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In October 2020, an interview with ibidi's managing directors Roman and Valentin appeared in the Laborjournal. They shared insights into the history, expertise, products and addressable markets of ibidi.
(This is an adapted translation from the original text published in German here.)
Sigrid März talked to the two physicists and co-founders Valentin Kahl (pictured left) and Roman Zantl.
Mr. Kahl, Mr. Zantl, when you explain to a new customer what exactly you sell, what do you say?
Valentin Kahl: Until a few years ago, we would have said microscopy chambers. Now it's really more the expertise in how to cultivate cells on a microscope under life-like conditions.
Roman Zantl: There are the tips and tricks that we have introduced to the market, such as the µ-Slide Chemotaxis, which you can use to generate gradients that are virtually stable over several days. Or, the perfusion systems that can be used to expose endothelial cells to shear stress. We are getting closer and closer to real physiological conditions.
Who needs this expertise?
Kahl: Up to 80% of the users are universities and other academic research institutions, and 20% are preclinical researchers in the pharmaceutical industry. Our customers are people who do not work with fully automated systems. To use our chambers, you have to pick up a pipette, and that happens rarely in routine labs where large screenings take place.
ibidi was founded by scientists. What happened in your lab that made people say: We are building a microscopy chamber and it’s so good that now we want to commercialize it?
Zantl: There was a business plan competition in Munich. Valentin Kahl went around to the research group and asked if anyone would like to participate. The original idea was actually to develop an analysis option for long DNA molecules, based on microscopy chambers. However, when writing the business plan, this idea became too complex. We asked ourselves: What else can we do? And then we decided that the chambers themselves were a good business model.
In other words, the chambers—actually, ibidi’s core product—were just the alternative plan?
Kahl: In a way, yes. We started with glass chambers. At that time, however, there were already plastics with brilliant optical properties that actually came from the flat screen industry. We found that they could be used for high-resolution microscopy of very good quality. Glass is good, but products made of plastic are easier to manufacture, glue, or weld, and they can be gas-permeable. Cells grow particularly well in such chambers. Thus, our first invention was born: a gas-permeable plastic chamber with a bottom that is so thin that it is easy to view through a microscope.
At the time, you were both in Joachim Rädler's research group at the Technical University of Munich. Does the company name also date back to that time?
Zantl: The business plan was already well advanced and we still didn't have a name. So, we sat down together and said, “We will not leave the meeting room until we have a name.” That's how ibidi came about.
Kahl: It actually stands for Integrated Biodiagnostics. But what is much more important—and this is a physicist's thing—is that the name is mirror-symmetrical. No matter from which side you look at the name through a transparent object, you can always read ibidi. We liked the aesthetics of that.
Zantl: The name is positive, that's how we've always perceived it. In addition, unlike our product names, it is very elegant. [laughs]
In what way?
Kahl: One product, for example, is called µ-Slide VI. The number six is written in Roman, the µ in Greek. There is no µ on the American keyboard, and Roman numerals are not very common in the English-speaking world. Americans, therefore, call the slide, “u-Slide V one”. So, these names are not really international. It's more something for the humanistic university graduate from Germany. [both laugh]
Zantl: Many customers speak of ibidi slides, or simply say, "I’ll take an ibidi." It's great, of course, that the brand speaks for itself a little bit.
„A little bit" is an understatement, though. The slides have been on the market for almost 20 years now, and the company is doing well.
Zantl: It's been going strictly, monotonous increasing.
Kahl: I have to correct you, there was a dip in April 2020. But if you smooth out the curve, it's strictly monotonous, yes. The Corona shutdown caused all the people to flee the labs. We had a noticeable drop in sales in April and May, but by the end of this September, we should be back on par with the end of September 2019, and then up a bit by the end of the year.
How did ibidi finance itself in the start-up phase?
Kahl: In the beginning, we were able to convince a business angel to join us. These types of angels are not institutional investors with an exit horizon and expectations of returns, but wealthy people who simply enjoy investing in high-tech companies. In addition, BMBF (editor’s note: German Federal Ministry of Education and Research) collaborative projects have helped us, because they have introduced us to many companies and research institutions. In 2006, we had our last round of funding, and since 2008 we have been more or less profitable. The exceptions are the years when we founded our U.S. subsidiary, and moved to a larger building from Martinsried to Gräfelfing. But, yes, things are going well.
Now, we're already at the end of our conversation. Have I forgotten anything important? Is there anything else you would like to say?
Zantl: Yes, you forgot to ask, what makes ibidi - what makes us - successful? [both laugh] It's the best employees in the world.