interview Startups

EXIST grant, craft beer and malaria diagnosis – Ulrich Tillich, Oculyze

This week we have published Oculyze Startup Porträt and now we would like to show you this interview with Ulrich Tillich, one of the Oculyze-founders. We spoke with him at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna.

WUNDERDING: What is Oculyze?
Ulrich Tillich: Basically we have a smartphone microscope – it just uses a regular smartphone. Once you plug this on, it has an about 400x magnification and so what you can see here are blood cells. And this is only part of the story – here we take images, so this replaces a regular laboratory microscope, and the images are sent into the cloud, analysed with computer vision algorithms and the results are sent back to the device. So, with this we replace the microscope and with the cloud computing we basically replace the expertise of the person using it. And this can be used for very many applications. As I mentioned, these are blood cells. Currently we are mostly working with yeast for breweries, hence the „Oculyze – Better Brewing“.

WUNDERDING: How was the idea for Oculyze born?
Ulrich Tillich: Katja, who does the computer vision in the team, is one of the co-founders. She did her PhD on the image recognition of mainly samples of plankton from lakes to identify certain species. Because, whenever a lake is unhealthy, certain species pop up and the idea was to automate this – and this was pretty successful. Then her main idea was looking into „how can this be applied more widely, automating microscopy“. And one of the pain-points that was always identified for many applications, was the actual microscope. Because you can’t take a laboratory microscope everywhere where you would want to do the analysis. And that’s basically why we developed the hardware part. But our main expertise is on the computer vision, far more than on the hardware. And then the team grew from there, basically. Kilian and me, we are the other two co-founders together with Marcus Frohme, who is our mentor at the university, we applied for a grant called „Exist Gründerstipendium“, so we had one year to basically build up the idea and get investment and by now we have seed financing and have hired people.

Ulrich Tillich and Andrea Babic, Oculyze

WUNDERDING: What is your first use case for Oculyze?
Ulrich Tillich:  Breweries have to check on the concentration and health of the yeast to make quality beer – especially if the beer is supposed to be consistent from batch to batch. And most large breweries, like Radeberg Gruppe, have systems to do this. But many of the smaller ones, especially the craft breweries which popped up in the last couple of years, do not have systems to analyse their yeast. In the best case, they have a microscope – which is very work intensive. So we offer them the solution to very quickly determine the concentration and the viabilities, so how many cells are alive and how many are dead. And if you monitor this you are able to produce a lot better beer and actually save a lot of money as well, as a small brewery, because you can we reuse your yeast. And many of the smaller ones buy fresh dry yeast for each batch which is a very big expense for them.

WUNDERDING: What are Oculyze’s further area of applications?
Ulrich Tillich:  So anything where you are doing the same measurement over and over again. So there are many applications. One of our bigger challenges is picking out which ones are the best ones to focus on. We have many which we are considering. The next one we will probably focus on commercially, is an analysis in dairy cows to detect infections and to improve their health and also their production rates when it comes to milk. Something we’re also following but more on an academic side is a malaria detection. We have partners in Kenya that we’re working on and the idea is to write a grant proposal together with them. We’ve talked to DeKut, who are very interested. And the idea is there to give the device to them. They have a nursing school, so the idea is to possibly to give the device to nurses. So when they go to the remote parts they can then screen for malaria in the population.

WUNDERDING: Please tell us more about your business model?

WUNDERDING: Ocuylze first started with a grant from the EXIST program from the Federal Ministry of Economics and Technology. Please tell us more about this program?
Ulrich Tillich:  This EXIST program is pretty good and it’s not that difficult to get compared to many other grants. But it’s only the first point, because having your grant for 1 year is nice but you have to do a lot of work in that time to be able to secure investment and that’s the step that’s really challenging. In Europe it’s not easy to get investment for startups in general. For us it worked out fine, so we might not be the best person to ask for this because we didn’t have so much trouble with it. So it worked out for us. There are many who have to bootstrap a lot longer than we did. But it was still an intensive process, talking to very many investors, pitching to them and it just takes up a lot more time than anyone thinks it will – on working time you spend on it and also just on the delay from talks until you actually get the money. So you have to start with this earlier than you think you have to, at least six months before.

WUNDERDING: Your best and worst time during your startup journey?

WUNDERDING: What is your advide to people who would like to found their own company?


ABOUT DR. Ulrich M. Tillich

Dr. Ulrich M. Tillich – Co-Founder, CTO & Co-CEO B.SC & M.Sc in Biosystemstechnology/Bioinformatics; PhD in Molecular Biology With his doctorate in Molecular Biology and his technology know-how, Uli is a well rounded Co-CEO. As a biotechnologist with experience in hardware development and rapid protoyping, he is leading the technology side of the business.

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