An eye for technology
Frank Ziemer had clear ideas about the direction in which ophthalmology would develop. He founded the Ziemer Group in 2000 and has been producing innovative laser instruments for ophthalmic surgery in Port near Biel/Bienne ever since. Today the Ziemer Group is one of the key players in ophthalmology worldwide. They operate internationally, working closely with the most renowned experts in the fields of medicine, research, and technology.
The overall ophthalmology sector is a multibillion-dollar market, covering everything from pharmaceuticals to diagnostics and implants through to complete surgical facilities. By comparison, the Ziemer Group operates its laser products in a niche that is just a couple of billion in size. But the Ziemer Group is right at the forefront of this segment, thanks to its innovative, high-tech FEMTO Z8 multipurpose laser platform for ophthalmic surgery. We spoke to Frank Ziemer, founder and CEO of the Ziemer Group.
How did your interest in the eye come about?
While I was at university I did some work on development projects at a company that made ophthalmology instruments. Even then I could see that there was huge potential in developing surgical instruments. My vision was to integrate much more software-based intelligence from optics, electronics, and laser technology into these products. After all, eye surgery has a close affinity with technology.
How have you implemented your vision?
We developed a completely different technical concept than all other companies. It is based on a laser platform that can be used for a range of surgeries. For this purpose we developed the Low Energy, High Repetition Rate. In this technology, the laser emits light pulses using far less energy, so it is very gentle on the eye tissue. However, to prevent surgeries from taking too long, the laser must operate at extreme speed and with a high repetition rate. This is the technology we invented.
How do you come up with an invention like this?
By working with the right people to examine a lot of technical options right from the start, but also by being willing to reject them if necessary. The process we went through with the experts was a very long, iterative one. Even today, we are constantly bringing expertise into the company. Not a month goes by without us exchanging ideas with institutions based in Germany, the USA, or Switzerland, particularly Bern University of Applied Sciences and the University of Bern.
What do you do differently than your competitors?
We started off by taking a close look at our competitors’ products. But by doing that you run the risk of being too close to the competition. So we were forced to break completely new ground in terms of technology, compactness, and the handling of the laser.
How important is it for you to be based in the Canton of Bern?
Actually, that’s almost impossible to overstate. We have a precision culture in Biel/Bienne that has developed over generations. The partner companies we work with here specialize in high precision and are highly competent in optics and electronics. Precision is crucial for us because the cornea is about 0.5 mm thick and if you want to accomplish something in that area you have to work in the thousandth of a millimeter range. Also, Zurich and Lausanne are easy to get to, of course, and the University of Bern is a short drive away. Plus it only takes me ten minutes to get to the University of Applied Sciences in Biel/Bienne, which we work very closely with.
Why would you describe yourself as a Hidden Champion?
Many people don’t even know that we bring innovative and technically advanced products to market. We hear that a lot, both at home and abroad. “Hidden Champion” is an accolade for me. Even though we are still a relatively young medtech company, our eye lasers are already in use in 75 countries worldwide.
What is the life span of a Femto laser?
We have devices in many countries, not least in Asia, that have been working away for 15 years now – something we never expected. We assumed clinics would be buying replacements after seven or eight years. Our devices are extremely robust and solidly built, which is also a quality feature: Swiss made, you see!
How do you see your industry and the Ziemer Group in ten years’ time?
We don’t want to grow at any price but rather in a qualitative, healthy, and sustainable way. We are currently thinking very carefully about how we expand going forward. After all, what we do is highly complex. Everything has to work together seamlessly, from the expertise to the wide range of technologies and regulatory requirements with all the clinical trials, right through to opening up a market. I firmly believe that in ten years’ time we will be even better positioned and more well-known in the market.