«It is essential to have a clear vision of the product»
Two years ago Ata Tuna Ciftlik founded the company Lunaphore together with Diego Gabriel Dupouy and Déborah Heintze. In the meantime the spin-off of EPF Lausanne has won numerous prizes, successfully concluded its first round of funding, and is now one of the most promising start-ups in Switzerland. Founder and CEO Ata Tuna Ciftlik explains the challenges that they had to master and why it is crucial to have a prototype and a clear vision of the product.
Mr Ciftlik, what were the biggest challenges you faced during the initial phase?
The first challenge was finding partners as co-founders. It was fortunate that I managed to convince Diego and Déborah of my idea which was still very vague at the time. It is true that we are very different personalities, but we share a common goal. The second big challenge is funding. It takes a lot of work to present the company and business idea properly, and building up credibility and attract people's attention. At first we received financial support from the CTI (Commission for Technology and Innovation) and won various awards, such as the Innogrant of EPF Lausanne, Venturekick and other minor awards.
You and your team are scientists. How do you acquire the knowledge needed to set up an enterprise?
There was much that we had to learn. I attended a course on Entrepreneurship at EPF Lausanne before founding this company. But at the end it comes down to «learning by doing». Of course we also got support. The assistance of professional CTI coaches was what helped us most. They opened a network for us and helped us to become more specific and effective in our approach. The coaches are still supporting us now. We also have an Advisory Board made up of six people who cover various fields. There is always something to learn!
You mentioned that funding is a big challenge. What is of decisive importance when looking for investors?
Of course the technology and the business plan have to be convincing. But an investor should also match and be suitable for the business. From the alignment and direction, to the amount of investment, through to the personal level, everything has to be right. Finding investors is to a large extent a matter of building up relationships and a basis of trust. For ultimately they are relying on a future projection and they have to trust our estimates to a certain degree. If one approaches and asks 50 investors, perhaps 10 of them will show an interest and finally 5 will invest. So a lot of time is needed to travel, present the company, and do the networking.
Is it easier now in the second round of funding to find investors than in the first one?
Well, yes and no. If one has already completed a round of funding, and has already invested a lot in the networking, naturally one will already have gained a certain recognition and credibility among the start-up groups. On the other hand we had to show some evidence of performance, what we had achieved with the first two million. We are no longer «selling» a promise, but rather something somewhere between a promise and the reality.
Even after less than two years you were able to present the first product. How important was this step to you?
To develop a working prototype was very important to us, also for the second round of funding. Because it shows our implementation skills and that we keep to our promises. We make the prototypes available to various laboratories and get the feedback from the end users. So we know how the device is being received, whether it meets the technical specifications, is user-friendly, and what the end user expects from the device, some of which may not even have occurred to us. And finally this is a kind of marketing for the product.
You are numbered among the top ten start-ups in Switzerland and have obtained 2 million Swiss francs in venture capital. The expectations for Lunaphore are high. How do you deal with this?
In the beginning I felt this pressure. The key though is to trust my co-founders and colleagues and delegate responsibility to them, so that I can focus on my own tasks. On the other hand, this approach requires a very rigorous choice of colleagues, since at the end of the day, we have to trust their decisions and skills. We merely set the targets and milestones, that's all. In fact we started to see that often better solutions are obtained when compared to a case where the instructions on how to proceed were more specific. As the old saying suggests, «in order to achieve great things, surround yourself with great people».
You worked with QUO on the product development, why?
Being a small company we were not able to build up the whole range of expertise needed internally. Why QUO? We also looked at and evaluated larger innovation service providers, but we were concerned that our firm is too small and our project would not be given the priority it deserves. Another point is that outsourced product developers often take the approach where they work more or less independently on the project based on the specifications. But we wanted to do the core of the development in-house and only draw on help from others where necessary. With QUO we were able to work in this way. This means that we did not outsource the whole project to QUO, instead it is more as though the engineers and industrial designers at QUO are working as part of our team for specific tasks that our expertise has to be complemented.
How have you benefited from this collaboration?
We have been able to specify the capacities and needed know-how from day to day. This flexibility and the fast pace were important to us. QUO has also contributed important expertise, new approaches and solutions which we would not have arrived at by ourselves.
You are already working on the next generation of product. How important is it to you to have a clear and concrete vision?
For me and the whole team it is essential to have a clear vision of the product. In a start-up one is always talking about the future. And if one does not have a clear vision of the product everyone will go off with their own different ideas, while being convinced that it is the same goal. When developing the vision of the product with QUO we went through several iterations and implemented the feedback from every member of the team. Now we have a vision that everyone agrees on and which allows us all to proceed in the same direction. And of course the vision is also important when it comes to communicating with the investors and future customers.