Of lab frustration and magic hands
Julia Zimmermann talks about the foundation of the company terraplasma GmbH
Founding my company was an undertaking with many forks in the road. The first was at Max Planck, where I worked with cold atmospheric plasmas. These are partially ionised gases. The goal was to improve the healing of chronically infected wounds. My experiments focused on finding the plasma composition that would kill bacterial cells – but not the eukaryotic cells of the patients. Cold plasmas can be generated in a variety of ways and produce a chemical cocktail that is applied to the wound. The first device was the size of two refrigerators – but at least, it worked! After conducting the first clinical trial, I founded the company terraplasma together with my father, with the aim of developing a plasma device that was small and cheap enough to easily bring to market. But this process – from the idea to the prototype and on to the product – is much more time-consuming, lengthy and exhausting than writing a paper. Setting up a company is not the end of the story. You need money and the right team. At a business angel day, we networked with other founders who could develop medical products – the subsidiary “terraplasma medical” was born. A lucky coincidence, because we brought today’s handheld device to market readiness in a record time of 1.5 years.
I always found everything about research great because it is wonderful to work with other people who are equally analytical, want to explore new things, write papers and give positive feedback. I am very grateful that even today I can spend time in the lab. My co-workers say I have magic hands. They always call me when there is something that hasn’t been working for a while. I come to the lab, touch a few things – everyone thinks I haven’t done anything differently – but suddenly it works. Still, I have a lousy aura around computers, we just don’t get along well, and I’m not allowed near our server any more. From my time as a researcher, I also took a certain stubbornness with me. We’re all familiar with the feeling of lab frustration. But when it’s up and running, you sit up all night producing data that turn into the most beautiful papers. I wouldn’t have thought it during my time at Max Planck, but this elation is definitely comparable to when you hold your own product in your hands for the first time as an entrepreneur.
“You will grow with the tasks”
Of course, the coronavirus pandemic caused a significant drop in sales – before, investors and partners were not as reluctant as they are now. Since we focus very strongly on research and development, the home office has slowed down some of our projects considerably and some employees were absent for a long time due to a Covid illness. But overall, we were still quite lucky. Unfortunately, my father, due to his age and pre-existing illnesses, had to to completely switch to home office, which meant that I suddenly had to manage the company on site alone. A year ago I got a new managing director – this made everything easier. I always make sure I get home on time, and I don’t usually work more than 40 hours a week, but when there’s a lot going on, I work nights. Work-life balance still means a lot of work for me, but not as much as it used to be – as a single mother, I owe that to my eleven-year-old daughter. If I can give other single parents one piece of advice, it would be this: you will grow with the tasks, you will find solutions.