Considering a future as a pulsed power pioneer? You are most likely in for a bumpy ride, but in the end, a rewarding one. At least if you can draw any conclusions of ScandiNova Systems two decades in business. We asked founder Mikael Lindholm to reflect on the company’s 20th anniversary.
“It is inconceivable that such a long time has passed. You have to pinch your arm sometimes and ask yourself if it is true. It does not feel like it, but 20 years give perspective”.
Mikael Lindholm, today SVP Marketing & Sales Director, has a hard time grasping that two decades have passed in such a rush. The embryo to ScandiNova Systems was founded in the 80s and 90s, when Mikael worked at Scanditronix as project manager responsible for the company’s Microwave Systems. Mikael discovered the opportunity to improve the quality of the microwaves by developing a modern and better performing high-voltage pulse generator. He started looking for a solid-state technology (semi-conductor) based solution to generate the ideal pulse, which would help end-users to enhance their applications significantly.
Milestone 1 – the innovation
When he was introduced to the American inventor and high-voltage expert Walter Crewson by his mutual friend David Woodburn, he finally found the crucial piece of the puzzle. Crewson presented a unique technology that enabled solid-state switches to handle high voltage levels by using a special transformer with a split core and letting the switches connect in parallel. Mikael still remembers the moment when he understood the great potential of the “Split Core”.
“The development of this technology started in 1995 and the first prototype was completed and tested at Stangenes Inc in Palo Alto the following year. Shortly thereafter we integrated the technology into our Radiotherapy system, which was installed in Tokyo. I immediately saw the difference between this and what we did before. I realized quite early on that this is a winner. Then the penny dropped, this is something, a business. This must be able to be used outside of Scanditronix. It is an opportunity for the whole world to modernize the technology for this type of products”
Two years of struggle
In 2001, with the newly acquired Split Core Parallel Switching patent secured, the trio formed ScandiNova Systems. They had the innovation, now they just have to harvest the success? Unfortunately, they had chosen the worst possible moment to start a new business venture.
“We were unlucky with the timing, the dot com bubble had not really bursted yet. It was about to crack, but we didn’t understand that it would eventually. The talk of town at that time was that it was very easy to start a company, it was basically just to go outside and the investors would throw money at you. We got the impression that within a few weeks we would be up and running”.
The prognosis turned out to be too optimistic.
“Initially, we put quite a lot of time into our business plan with the ambition to roll out the big launch in the autumn. We had our first investor meeting scheduled on 11 September 2001. Of course, everything changed overnight. At first, nobody could foresee the consequences of this catastrophic event, but then the bubble bursted for real and the whole economy stopped all over the world. No investors were interested or dared to invest anymore, they waited to see what would happen”.
Mikael describes the two following years of investment hunting as a very painful period. Living on personal savings, they were designing products, registering patents, establishing customer contacts, but it did not lead to anything tangible. Still no office and nor employees.
Milestone 2 – the first investor
But the high tide would eventually turn. In 2003, a brave investor (Industrifonden) made the wheels spin again.
“We got our first investor. That was a big moment. After that, we started to find customers quite early on who were interested, but we had underestimated the hardship with introducing a new product on the market. For us, it was obvious that everyone would like to buy this product, but the world is very conservative. Early on we noticed a skepticism towards if our solution actually worked. But we had already tested the product and knew that it worked, the development phase was completed and the prototype was built.”
“One of the customers said: “come back when you have used the product for several hours, everyday, over a ten-year period. Then I will think it works for real”. Nobody wanted to be the guinea pig. But he kept his promise, after 10 years he bought it!
In the beginning, ScandiNova really had to fight to convince the market to believe in the new technology and the still small company of 3 employees.
“No one thought we would survive another week so they did not dare to buy from us”.
Fortunately for ScandiNova, some customers had the guts to invest. Especially industrial customers and medical technology customers dared to test it out. They saw the upside with the technology and did not consider it to be a big investment to get an advance on the competition.
Milestone 3 – convincing the research community
If you present a product to the world that is based on groundbreaking technology, the embrace from the scientific community must be overwhelming, right? Well, this was another hurdle on the road to handle.
“The most difficult ones to convince were the researchers who we otherwise think are the most innovative and always adopt new technologies, but they could not wrap their heads around how this new technology worked. It couldn’t be this easy, I smell a rat”.
“The first customer we got was from Taiwan. We never met the customer in person, he never came and visited us, we really just corresponded through emails. We built and delivered the system without ever going there. It was quite fascinating that it actually worked in the end. After that, the knots were loosened on the research side. But the progress was really slow, it was not until 2007 that the researchers accepted our idea”.
Milestone 4 – CERN embraces the technology
If there still were any skeptical researchers around at this point, the next ScandiNova milestone would change their minds forever. In 2009 the iconic European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN, bought their first product from ScandiNova.
“The dams were released. It became like a quality stamp of approval, if CERN dares to buy from ScandiNova then no one else needs to worry either. They would never buy something they did not believe in, everybody knows that. After that, we almost had to cool down the interest, everyone wanted to order”.
The collaboration with CERN forced the ScandiNova team to push the boundaries to the max – bigger machines, even more effect and more difficult performances followed.
“We went further with this technology than we had ever done before. The more they pushed us the better we became at delivering better performance. In the end, the only way to achieve this level of performance is to buy our technology. When CERN realised this, they began to phase out the old and obsolete technology”.
Milestone 5 – modular approach
In the beginning, a new order meant that a totally new system had to be built almost from scratch. Every product was customized, based on a unique specification and the system had to be redesigned every time.
“Talking about milestones, what we discovered after a while was that when we built the first machines, we designed the system to be quite modular. These were modules that could be configured in slightly different ways and still achieve different performance based on what the customer wanted. Over time, we noticed that this was super smart. It saved a lot of time to not have to redo the modules for each customer, it was just a case. It became a milestone without us thinking about it from the beginning.”
Milestone 6 – replicating systems and providing series production
ScandiNova had shown the market that they had the ability to construct two products that were similar when the customer requested more than one modulator. But one question remained: could they do two machines that were exactly the same?
“Gradually we got some batch orders where the customer wanted to order two, three, five or ten products, and then it began to be demanded that they should be exactly the same. The large customers were initially very skeptical that we would be able to deliver a series production. But we were convinced. If we can build different machines, it is clear that we can also build similar machines. I admit that it was more work than we thought, but once we had the structure and documentation of how they were constructed, it turned out great.”
“Nowadays we build around 300 systems a year and 250 of these are the same. These days we offer series production, which means that we have a much more stable company base. This was an important milestone for the big clients who mainly buy big volumes. They don’t consider us as a small garage company anymore”.
Milestone 7 – Bure intensifies expansion
“In 2019, we got a new investor. It was a bit like a fresh start for the company. We got a lot of capital from Bure who really wanted to invest. With Bure and other existing investors (Industrifonden and SEB Venture Capital), we got a strong owner group with a lot of expansion focus. There was a growth focus, brand new premises and the customers are happy that we have the production capacity going forward and can meet their constantly growing volumes. Now we have the muscles to really match the market in a different way. It feels fantastic that we have come this far, now it feels like crossing the threshold in a different way than we have been before. It has been a struggle all along to survive”.
“Our main focus now is more growth, refinement, quality improvements and efforts to make attractive products that make the company attractive. In a sense, we are more like a normal company now”.
The future is bright
ScandiNova has finally landed on its feet and is the leading developer in the world of the new generation pulsed power systems. The future undeniably looks bright for the Swedish company.
“Now we have an extremely stable foundation, many established customers who depend on us and we land many new customers by the day. It’s much easier now, we can immediately talk business and value when the trust is there from the beginning”.
Where will ScandiNova be in 20 years?
“An interesting question! I was recently given the task at a strategy meeting to make a projection on the 10 upcoming years and thought that was a very long time. My conclusion was this: we started out to be a product manufacturer of pulse generators, but now we have gone more towards being system integrators, we have added things and functions and are more turnkey. We have refined our product by integrating the next step – microwaves that are connected to our technology. Already within 10 years, I assume that we will only devote ourselves to this.”
Mikael Lindholm expects the company to continue on the journey of expansion and growth.
“I would like to think that we are a large company. I hope and believe that we will have a turnover of a couple of billions. You will find our manufacturing in different parts of the world, in North America, in Europe, in Asia, we will have offices in several countries and established a service organization.
One thing is certain. ScandiNova will continue to develop solutions that benefit society.
“The world is changing and we must always follow. I can picture us doing more beneficial things for the environment and make a mark in potentially booming markets such as Africa and South America. Today, you save 30% of the energy when you run on ScandiNova modulators, something we are truly proud of, to help contribute to a smaller carbon dioxide footprint. One might be able to find even more energy and environmental benefits. This is the future according to us, to contribute to a better tomorrow”.