects and topics of the company in the form of internships, theses or part-time jobs.
Today, the 5microns team consists of twelve employees and currently serves customers from more than ten countries. More than 200 technology projects have been successfully completed in the seven years of the company's existence. The managing directors Lars Dittrich and Dr. Boris Goj are furthermore proud of the fact that many team members are also socially or voluntarily engaged.