Microscopy has opened many doors in science. With its help, scientists, researchers, and students have been able to discover the existence of microorganisms, study the structure of cells, and see the smallest parts of plants, animals, and fungi. However, light and electron microscopy as a technique was neither easy nor accessible–until now.
Dutch startup Delmic is developing powerful and user-friendly solutions for light and electron microscopy to help researchers and companies gain insights faster. The startup believes that nanoscale imaging is crucial to further our fundamental understanding of the world around us, but the technology to do this is currently only accessible for select organisations.
Delmic’s aspiration to make microscopy accessible through automation of the entire workflow is both by their technology as well as the needs of the markets. Its solutions will play a role in advancing our understanding of the world but the journey of how it got there is equally interesting.
Academics at the helm
The story of Delmic did not start at a garage or a Silicon Valley lab or a European tech hub – it actually began at the Delft University of Technology. Jacob Hoogenboom, Pieter Kruit, Albert Polman, and Christiaan Zonnevylle, the founders of Delmic, are a group of academics from Delft University of Technology and the materials research institute AMOLF in Amsterdam.
The group also includes Andries Effting, who is now the co-founder and CTO of Delmic. Sander den Hoedt, CEO of Delmic, says he always wanted to start his own business and was lucky to run into a group of entrepreneurial scientists who came up with the original concept on which the company was founded.
Delmic focusses on making nanoscale data more accessible to a wider group of researchers.
“We are in the field of electron microscopy, which offers incredible insight into how our world works at the nanoscale,” says Den Hoedt. “However, electron microscopy is often hard to use, inaccessible and we are working to change this.”
Unlike some other startups, Delmic didn’t start with a Eureka moment but instead from the realisation that their technology can be used for many different applications. The founders say they always wanted to solve tangible problems with technology and realised they could achieve this vision with Delmic.
From government grants to VC funding
In the capital intensive business of electron microscopy, Delmic had a humble beginning. Den Hoedt says they began with a small bank loan and some government grants. Initially, the startup also managed to sell early prototypes, which allowed them to bootstrap the company.
The big change in direction came in 2014 when the founders realised that their ambitions required deeper investment. “We were lucky to find a family office that believed in our vision. They have helped us grow the company to its current size,” Den Hoedt says.
With focus on truly scaling its technology and product lineup, Delmic has picked up VC funding this year. Delmic has raised a total of €12M so far and with a business model that generates one-off sales of microscopes, Delmic is looking to generate more recurring revenue.
All this evolution and growth has also come with its own challenges. Den Hoedt says the initial challenge was learning to think about sales and business since they came straight out of university.
“Later, it became more about how we make things profitable and focus on the right processes to bring these incredibly complicated machines to market in a reliable way,” adds Den Hoedt. “Financing the company and convincing people to buy such expensive equipment was hard as a start-up but has gotten easier as we went along.”
Rise helps sharpen the mind
Techleap.nl’s Rise programme has always been about bringing a diverse set of Dutch scaleups to the forefront. Delmic, which joined the batch #8 of Rise programme, is as unique as they come. With a vision to make nanoscale images as ubiquitous as DNA sequencing is today, Delmic needs all the support it can get.
For support, Den Hoedt says they turned to Techleap.nl by joining the Rise programme. “We see a lot of challenges as we grow and try to achieve our vision; we thought it would be good to have support with these challenges,” he says.
While scaleups joining the Rise programme often see immediate strengths in the form of peer learning and problem solving, Den Hoedt sees a longer term impact on Delmic. He sees the Rise programme as an important step in their evolution as a startup looking to make the right decisions.
He also adds that Rise has immediately helped “sharpen their minds” on certain discussions. Collectively, they feel Rise has helped them set the right priorities and has offered a platform and language to discuss certain issues.
Making nanoscale imaging ubiquitous
For Sander den Hoedt, the barometer of Delmic’s success is directly proportional to the conversation around nanoscale imaging. He says Delmic will be successful if it propels the industry to talk about nanoscale images the same way we talk about DNA now.
“The ability to consistently and easily visualise what’s happening at the nanoscale will be an absolute game changer, both in our fundamental biological understanding, as well as for our ability to create new drugs and therapeutics,” Den Hoedt says.
However, to envision this goal, there is a need for a step change in both technology and business development. Den Hoedt sees support of organisations like Techleap.nl and fundraising as key to get there.
Delmic initially focussed on building the technical team and their first hire, a software engineer, is still with the company. To realise the long-term vision, Delmic has recently filled the positions of COO and CFO, and is actively hiring specialists to strengthen the team.
“Finding these people has definitely been hard, as we are in quite a niche business so not everybody understands what we do or why we do it,” says Den Hoedt. “A positive result of this is however that the leadership team that eventually formed is even more motivated,” he adds.
More than a decade after it started, the central idea behind Delmic remains the motivation of a team focussed on making technology and microscopy accessible. Den Hoedt says every entrepreneur should think about something “that truly motivates them” and then also think about “how it will change the world.”
“I think it is impossible to run a business without deep innate motivation,” says Den Hoedt as he gets back to Delmic’s mission and crafting the path that will make electron microscopy accessible.