In 2009, Hervé Cottard and Luc Blecha founded Almatech SA, a space and naval engineering company located on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. The company quickly grew from just two people to a team of nearly thirty employees. The vast majority of the people who work at Almatech are engineers, with half having studied at Switzerland’s two most prestigious institutes of technology, ETH Zurich and EPFL, and the other half at renowned engineering schools throughout Europe.
The company active in the Space and naval domains , saw its biggest success to date when it was designated as the industrial partner for designing, fabricating, assembling and testing the structure of the CHEOPS telescope satellite, the first Swiss-operated satellite used to characterize extrasolar planets.
While Almatech mainly works on space applications, it is also developing a zero-emission, high-speed passenger water shuttle known as the Zero Emission Speed ShuTtle (ZESST). The project, which has been well received in Switzerland, is based on the company’s proven expertise developed for space.
Following the initial success of the ZESST, the company is now looking for investors and has drawn serious interest from partners in Japan and Australia. Potential applications include passenger transport in cities located on the water as well as sustainable tourism in environmentally sensitive areas. As part of its efforts to attract investors and reach a broader audience for its products, Almatech worked with S-GE, which helps companies realize their international business potential in new and existing markets.
While Almatech has the serious mission of preserving our environment, its guiding principle is to have fun as it works for the future. As Hervé Cottard notes, Almatech focuses its energy and brainpower to ensure sustainable development that benefits its customers, its employees and society as a whole.
Mr. Cottard, what’s the idea behind your company?
The primary idea is to work with friends and avoid the archaic way of working that most big companies still follow. I founded my company with six friends, five of them joining the company immediately after it was formed, or some months later, after waiting for sufficient contracts to make it sustainable. The remaining one was working at EPFL. The idea is to have fun while working for the future. Space and Cleantech are the future.
What are your most important export markets and why?
We export 95% of our services for space to Europe, mainly to Germany, France and Italy. We would like to export to the USA, which is the biggest country in terms of space-related business, but for this we need products rather than services, which are always difficult to sell overseas. We do indeed develop space products for new space applications like Constellation. For this we received a nice grant from InnoSuisse. For our maritime shuttle, ZESST, we are initially targeting Western European and Scandinavian countries, as well as Japan, where we have a very promising contact found by S-GE! Australia and later on the USA.
What were your biggest learning experiences during the internationalization process?
Knowing how things work in any Western European countries is not that difficult, because they are quite similar to Switzerland. In the opposite, we do not really know how it works in the US and we are a little worried about the business behavior there. As an SME we cannot afford to have a legal department so we would have to rely on external specialists, which are costly and less reliable. We are now launching a business in Japan for ZESST and, with the exception of the language barrier, our initial experiences have been quite positive. As for Australia, we cannot say much, as we are really only just starting our business relationships.
What are you particularly proud of?
We are immensely proud to have been the only Swiss industrial company to support Swiss academia, in this case the University of Bern, with CHEOPS, the CHaracterising ExOPlanet Satellite, a Swiss specialty. We were selected in a competition that included big players such as RUAG Space, so this is something we are very proud of.
To what extent has S-GE helped you succeed?
In November 2019 I took part in a promotion tour to the USA, mainly in Seattle and Austin. It was organized by our canton of Vaud, however, they left the management of the tour entirely up to S-GE. It was very interesting there, but it was also just as interesting to meet the participants, who have all become business friends. This helps a lot in Switzerland, whereas a small country, networking is important.
Then we asked S-GE to look for investors and partners in Japan for the ZESST project and they did some fantastic research and identified about 20 potential partners. They contacted about ten of them after we made our selection and we are now in a direct business relationship with one of these ten. Even though nothing has been signed yet, apart from an NDA, it all seems very promising. The investment for that contract with S-GE was very worthwhile, because it is difficult to investigate opportunities in Japan efficiently from Switzerland.