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Profile: A fish called Willy and a “batty” idea

Armed with an energy-efficient 3D ultrasound scanner the size of a small coin, Alexander Rudoy, Aldo Persichini and Tobias Bahnemann – the three-man team who launched Toposens – want to enable machines to find their way around rooms smoothly and agilely. Indoor navigation, robotics and the home entertainment segment are the fields of application. Munich is where the team found not only each other, but also an optimal development environment.

Tobias Bahnemann, the firm’s business administrator, told us that a series of happy coincidences brought the three Toposens founders (in their current constellation) together at the Strascheg Center for Entrepreneurship (SCE) in December 2014. Yet the story of how the startup began developing the 3D ultrasound scanner that it now wants to make market-ready actually goes back more than two years before that. It all began with Willy. Or rather, without Willy. Because Willy is still no more than a future vision.

On a whim, Alexander Rudoy – at the time still without his fellow colleague Aldo Persichini, now a member of the founding team, and without Bahnemann too – began tinkering with the development of a robotic fish that was supposed to swim around an aquarium of its own accord. The fish was called Willy. To keep Willy from bumping into the glass walls all the time, Rudoy looked around for a suitable 3D sensor that would respond to ultrasound rather than light. His search was in vain.

3D sensor will convert ultrasound waves to point clouds
3D sensor will convert ultrasound waves to point clouds (Copyright Toposens)

The ultrasound sensors available on the market were not suitable for three-dimensional spaces, or for fish that would lose their way in the dark. So they were not good enough for Rudoy.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the startup scene”

That is why the mechatronics and precision engineering graduate is today working with Persichini to develop a mechanical bat brain. Simply put, he wants a 3D sensor that converts ultrasound waves into point clouds to enable safe orientation and movement through three-dimensional spaces – just like in the case of bats.

Autonomous driving and evasion with Toposens
Autonomous driving and evasion with Toposens

Fields of application include autonomous driving and drones, which currently have trouble getting around in cloudy weather. “We are right in the thick of the startup phase at the moment,” Bahnemann told us. “But we hope to have a product ready for volume production in a year and a half. And in three years maybe we will already have international activities and be operating in the radar sensor segment.” Willy too should at last be swimming freely by then.

Bahnemann was looking for a job, having come from out of town to attend the pitch evening at the SCE’s Innovation Café, when Rudoy and Persichini stood up on stage and announced that they needed business management support. “I’ve always been fascinated by the startup scene,” the 26-year-old admits, explaining why he applied for the job, “and Toposens gives me the chance to work with a real product, not just with software.”

Today, Bahnemann oversees the company’s finances and development grants. As recently as September, the trio pocketed a further EUR 30,000 at the “ICT Innovative Startup Competition” run by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs.

“Munich is a high-tech hub”

The young entrepreneurs plan to use this money to convince customers, investors and employees alike of the potential harbored by their idea. “That’s always a bit difficult when you’ve still got nothing to show,” Bahnemann concedes. But he is confident that he has found the right setting in the Bavarian capital: “Munich is a high-tech hub – it doesn’t have Berlin’s bias toward web apps. Munich is down-to-earth. There are any number of well-educated teams here.” High praise indeed, coming from a native of the Rhineland region. Support from the SCE in the early stages and the provision of office space at the startup center were especially useful to Toposens.

“Munich has a lot to offer: a lot of dialog, a good infrastructure, big companies and service providers on your doorstep,” Bahnemann says, convinced that these benefits will offset the slightly higher labor costs and rents. Anyone who shares his enthusiasm for new businesses or would like to get in touch with the startup community is advised to visit the startup centers at local universities, or to cast a glance at meetup.com. “That’s where you get to know like-minded people.” And, with a little luck, you might just run into the perfect startup team – like Bahnemann himself did.