Sustainable start-ups excel at the W.A de Vigier Award

Four start-ups with sustainable solutions are among the winners of this year's W.A. de Vigier Awards. Thanks to the support of another foundation, a total of six prizes were awarded this year, each endowed with CHF 100,000. In addition to the award ceremony, the keynote speech by de Vigier alum Simon Ittig, who successfully sold his biotech start-up six months ago, was another highlight.

From over 200 submitted projects, the jury picked their Top 15 in February. The 15 CEOs went through an interview process and presented their ideas to the Foundation Board, who chose the final ten nominees. At the award ceremony on June 19, six of these young leaders received a W. A. de Vigier Award. One W.A. de Vigier Award was donated by the Medien- und Unternehmungsförderungsstiftung FERS from Berne, which has closely collaborated with the W.A. de Vigier Foundation over the past year.

These are the six winners (in alphabetical order)

Apheros AG from Zurich – High Surface Area Metal Foams
Current designs for liquid cooling systems are bulky and energy consuming. Apheros’ metal foams offer an extremely high surface area with exceptional wetting properties and enhanced thermal exchange. These unique properties result in excellent cooling efficiency and liquid transport, which is key to improving the efficiency of climate relevant technologies such as electrification of transport and development of green hydrogen. The ETH-spinoff’s foams are customizable in shape and can be scaled to fully automated production.

Ascento AG from Zurich – Secure Assets With Robotics and AI
The security sector is dealing with labor shortages, high staff turnover and low profit margins. This pain is so acute that incumbent Security Providers are not able to serve all their customers. Ascento provides robotic guards that can be hired by the hour. The service includes deployment, 24/7 support, service and repairs. The Ascento Web App analyzes video and images with AI, it integrates with existing video management systems, provides end-to-end encrypted two-way communication, and offers powerful reports that security managers want to see. The robots are already being used commercially.

Grensol AG from Thalwil – Using Light to Recycle Mixed Plastic Waste
Mixed plastic waste is considered unrecyclable. Contained resources are lost and have to be produced from virgin sources, at massive ecological costs. Grensol uses high intensity light generated by renewable energy to recover emissions-free hydrogen and carbon black from mixed plastic waste – all in a matter of seconds. This solution can potentially convert 100 million tons of unrecyclable waste per year into a low-cost source of new materials that are critical for our society’s clean energy transition and also avoid over 500 million tons of carbon emissions per year. The start-up is planning its first factory in Biberist (SO), which will start operations in the next three months.

Optiml AG from Zurich – Net Zero Real Estate Investment and Renovation Planning
Real estate is under pressure to re-strategize towards efficient, renewable, and affordable building renovations. The ETH Zurich Spin-off Optiml offers AI-powered software to provide cost and CO₂-conscious decision support for real estate owners, asset managers, and consultants. The startup aims to create data transparency on renovation needs and risks (status quo), to optimize asset and portfolio investment decisions, to derive actionable measures per asset, and to anticipate long-term regulatory compliance. The company has acquired customers in several European countries and is expanding quickly.

Tandem Therapeutics AG from Schlieren (ZH) – Transforming Fibrosis Treatment With Precision Matrix Targeting
Fibrosis contributes to over 45% of deaths in the developed world. By using evolutionarily optimized matrix targeting peptides, Tandem Tx overcomes the extracellular matrix barrier to unlock the previously inaccessible multidimensional druggable space. Using a deep understanding of matrix mechanobiology and its relation to disease progression, the ETH-spinoff is developing a pipeline of conditionally targeted, efficacious and safer therapies to treat fibrotic diseases.

Treeless Pack GmbH from Opfikon (ZH) – Cellulose Materials Without Cutting Down Trees
Traditional nanocellulose production entails a complex production sequence that relies heavily on environmentally impactful methods and uses wood as its primary raw material. Instead of chopping down forests, Treeless Pack lets specialized bacteria produce nanocellulose in scalable and automated modular vertical farms. This approach shortens the supply chain, eliminates long-distance transportation, reduces deforestation, and valorizes organic waste to produce a unique and affordable biomaterial, which can be used across industries as a green alternative to fossil-based products.

The unvarnished story of a successful biotech start-up
In addition to the presentation of the prizes, the keynote speech by Simon Ittig was another highlight. Ittig founded T3 Pharmaceuticals in 2015 as a spin-off from the Biozentrum of the University of Basel and sold the company to Boehringer Ingelheim in 2023 for up to CHF 450 million. The founder gave an unvarnished account of his story. For example, he had to deal with resistance from researchers who were convinced that his approach for a novel cancer therapy could not work. In the beginning, the start-up was financed by foundations and there were months in which the founder was unable to pay himself a salary. However, due to the good results he was able to produce in the laboratory, Ittig never had any doubts that building a start-up was the right thing to do. Today it is clear that he was right. Not only the successful acquisition, but also the fact that the first drug candidate is already being clinically tested on humans speaks for this.

(Press release / SK)

Picture top row L-R Julia Carpenter (Apheros), Alessandro Morra (Ascento), Rajiv Singhal (Grensol), bottom row L-R: Evan Petkov (Optiml), Mamta Chabria (Tandem Therapeutics), Adam Korczak (Treeless Pack)