Scale-ups fight their way through the crisis


UrbanAlps with the Stealth Key and QualySense with their QSorter – a grainsorting robot were just taking off at full steam when the Covid crisis hit. Nevertheless UrbanAlps stuck to a marketing campaign with Stephan Lichtsteiner and QualySsense launched a new product. At the same time the scale-ups have to fight with challenges.


UrbanAlps, the ETH alumni company has developed a 3D-printed purely mechanical key with invisible security features, while classic «security keys» might be photographed and duplicated by 3D-printing at low cost. In 2019, UrbanAlps has built a sales team and achieved first B2B sales off the ground in a conservative industry. The company entered a scale-up phase, winning customers and expanding to other countries. March 2020 was a record month for the start-up.

However the lockdown was already on the horizon. “It has been an intense month in which we produced and shipped as much as we could before our customers were forced to close. We worked around the clock”, explains UrbanAlps CEO Alejandro Ojeda. Fortunately, only around 10% of customers postponed the shipments. The scale-up still has an order backlog and after covering it the team will focus on stocking finished products.

A prominent ambassador

However other challenges aroused. Last year the company football player Stephan Lichtsteiner invested in UrbanAlps. In 2020 he will act as an ambassador for Stealth Key. “We delayed, but finally chose to launch the campaign with Stephan Lichtsteiner. We had a whole plan of activities around the EURO 2020 and after it was postponed we adapted to the changes. It is what it is”, says the CEO.

In addition, UrbanAlps is in the last phase of a financing round with already several high-profile investors signed in and cash injected. The investors that we were negotiating with continue to be committed and to think long term. But new investors are only hard to find.

However what worries Alejandro Ojeda the most at the moment is not the funding or customers but the team and the team spirit. The company has its headquarter in Zurich and 12 employees in its Czech subsidiary. “I do not feel one can fully substitute physical presence by phone and e-meetings. You just don’t reach the same depth of emotional connection, especially in these worrying times”, comments Ojeda.

The situation of QualySense, another young robotics company in the scale-up phase is somewhat similar. “We are finally advancing with sales after quite some time invested in developing new products. The year started really great and was very promising”, explains QualySense CEO Francesco Dell’Endice. The company produces AI-powered robots for accurate, efficient and blazing fast inspection and processing of grains, seeds and beans.

Launching a new product

In April the company launched the QSorter Horizon, a sorting robot able of analysing biochemical properties of each kernel such as moisture, protein, caffeine, gluten, sugar and other contents which will allow agri-food companies to recover waste or create premium products. In one hour, it processes several hundred kilograms. It may sound odd to launch an important new product in the lockdown period but it makes perfectly sense. “As we will be installing the first Horizon this year in the USA and the testing in Switzerland is going very well, we have decided to launch this new product now. The sales cycle for such a technology is 9-12 months and as our business works on relationship we thought it was a good idea to announce it”, says the CEO.

QSorter Horizon

The QSorter Horizon

In contrast the planned financing round has been postponed to the second half of 2020. Closing is planned for the beginning of 2021. To manage liquidity the company obtained a loan guarantee from the federation, introduced short-time work and is now applying for additional support from the canton of Zurich.

However Francesco Dell’Endice still thinks the company is lucky as it is active in the food value chain, which continued to work and as it offers automation solutions that would avoid social distancing issues and can build on the trend to more digitisation and automation that the crisis accelerated.

Trend towards re-industrialisation

Alejandro Ojeda is also cautiously optimistic regarding the future of his business. Regarding the short term locksmiths who are selling the Stealth Key are among the first businesses to reopen. Regarding the long term the entrepreneur agrees with Peter Thiel that the world of atoms and with that hardware start-ups might again regain importance vs. the BigTech world of bits. “We foresee a future with stronger interest from countries on reindustrialization, own production and more investments in startups that innovate in the world of atoms”, says Ojeda. And UrbanAlps will definitely contribute to this reindustrialisation. “I am aware that many people see us as a company that makes keys and cylinders, but that is just the outer-surface. Our mission is to change the entire industry of key manufacturing to 3D metal printing.” The goal is to replace large factories in remote countries producing and shipping keys world-wide with a digital supply chain and local high-tech micro factories and printers: “ship a key digitally and print it physically close to customer, no shipments, no customs”. According to Alejandro Ojeda this would imply “a more sustainable manufacturing due to less energy caused by long transports and ten times less material waste vs the 100-year-old conventional key manufacturing”.

(Stefan Kyora)

Picture: Alejandro Ojeda (left) and Stephan Lichtsteiner