Carlo Centonze, the man who makes fabrics intelligent

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Fifteen years ago, Carlo Centonze and his friend Murray Height were walking in the mountains. After five days of wearing the same t-shirt, the girlfriends said, “Boys, 100 yards ahead.” (The wind was blowing behind their backs …) Touched by their pride as engineers, that very evening they decided to embark on textile innovation, starting with the creation of anti-odor materials. A thousand obstacles awaited them, but they survived and, since December, their company, HeiQ, is listed on the London Stock Exchange.

This is how its charismatic co-founder traces the birth of HeiQ, via Skype, from his headquarters in the Schlieren start-up cluster in Zurich. Here, a research and application laboratory occupies one floor, and another is dedicated to offices. The specialty of the company? Innovation in materials, especially textiles and medical devices, “to improve the lives of billions of people”.

Sharp themes

HeiQ is three companies in one. A spin-off from the EPFZ, it does research, collaborating with a dozen universities and funding doctoral students who work on specific topics that interest them. It produces by creating its technologies from scratch until they are brought to market. Finally, it does marketing, communicating to consumers about its products “in a simple, transparent and concrete way”.

At the start of the pandemic, HeiQ risked a lot, says Carlo Centonze; several brands, in difficulty, have canceled their purchase orders. But one technology has almost doubled its income: HeiQ Viroblock, an innovative antiviral and antibacterial treatment that is applied on face masks, textiles or other materials, and which reduces the coronavirus and others by 99.99%. enveloped viruses and bacteria. “A mask treated with this technology becomes 100 times more effective”, he explains.

Suddenly, thanks to some 450 new customers gained since the appearance of the virus, the turnover of HeiQ reached 30 million dollars in the first half of 2020, against 28 for the year 2019. So that, for weeks , several colleagues worked 15 to 17 hours a day, seven days a week. Carlo Centonze too, or even more, he says. (Besides, his collaborators wondered if he was sleeping, slips the marketing manager.)

Launched two hours after the state of emergency decree by the Federal Council in March 2020, Viroblock was awarded the prestigious Swiss Technology Prize 2020, surpassing major finalists such as Schindler and Givaudan. HeiQ serves countries such as India, Bangladesh, Vietnam and Honduras, where the textile industry is very present, but fragile, says the entrepreneur.

“The pandemic has caused the cancellation of many orders, causing massive layoffs, mainly affecting women. Which, in some of these countries, support an average of seven people with their salary, ”he says. Then, several brands got wind of the Viroblock technology and decided to use it. “We have thus been able to help limit redundancies in these states,” he says.

Carlo Centonze is Ticinese, but born in St. Gallen. His mother is German, from a family of industrialists for four generations, active in German mechanical production. Ticinese, his father is of Italian origin and comes from a line of entrepreneurs. Her great-grandfather left Puglia at the age of 14 to sell newspapers in Zurich, before paying for chemistry studies. Then to create his company, today ECSA, which employs 300 people and is managed by his brother, Matteo.

A jack of all trades

Before completing an MBA in St. Gallen, he studied biology in Zurich, then forest engineering (which later became environmental sciences). “I tried to be a scientist, but I’m too impatient, a characteristic of entrepreneurs,” he smiles. However, he claims to be an excellent scientific entrepreneur. “I know how to communicate with both worlds.”

Jack of all trades, he likes to be at the front; hands in research, production, sales and marketing. His days are very varied, “the tasks always complex and urgent. For us, the sun never sets. ” It begins at dawn with Australia and ends in the evening with California. “It’s like that when you support 40 innovative projects simultaneously, in 60 countries with 130 employees.”

In the morning, the Ticino wakes up around 6 a.m., and it is he who prepares breakfast for his two children, 5 and 9 years old. “Equality requires, I married a Swedish woman,” he jokes. But at HeiQ, in addition to a horizontal hierarchy, parity is required. Women earn more than men, they constitute 35% of the workforce and are particularly represented in research and top management. “A choice: what we do is highly complex and a leader who is also a mother fits perfectly with our business model.”


Profile

1974 Born in St. Gallen.

2005 Creation with Murray Height of the start-up HeiQ, a spin-off of the EPFZ.

2010 HeiQ wins the Swiss Technology Award for Oilguard which protects beaches against oil spills.

2019 The company wins the Swiss Environmental Prize with a polyester dyeing system that saves water and energy.

2020 New Swiss Technology Award and entry on the London Stock Exchange.


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