Stepping out of the comfort zone: From scientist to entrepreneur and back – Two examples from Adlershof

29. October 2018

Stepping out of the comfort zone

From scientist to entrepreneur and back – Two examples from Adlershof

Thomas Straubinger, IKZ

Thomas Straubinger at the IKZ

Jürgen Sebastian, Geschäftsführer JENOPTIK Diode Lab

Jürgen Sebastian, CEO of JENOPTIK Diode Lab

A fresh start. Not many people dare to make it. However, a change of perspective can be very rewarding as is shown by the example of two people from Campus Adlershof, who went from researcher to business founder and from business owner to researcher.

He earned his PhD, his first post-graduate job, then became team leader, department head, production manager, and head of development – all at the same company. At SiCrystal, a Nuremberg-based company focused on silicon carbide substrates, Thomas Straubinger’s career trajectory was up and up. He was with the company for almost twenty years. He could have stayed.

He did not. Straubinger decided to start anew and became a scientist at the Leibniz-Institute for Crystal Growth (IKZ), where he is currently working as a so-called topic leader. He is responsible for the development of growth and preparation procedures for aluminium nitride semiconductor substrates, which are used, for example, in UV diodes in water sanitation. “Soon I will also be responsible for exploring new crystal-based semiconductor materials and their application,” he says. Why the change of mind? Why does one leave a high-salary, stable job for a two-year contract with less pay? Why does one take the family and move from Bavaria to Berlin, deal with all the paperwork and Berlin’s notorious bureaucracy? The answer is quite simple. He needed a change of air – and he had the courage to go and take it.

“I was looking for a new scientific, technological challenge,” he tells us. “Over the last few years, my tasks at SiCrystal shifted more and more from developing new processes to optimising efficiency and costs. This shift just didn’t correspond with my personal strengths and interests.” It was a good moment for making a transition. His decision was helped along by talking to the new director of the IKZ: “He convinced me of his ideas.” Lastly, Straubinger and his wife had flirted with the idea of moving to Berlin for a while.

The reward for Straubinger’s unusual move was, as he puts it, “more interesting and diverse tasks and socially valuable topics, like water sanitation.” He also has more time to be creative. The downsides are a lower salary and less financial leeway to realise technology projects, but Straubinger has not regretted his decision.

Jürgen Sebastian encountered a very similar situation. The difference is that he started out as a researcher and became a business founder - the CEO and location manager of JENOPTIK Diode Lab GmbH, a company that develops, manufactures and distributes high-performance diode lasers. This subsidiary company of JENOPTIK AG is a spin-off from the Ferdinand-Braun-Institut, Leibniz-Institut für Höchstfrequenztechnik (FBH), a research institute. Sebastian worked there for 16 years, first as a researcher and most recently as head of technology for semiconductor lasers. His contract with FBH was unlimited. “Having a job for life, it’s like winning the lottery,” he says, “and working for one of the top institutes in the field worldwide was also fantastic.”

In the end, he could not resist the offer by JENOPTIK to become the CEO of new business. “As a scientist, I was also intrigued by the challenge to turn research products into applied products,” says Sebastian. Naturally, the changes he made in 2002 were “a big step” for him. It was made easier by the major support he received from the JENOPTIK corporation and FBH director Professor Günther Tränkle: “His door was always open,” says Sebastian. Since that time, JENOPTIK Diode Lab GmbH has grown from five to over 70 employees. “My new tasks have enabled me to grow,” says the CEO. “I have become calmer and have changed how I deal with stress over time.” On a personal level, Sebastian’s momentous decision 16 years ago has not affected who he is. He has stayed true to his very likeable, down-to-earth self.

By Chris Löwer for Adlershof Journal