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Lab exercise: How a Swiss spinout turned science into cash

Dectris builds its X-ray detector technology into a €30M market niche

Pilatus 3 by Dectris is the first detector to e used at the SESAME in Jordan
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From the very small, big things can grow – and that’s what Dectris, a spin-out company from Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute, has discovered. In fewer than 10 years, it has parlayed an expertise in X-rays to become a specialist supplier of X-ray detectors for medical research, with turnover of about €30 million a year.

The company’s equipment is now used at the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, high-energy physics lab CERN, and several other labs around the world. Its growth stems from a plan to keep it simple: It focuses on out-of-the-box solutions that make for very reliable and easy to use detector technology. Rather than deliver a complicated detector that the client has to “tweak and tune like a Formula 1 car,” says CEO Christian Broennimann, with Dectris  “people wanted to buy a Ferrari that just works.”

The Dectris story illustrates the commercial potential of sophisticated laboratory technologies. This is a market for hyper-specialised equipment – to see inside molecules, watch chemical reactions happen, or track particle collisions in real time. Individually, these lab tools can seem like small market niches. But collectively, all this gear for hundreds of public laboratories around the world adds up to a big business – part of a $6.5 billion global market, by some estimates.

From lab to market

And like Dectris, many of the suppliers in this field start with a core technical team from one of these labs – in this case, Switzerland’s largest lab in matter and energy studies. The original technology was first developed by Broennimann and a team of researchers at PSI for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment at CERN. Later, they ran a similar project for the Swiss Lightsource (SLS).

Word spread rapidly, and Broenninman spun out the company and began the development of out-of-the-box solutions for scientists and research infrastructures from around the world. Two researchers from the Advanced Photon Source at the University of Chicago were the company’s first client.  Mark Rivers and Peter Eng were studying X-ray diffraction; and Dectris delivered imaging technology able to increase camera speed by a factor of 100 compared to other technologies that were available then.

Now, the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in Grenoble is using more than a dozen detectors from the company. “We’re heavy customers of Dectris,” says Michael Krisch, head of instrumentation services and development division at ESRF. “This kind of noise-free large area detectors are essential for our experimental programme,” he says.

Another detector developed by Dectris is the first to be installed at the Synchrotron-Light for Experimental Science and Applications in the Middle East (SESAME) in Jordan.

In 2016, the company says, 30 per cent of all the entries in the Protein Data Bank, an international research database, were determined with Dectris detectors. That same year, data from Dectris detectors contributed to 54 per cent of Cell, Science and Nature papers that reported crystal structures.

Practical applications

Dectris technology helps scientists determine the sizes, shapes, distribution, and surface-to-volume ratio of particle systems. According to ESRF’s Krish, the noise-free detectors developed by Dectris deliver the best possible X-ray imaging for the investigation of complex of biological structures, DNA, viruses, and proteins. “Dectris revolutionised the field of structural biology,” Krisch says.

The company took off also because Broennimann’s team was able to develop products that were reliable and easy to use for life sciences research, but also for medical applications. The technology can be used for X-ray diffraction and structural determination and for medical X-ray imaging such as advanced computerised tomography.

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Related subjects: CERN, Detector technology