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Graduate profile: CEO of a spin-off company

Using state-of-the-art machines to unveil secrets of the past

Joël Bourquin studied mechanical engineering at the ZHAW School of Engineering. Today he is CEO of Ionplus AG, which he jointly founded in 2013. The spin-off company of ETH manufactures equipment for radiocarbon dating – and thus makes the past a bit more tangible.

The Federal Charter, the Shroud of Turin or Ötzi the Glacier Mummy – anyone wishing to unlock the secrets of these and other organic creations of past centuries cannot get by without radiocarbon dating. The principle behind it: The unstable carbon isotope14C decomposes in dead organisms in accordance with known periodical laws. Conventional carbon, however, remains stable. The ratio of the two forms of carbon thus changes with the passing of time. If this ratio can be successfully measured and compared with the starting material, then conclusions can be made about the age of a sample. This is currently achieved by measuring samples containing carbon in highly complex devices referred to as accelerator mass spectrometers.

 

 

«I find it super that I am not merely involved in the production of a small part, but rather support our products from their initial concept and design all the way up to their sales and commissioning.»

From the idea to its commissioning

Joël Bourquin designs precisely such devices. The Mechanical Engineering graduate jointly established his own company around two years ago. ETH on the Hönggerberg has provided rental space to Ionplus AG. Devices the approximate size of a small car are built there; engineers work meticulously on optimisations there; supplementary components are designed there. The latter are used, for example, to prepare samples for subsequent analysis in the mass spectrometer. All of the threads converge here for Joël Bourquin, which is a highly motivating starting position for him: «I find it super that I am not merely involved in the production of a small part, but rather support our products from their initial concept and design all the way up to their sales and commissioning».

Technical knowledge and a structured approach

The study programme at the ZHAW School of Engineering prepared him for this challenging task. Joël Bourquin recounts: «I naturally still benefit enormously today from the technical knowledge gained during my mechanical engineering studies. I have also learned, however, how project work is planned, how presentations are given, how I can best handle pressure, and how to work in a structured and efficient manner. This is very beneficial to me in my current professional life.» The reason for this is that he really enjoys the hands-on experience of building the devices: His tasks as CEO also include the preparation of offers, visits to customers all over the world, leading sales discussions and his own management responsibility. Although this role has removed Joël Bourquin from the classic occupation profile of an engineer, he still notes: «I am my own boss and have the freedom to manage a company on my own terms. That motivates me every day».

 «I find it super that I am not merely involved in the production of a small part, but rather support our products from their initial concept and design all the way up to their sales and commissioning».

«I have always been fascinated by machines»

Joël Bourquin began his professional career with an apprenticeship as a physics laboratory technician at the ETH. During this time, he was already working with computer-aided design. He recounts: «I have always been fascinated by machines – not just the complex devices which I work on today, but also the big old steam engines. I noticed, however, that in-depth knowledge was required for their development. For this reason, it became natural for me to follow up the apprenticeship with additional training in this direction.» During his mechanical engineering studies at the ZHAW School of Engineering, he remained loyal to the research group where he had been working as a laboratory technician. With this group as a partner, he designed and built an automatic sample changer for a mass spectrometer as part of his Bachelor thesis. When the decision was made to establish a spin-off, he seized the opportunity to assume its management. 

Current topics, social relevance

The company is growing and is successful – not just in the area of archaeological research: «Among other things, our devices are also used in environmental science, where the origin of air pollution can be investigated, for example. But we can also use suitable samples to show how precisely medications work in the body by enriching them with 14C.» Thanks to his degree from the School of Engineering, Joël Bourquin is not only committed to his fascination with machines, but is also working on current topics of great social relevance.