A source of innovation for Swiss SMEs

Bottneuro’s personalised helmet also enables patients to receive treatment
Bottneuro’s personalised helmet also enables patients to receive treatment at home. (Photograph: Bottneuro)
ETH professor Mirko Meboldt helps Swiss SMEs find the right technology to tackle the challenges they face. His early prototypes give companies a solid basis for decision-making - and the confidence to take things further.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the Swiss economy: 99 percent of Swiss companies employ fewer than 250 people, and SMEs employ two-thirds of the Swiss workforce. Innovations are essential to the survival of many SMEs, especially those that compete on the international stage. The only way to maintain their edge in a competitive global environment and to safeguard Swiss jobs is by responding promptly to the latest technological trends with a steady stream of new products, services and production methods. Yet, unlike larger companies, SMEs often struggle to dedicate enough resources to innovation. "Running an innovation project requires a significant investment of time, money and people," says Mirko Meboldt, Professor of Product Development and Engineering Design at ETH Zurich. "At SMEs, these resources are in short supply: most of them lack a dedicated research and development department, and their employees often have their hands full just focusing on the operating business. And you can never be sure whether the effort will pay off."

Meboldt has plenty of experience in this field. Since completing his doctorate, he has focused much of his attention on how innovation is born and how ideas evolve into products. He has collaborated with numerous SMEs during his 13-year stint at ETH Zurich, and the same issues tend to crop up again and again. "It’s tough for SMEs to decide whether and when a new technology is mature enough to go to market," he explains. "They have to weigh whether to opt for long-term innovation projects with high uncertainty or stick with projects that improve the performance, speed or cost of something that’s already working." This debate even extends to publicly funded projects such as those supported by Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, in which researchers and businesses spend several years working together to put novel ideas into practice. In recent years, Meboldt has been involved in a number of successful projects of this type. But before an SME can apply for state funding, it must identify which new technology will be of benefit - and this can be hard to pin down.

Prototypes build trust

This is where Professor Meboldt and his Feasibility Lab come into the equation. "We aim to build a bridge between SMEs and research," he says. Together with his researchers and students, he helps companies get to grips with new technologies and discover whether these could help them create value. "Companies often come to us because they want to keep their competi­tive edge but aren’t sure whether they could profit from new technologies such as artificial intelligence," says Meboldt.

Most of these exploratory projects have no fixed goal and are designed to run for a maximum of six months. The first step is to establish a sound basis for deciding which technologies are the best choice for the company concerned. Only when these have been identified and the company is confident they will be profitable does it make sense to start applying for an Innosuisse innovation project.

This can be a rocky road, and Meboldt and his team see prototypes as the key to navigating it successfully - hence his lab’s motto "From crazy ideas to a first prototype". As a general rule, Meboldt only em­barks on a fully fledged project once he has demonstrated on a smaller scale that a technology actually works. Yet putting the technology into practice is only part of the goal. "It’s also about showing potential partners how we work and building a relationship with them," he says. "That establishes the trust and foundation you need to tackle the inevitable ups and downs of a years-long project."

Digital feedback for budding surgeons

The first time Heinz Hügli set eyes on the prototype of a camera-based training assistant for trainee surgeons built by Meboldt and his team, he knew he had come to the right place. The CEO of Swiss med-tech SME Synbone has long been on the hunt for an innovative business line to supplement the company’s existing activities. Headquartered in Zizers and with production facilities in Malaysia, Synbone sells bone models worldwide to help train orthopaedic surgeons. As an experienced manager, Hügli knows how vulnerable businesses can be in times of crisis, such as the recent coronavirus pandemic. Surely, he thought, it must be possible to improve surgical training - which still largely involves looking over the shoulder of experienced colleagues - by incorporating digital technologies, thereby adding another string to the company’s bow.

Meboldt was already using Synbone products in other projects, and this led to a chance meeting with Hügli. The two got talking, and Hügli set out his vision of digital training for surgeons based on his firm’s bone models. Back then, Hügli still had no clear plan of how to make this vision a reality. His staff of ten in Switzerland didn’t have the resources to track down suitable technologies, let alone to actually put them into practice. So he could hardly contain his delight when Meboldt offered to build him a prototype within just two weeks.

"We already had experience from other research projects in how to digitalise surgical proced­ures using cameras," says Meboldt. More than anything, this requires expertise in the fields of image recognition and machine learning. On the day of the prototype presentation, one of Meboldt’s doctoral students attempted to reconstruct a Synbone model of a broken bone while a camera filmed his movements. These appeared on a screen in real time and were evaluated and recorded. "I knew then that it really was possible to digitalise training using our bone models," says Hügli. "And I was really impressed with what Mirko and his team had achieved in such a short space of time."

This demonstration convinced Hügli that it was worth applying for an Innosuisse innovation grant. With Meboldt’s help, he submitted an application and received funding for a two-and-a-half-year project. Half of that time has now passed, and his vision of a digital training platform is steadily taking shape. In the meantime, Meboldt and his team have developed a simulator for orthopaedic surgery. Using Synbone bone models, surgical instruments and a camera, trainee surgeons can now practice performing real surgical interventions and then receive feedback from the software.

The camera digitalises everything the trainee surgeon does - for example, how they screw together a broken bone, the angle at which they place the drill and how deep they make the hole. An algorithm regis­ters each individual movement and step in the process and evaluates it. Once the procedure is complete, the trainee receives feedback on their performance. For instance, the camera is able to determine whether tissue would have been damaged, or whether an implant was placed in the correct position and at the correct angle relative to the bone. The current system can even simulate X-rays during the training session. Heinz Hügli is now much closer to achieving his vision for his SME, in large part thanks to the technological expertise of researchers.

Helmet to treat alzheimer’s

Back in autumn 2022, Bekim Osmani was wrestling with the problem of how to develop a digital process chain that could produce a highly personalised product as quickly and cost-effectively as possible. The CEO and co-founder of Basel-based company Bottneuro works with a seven-strong team to improve the treatment of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s through electrical stimulation of certain areas of the brain. To determine where the electrodes should be placed on an individual patient’s head, a neurologist consults an MRI scan of their brain. Bottneuro has developed a personalised treatment helmet to ensure that precisely the same areas of the brain are stimulated during each treatment session. This helmet will eventually enable patients to perform the treatment at home.

"Companies often come to us because they want to keep their competi­tive edge but aren’t sure whether they could profit from new technologies such as artificial intelligence."

"Each helmet is uniquely tailored to the patient’s head and brain. Currently, it takes around 100 hours of manual work to produce, which is very expensive," says Osmani, who studied at ETH Zurich before completing his doctorate at the University of Basel. He knew that his SME would have a greater chance of long-term success if he could reduce these production costs. The answer was to digitalise and automate the design and manufacturing process, but this called for a level of technical expertise that Bottneuro simply didn’t have. Deciding which technology to use proved an uphill struggle for Osmani and his team.

The first time Meboldt heard about Bottneuro, he immediately saw the potential for collaboration. But there were still too many questions that needed answering on both sides before they could consider submitting a joint project application to Innosuisse. The ETH professor and his team therefore decided to produce a prototype. The goal was to provide an example of how Bottneuro’s process chain could be digitalised - from the shape of the helmet and the position of the electrodes right through to the 3D-printing process used for fabrication. The researchers were able to prepare each individual patient’s MRI data in such a way that a 3D printer could then automatically fabricate the helmet, leaving holes for the electrodes in exactly the right places.

The prototype ticked all the boxes, and the CEO of Bottneuro was impressed. "We immediately saw the benefits of the new process, and it was clear that Mirko was the right partner for the Innosuisse innovation project," he says. Osmani and Meboldt eventually received state funding for a three-year period, half of which has now passed. Thanks to the support of researchers, Bottneuro will be launching a faster and more cost-effective digital production process for its treatment helmets in 2025. Meboldt is still keen to go one step further by finding a way to print the helmet and electrodes as a single piece, but this will require a lot more research.

The Synbone and Bottneuro projects are good examples of how SMEs can benefit from working with ETH Zurich. In the early stages, however, the ball often lies in the researchers’ court: they have to prove that their research findings and the new technology genuinely have the potential to take a company to the next level. But once this initial step is complete, their technological expertise can be an invaluable source of innovation for Swiss SMEs.


Mirko Meboldt is Professor of Product Development and Engineering Design in the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering at ETH Zurich.

This text appeared in the 24/02 issue of the ETH magazine Globe.
Christoph Elhardt