The lure of the unknown

By Tünde Kirstein

“Tentative” is a word one doesn’t like to hear when arranging an interview, but start-up entrepreneurs are known to be busy people. And perhaps a bit of tingling uncertainty belongs to the start-up philosophy. As it turns out, however, Carlo Centonze, CEO of HeiQ, has quite a different reason for his vague reply.

And Centonze does show up at the agreed meeting place. Striding through Zurich’s alleyways he takes me to a bar where, he says, “They do a proper espresso.” It’s hard not to see the Ticino in him. Along with his love of a good espresso comes a great affinity for nature, probably because he grew up in a mountain canton, he says. His keen interest in environmental issues is reflected in his cofounding of the climate protection foundation myclimate in 2002. But as the slow process of NGO consensus-building did not fit with his pedal-to-the-metal mentality, Centonze (born 1974) soon found himself looking for new, more dynamic areas of activity. In 2003 he met the Australian Murray Height (born 1975), who had just received his doctorate in chemical engineering from MIT in Boston. It was a stroke of luck, for Height was grounded in the sciences, whereas Centonze was more business-oriented—the ideal combination for a start-up. Only two years later the two friends took a chance and founded HeiQ Materials AG. The idea was to integrate silver particles, which Height had produced at ETH by means of revolutionary flame spray pyrolysis, into a chemical formula compatible with textiles. The silver impedes bacterial growth and thus helps to reduce odors. Although a few companies already offered silver-treated textiles, Centonze and Height were convinced that their microparticles made for a better material. Not that they had any idea of how the textiles industry actually worked. “All of the traditional industries have rules carved in stone, and we didn’t even know what ‘color fastness’ or ‘pilling’ meant.”
It was a typical David vs. Goliath story when the two young entrepreneurs set out to compete with established chemical giants such as BASF or Clariant. But in addition to their new technology, the pair had also developed a clever business model. Instead of dealing with the textile manufacturers, Centonze and Height went straight to the end of the value chain—to the large sportswear and apparel brands. “Prepackaged marketing story” was the magic word, meaning that the customer receives a complete package, technology plus innovation story. And the story of how Centonze and Height came to think about odors and textiles is perfect from a marketing point of view: after a week of trekking in the Swiss Alps, the women in the group began to keep their distance from the men, whose T-shirts were starting to smell a bit rank. The perfect motivator for innovation. But of course there was a lot more to their dream of founding a company than that. Centonze comes from six generations of entrepreneurs. He originally tried to shed this legacy by studying biology, aiming to become a scientist. But his creative zeal got in the way, and he switched to forestry engineering at ETH, a more hands-on and technical discipline that also includes management skills. Both Centonze and his father, the entrepreneur, were pleased.
All the same he found little support for his idea of founding HeiQ at home. “It’ll never work. Don’t do it,” his father said, but young Centonze wouldn’t listen. “I’m never afraid to take a risk, and I always try to find a way, especially in uncharted territory.” For Centonze, exploring the unknown is the greatest thrill. And why textile chemistry? How does that fit with his environmental concerns? “Nowadays, chemistry is everywhere,” Centonze says. And this certainly applies to the billion tons of textiles the world produces each year. His goal is to produce clean chemistry that is sustainable, correctly applied, and durable. Laundering is an important point—the less a piece of clothing smells thanks to HeiQ Pure Technology, the less often it has to be washed. This means that men who leave their dirty athletic wear in the bag instead of washing it right away are actually ecological pioneers. Another example is Barrier Eco-Technology, a water-repellent material developed by HeiQ that uses no polluting fluorine compounds.
After ten years of hard work, HeiQ’s philosophy appears to be paying off, although the first few years were not easy. Twice the company nearly went bankrupt. “As a start-up entrepreneur you have to be ready to burn the bridges behind you,” he describes his credo rather dramatically, “for if you leave yourself a way back, you’re bound to use it in times of crisis.” Not Centonze and Height, however, who put every cent they had into their company. This lent them credibility in the eyes of investors. They were also able to gain support from the Swiss state. The canton of Aargau’s economic promotion program provided the start-up with a million francs in research funds instead of giving it to the research partners, as is typically the case with the Commission for Technology and Innovation. This enabled the company to decide for itself how and for which research partners the money could be used—an enormous boost for HeiQ. “Our feedback to the start-up sponsors has been heard. Today the Swiss start-up scene is much better than it was ten years ago,” Carlo says.
A crucial factor for their success was the capable team they assembled, now with 30 members. They did incur a few losses along the way, however. “In our ten-year history nearly 60 employees and interns came and went.” The timing was perfect when they launched Oilguard, a product aimed at protecting coastlines from oil spills. When HeiQ received the Swiss Technology Award and the European Environmental Press Award for the product, the company was the talk of the press. But this is not Centonze’s idea of a breakthrough. What he hopes to do, together with his CTO Height and the rest of the team, is to anchor HeiQ technology in the minds of consumers, just as Gore-Tex did 20 years ago. Yet the CEO doesn’t seem all that that relaxed when his cell phone starts chirping like a cricket. It’s not the company that has his heart pounding, however, but the birth of his second child, which could happen any minute. So that’s why he would only make a tentative appointment! It’s nice to know that a private life is possible alongside a start-up.

Publication:

The lure of the unknown, in The Success Formula for Start-ups, NZZ Libro (2015)
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