Case study: medical physics
A versatile technology l i c a l a s m a M e d r r a p
Julia Zimmermann, co-founder of the German start-up firm Terraplasma, speaks to Julianna Photopoulos about how a desire to develop applications for cold atmospheric plasmas led her to co-found a family of companies
Medical physics The plasma care® is a mobile device for treating wounds and uses cold-plasma technology.
Plasma, or hot ionized gas, makes up most of the matter in the universe. Consisting of free electrons and positively-charged ions, plasmas have unique proper ties, such as the ability to generate reactive species, excited atoms and molecules, ultraviolet radiation and electromagnetic fields. Although plasmas are normally very hot, scientists have been able to bring them down to room tempe r a t u r e s and p r oduc e t he s e gas e s a t a tmosp h e r i c p r e s s u r e , wh i l e k e e p i n g t h e i r p r o p e r t i e s and allowing them to be used on Ear th.
For biophysicist Julia Zimmermann, these high-energy particles sparked a desire to develop various applications for cold atmospheric plasmas. This led her to co-found a f am i l y o f c ompani e s f o c u s e d o n wound t r e a tment, emissions control and more.
Why did you decide to start your first company? It came out of the scientific work I was doing with my co-founder, Gregor Morfill, at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching. I started working on plasma medicine there after doing my degree in physics and my PhD in biophysics, and we worked very hard on evaluating and developing cold atmospheric plasma devices for different applications. It was a very good time because we were able to build up a big group with a lot of scientists, engineers and medical doctors, with funding from the Max
Planck Society (MPS).
But the MPS wanted us to do a technology transfer, and there were also companies that wanted to pay us to work for them because we had some patents that they were interested in. So we founded our company, Terraplasma, with the MPS as a shareholder. It wasn’t really an active decision from us scientist s. I t was just the nex t step.
What skills did you and your co-founder bring to Terraplasma? My co-founder is also my dad, so this works quite well! He’s a plasma physicist, and he brings knowledge about cold plasmas, p l a sma t e c hn o l o g y and t h e a s s o c i a t e d p h y sical theories. I bring knowledge of biophysics and medicine. In addition to my biophysics PhD, I also did my Habilitation i n medic i ne a t t h e Te c hn i c a l Un i v e r s i t y o f Muni c h i n t h e a r e a o f c o l d p l a sma - b a s e d t r e a t men t s f o r med i c a l conditions, mainly focusing on wound treatment. So we were able to put together the plasma technology and the theory behind it in different application areas, such as medical technology, hygiene, drinking water treatment, odour management – things that also need biology.
Neither of us had much knowledge about business, so there was a lot of trial and error. You can learn a lot from colleagues, though. After we founded the company, we went into a so-called “founding centre” where you can exchange knowledge with other start-up companies and learn from them and their managing directors.
How has the company changed over the years? We s t a r t e d w i t h t wo p e o p l e an d j u s t o n e r o om. A l t hough we’r e s t i l l small, wi t h 12 employees, we now have three indoor labs and an external technical lab. We made some important inve s tment s to build up all t hese labs, so t hat we can develop prototypes. We also founded two subsidiary companies, Terraplasma Medical and Terraplasma Emission Control, in 2016 and 2018 respectively, after founding the “mother company” in 2011. This was an active decision from our side: we wanted to get investors in, rather than just working in partnership with big companies, as we’re d o i n g a t Te r r ap l a sma . A t Te r r ap l a sma Med i c a l , we now have a smal l mobil e de v i c e f o r c h r on i c wound treatments called the plasma care® that is currently undergoing CE cer t i f icat ion.
What have been your biggest challenges? We founded Terraplasma Medical with a company called Dynamify. It has people with k n ow l e d g e i n d e v e l o p i n g me d i c a l d e v i c e s , we had knowledge in developing cold plasma, s o i t s e emed l i k e i t wou l d f i t p e r f e c t l y t o bu i l d a cold plasma medical device together. The problem was that we didn’t have any money to develop it. We needed €4m, and it’s a big
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