EIC Coffee Break with Tobias Bahnemann: Success doesn’t come easily unless you work for it
Every month, during a Coffee Break, we dive into the stories of EIC innovators and get a glimpse of the persons behind the start-ups. Today’s guest is Tobias Bahnemann – co-Founder and CEO of Toposens. Tobias has founded his first start-up at the age of 19 and is responsible for sales, marketing, and investor relations as well as establishing Toposens’ representation in Silicon Valley. Want to know more? Keep reading his story in this month’s EIC Coffee Break.
Tell us how the idea for your innovation started. Was there a day 0 / a stimulus or was it something that was bouncing in the back of your head for a long time?
Innovations typically start with some sort of idea or situation that occurs. I didn’t come up with the Toposens technology we have, it was my co-founder Alexander Rudoy. While he was studying, he came to understand that what moves the world are typically built and invented things, and that doesn’t happen if you’re working for a big company. Therefore, he was considering potential ideas he could bring to the market.
His initial idea at the time – which was ten years ago – involved building a robotic fish because it seemed like the most straightforward thing to do and might be interesting to many people. However, he underestimated how complex it would be to build a tracking device for a robotic fish. Nonetheless, this tracking device turned out to be the ultrasonic 3D sensor technology we’re talking about today. All because of an engineer wanting to build something that many people could use, benefit from, have fun with, and then stumbling across a problem nobody else could solve at the time, and that became the foundation of our company.
Since then, we’ve created the algorithm that enabled us to come up with the 3D sensor technology, we’ve built and developed the first ultrasonic sensor for object positioning in three-dimensional space and brought this technology to the market.
How did your family respond to your ideas/innovation?
As creators of something new, there was a certain time during this process where nobody knew exactly where to put this. Certainly, there were some thoughts like ‘what are they doing?’, and probably we weren’t being taken very seriously and they just let us try these out to see where it would lead (laughs!).
Over time, and with the development of the company, our families understood what we were pushing here – particularly when clients like BMW and Porsche came into the picture. Therefore, there was a certain scepticism in the beginning but then that changed, and everyone got more and more proud of us and what we’re achieving here.
Who or what has shaped where you are?
If you build a company and ramp up your product into the market, you end up having different forces shaping you during that process. It’s difficult to mention one concrete thing but one, in particular, that is important for a founder is that you require a different set of skills and people involved in what you’re trying to build that make it valuable and profitable to push you to the next level.
I believe that working with my two co-founders has been one of the things that has shaped me, plus building the company with everything that goes with it – interacting with clients, hiring, managing people, driving innovation, handling stakeholders, among others. There are many hurdles to overcome throughout this type of process, so that’s something that shapes you.
Another thing that I have to mention is the mentorship role of Harry Strasser, our Executive Chairman at Toposens. He’s been shaping and helping further the company in terms of strategic and operational development, but also us as founders.
Can you tell us about a tough moment you had at your company and how you pushed through?
Every start-up has tough moments, and for those involved, it feels like they’re going through a rollercoaster. In my opinion, the higher the maturity level, the less crazy that rollercoaster gets, especially in the early stages when you’re trying to reach ‘stable waters’.
There were times during our journey where we were close to bankruptcy because building a high-tech product isn’t easy – as getting revenue quickly and funding to build a company goes. So that’s why you always need to push through, not give up and be persistent. Believing in your mission, even when taking some hits in between, is very important.
What advice can you give people who are currently playing with the idea to start a company?
You should know, and be aware, that this is typically a long and exhausting journey you’re starting but also a very rewarding one. You’ll learn a lot, especially about yourself, gain tons of experience as you go along, and one of the key things is getting the right experienced mentors to support you.
Speaking from my personal experience, it’s best to make sure you have by your side more experienced people right from the start, rather than inexperienced ones. That will be critical in making sure you’re building a successful company, particularly when it comes to deep tech.
What are you currently reading and what book inspired you the most?
I’m currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth”, which talks about self-improvement and gives you a good perspective on how to handle better this rollercoaster that is life. Plus, gives you great insights and helps you make sense of what your purpose is.
I also enjoy reading good autobiography books from famous founders like Elon Musk or Steve Jobs. Because when you read about their lives in the media, you only get the successful bits. Then you ask yourself what the hurdles they had to overcome to be successful or what they had to do. So, for me, these types of books are very inspirational and get you even more motivated to follow in their footsteps.
If you could talk business over lunch with a large corporate CEO or global leader, which one would you choose and why?
I would love to talk to Elon Musk because he’s probably one of the biggest future shapers of our time. That’s one of the values at Toposens, believing that what we’re doing helps shape the future of coming generations. He has shaped the future in so many ways – from working on new types of rockets to electric vehicles – that I would love to better understand where his passion and creativity come from and why he chooses these topics. Plus, where all his energy comes from (laughs!).
He’s pushing for so many different things all at once that knowing how he handles it and successfully juggles all of this would be fascinating to hear. He’s truly an inspiration and has become sort of a Rockstar of the entrepreneurship world because of his traits, in that sense.