Meet Thomas Burch – Founder Interview Series 6/6
Thomi sitting with Thomas Frizlen enjoying some down-time
January 26, 2023
“My whole career has been focused on fusing bright ideas from brilliant people to create world-class technologies.” says Thomas (Thomi) Burch, Head of Research & Development and co-founder of Swiss Ocean Tech (SOC).
If ever there has been a straight line along a career path, then Thomi’s professional life provides the perfect example. Having worked for over 25 years, the last 20 have been with the publicly funded Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology (CSEM) in Alpnach. In their own words: we develop disruptive technologies with a high societal impact in the fields of precision manufacturing, digitalization, ultra-low-power electronics, optical elements, AI, and sustainable energy. We then transfer these innovations to industry partners in a variety of sectors, including renewable energy, healthcare, watchmaking, and aerospace, or encourage start-up creations. “Over this time, I worked on 121 projects for about 60 industrial customers including 19 different start-ups from all over the world”, says Thomi. It is no understatement when we say, this man comes to our small company with a backpack loaded up with know-how and expertise. “It wasn’t only the vast number of research projects which fascinated me, but through all these close collaborations, I was exposed to over 40 different company cultures. It was an exciting time which I found neither boring nor repetitive.”
Living the life of freedom far away
From a very young age, Thomi understood which path he would take. “My father was a successful businessman and engineer, I wanted to follow in his footsteps.” Unsurprisingly, this led to his electrical engineering degree in Luzern and his MBA in International Management in Zürich. Apart from a 12-month hiatus involving travels to Asia and Oceania, Thomi has always wanted to remain close to his roots. “My apprenticeship was with a local company which also happens to be a global technology leader in various market segments. Between my years as a student, I worked across the lake from our home with another global leader in precision motors and drive technology. When I returned from my travels abroad, CSEM was looking for qualified personnel to set up their new location in the German speaking part of Switzerland, a 20-minute car drive from my home.” At the age of 28, Thomi became their first employee.
Having visited Thomi in his home to make this interview, it was immediately clear why he would want to stay where he is. It is unequivocally, without exaggeration, a stunning place to be. Think of any Swiss postcard you have ever seen but then imagine it better. The cows are grazing to the left whilst the snow-covered mountains soar in the distance. Looking out from the massive living room window, Lake Sarnen lies at their feet, the sailboats languish peacefully along the shoreline, a few clouds dot the blue sky. It is a small town so there are few neighbors and even less noise. “I grew up on this very property, my grade school is just around the corner”, adds Thomi. “But the house is completely new. We redesigned it to make it not only modern but also to accommodate two generations, my parents live in the extension you see below.” The house and large garden, as to be expected from Thomi, are also perfectly maintained. Everything is clean, organized and thoughtful. Little is left to chance, which makes so much sense. It is the same way Thomi works. “The market does not accept a 99% solution; it has to be 100%.” Over the past 5 years with SOC, either as a CSEM project manager, passionate SOC volunteer or now as one of our full-time co-founders, the output he provides is nothing ever short of detailed, exact and methodical.
Testing the functional module on Lake Alpnach
“It has always been my dream to be an entrepreneur. I had to find the right idea, the right team and the right time.” There were always opportunities to join some of the start-ups, the first offer already on the table just after three years with CSEM. “I was approached multiple times by the CEO to join but I was just starting a family and building a house and the move was too risky for me.” says Thomi.
Later, when the family was settled, another potential start-up caught his interest. Thomi was working on a sail performance monitoring sensor which measured the aerodynamics on the sail. As a sailing enthusiast, he took a special interest in this project and together with his colleague, considered founding a company focused on this technology. Around the same time, CSEM began working with Thomas Frizlen, founder of Swiss Ocean Tech. “The first project was back in 2015 studying outcomes of certain algorithms. It was all based on Thomas’s idea and backed by his private funds”, says Thomi. “Since I was the only one with a boat in our office, I became a part of team to execute the sea tests and that was my first introduction to the functional model – and to Thomas. Everything about AnchorGuardian fascinated me and it was hard not to be drawn in by Thomas’s enthusiasm. In 2017, with the support of the Hightech Zentrum Aargau, CSEM and SOC began their second project involving ultrasound underwater communication. This time I was asked to lead the project.”
Thomas Frizlen (left) and Thomi Burch on Lake Alpnach in the early days
Overall, CSEM projects can last anywhere from 1-2 years but the anchor monitoring idea from Thomas had been a part of Thomi’s life since 2015. There was first the project management phase through CSEM, then the 2-year period of volunteering and finally in 2021 where Thomi was hired full-time for SOC. In the early days, Thomi set up in the garage of his home an enormous 6-meter-long canal (with a 50cm diameter) to test performance of sensors and algorithms on each new iteration of the modules. Sometimes he would ask his children to accompany him into the forest and they would drag anchor module prototypes across gravel from the trunk of his moving car to test overall durability. “It is a technological feat coming up with our solution which I find absolutely riveting.”
Thomi with his testing facility in the garage of his home
As he puts it, “I am not a risk taker, but more a risk manager. As far as I am concerned, there is no way to lose with SOC. AnchorGuardian fulfills a necessity, there is no question. It is exciting working on a solution which answers customer’s needs and leaves a lasting impact.” It was basically a marrying of his engineering mind and his entrepreneurial spirit coupled with his passion for sailing which cemented his decision to join the company. “I love being on the water. There are these invisible forces driving you across the lake but on the surface, everything seems calm. There is a very technical side to sailing always testing your expertise and nerves. When I think about it, somewhat similar to our revolutionary AnchorGuardian technology. Incredible forces are at play on the anchor but up until now, no captain has seen them. We are making the invisible visible. With our precision and love for detail, we are bringing multiple complicated factors together to make a working system. Just like I did at CSEM but now only better. It is total focus on one brilliant idea with a group of equally passionate co-founders. Business and engineering combined, just like I always wanted.”