September 20, 2023
From postdoc to entrepreneur
After a 1.5-year postdoc in the Liberali lab — where he co-developed and tested a new microscope to track the development of organoids in real time — Andrea Boni co-founded a company that provides live-imaging systems based on a revolutionary microscopy technology. Six years after its launch, the company is thriving, and so is Boni, who has found his calling as an entrepreneur.
Andrea Boni developed an interest in microscopy early on. In primary school, he owned a small light microscope that he used to look at slices of vegetables and bugs collected from ponds. He had even devised a tool to cut thin slices of the objects he wanted to inspect under the microscope. As a master’s student in biotechnology in Milan, Italy, Boni continued to enjoy the possibility of seeing living cells under a microscope, but he also became fascinated with the technology itself, which has seen incredible developments over the past decades.
Boni’s penchant for microscopy grew during his PhD at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, where he realized that he was drawn to the applications of the technology more than he was interested in the biological processes it allowed to decipher. He found a like-minded colleague in Petr Strnad, an EMBL postdoc who was developing a light-sheet microscope to image mouse embryos. Light-sheet microscopy is a technique that passes a thin sheet of laser light up and down a living sample at high speed. By taking images from opposing directions at the same time and piecing data together, the technology allows researchers to create three-dimensional maps of cells and tissues as they develop.
After their time at the EMBL, Boni and Strnad started to envision an improved version of a light sheet microscope that could image larger samples such as organoids — self-organized three-dimensional tissue cultures. Their idea didn’t go unnoticed. In 2015, after meeting the duo, FMI group leaders Prisca Liberali and Antoine Peters decided to give them money to work on the first prototype. By the summer of 2016, Boni and Strnad had built the microscope.
Then, Liberali — whose research focuses on the formation of intestinal organoids from single cells — offered Boni to stay in her lab as a postdoc to test the new microscope in actual experiments. “That was such an exciting time, working on the technology development while being fully immersed in the biology,” Boni says.
During his 1.5-year stint in the Liberali lab, Boni improved the usability of the microscope and co-authored a study on the development of intestinal organoids, which was published in Nature in 2019. “I’m proud of the microscope we built and that it that it helped us to gain insights into intestinal organoids,” he says. “I’m so thankful to Prisca for trusting Petr and me, and for giving me the chance to work in her lab.”
Becoming a businessman
Testing the newly developed light-sheet microscope in a research lab was key for Boni and Strnad — who meanwhile had built another prototype of the microscope at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). The success of this experience spurred the two scientists to take the plunge and create their own company. In 2017, they launched Viventis Microscopy. “We came up with the name while brainstorming in a coffee shop in Lausanne,” Boni says. “Petr thought we needed a name related to something living, since our microscope can image living cells, and I proposed to use a variation of ‘vivendi’, which is a Latin form of the verb ‘to live.’” The two designed the company logo themselves — “there was no money for graphic designers back then,” Boni says.
The first two years as company owners were challenging: Boni and Strnad worked “crazy hours” and had to bring in some of their own money. Boni, who oversees sales and marketing at Viventis Microscopy, also had to learn in a short time what it means to be an entrepreneur — managing suppliers, customers, and employees, as well as dealing with unexpected situations on a regular basis. “Moving from postdoc to manager of your own company is a huge shift,” he says. “As an entrepreneur, it’s not your next publication that matters, but the fact that you have to sell your product.
Boni typically spends some of his time at the company’s office on the EPFL campus in Lausanne, helping Strnad to put together their main product — an improved version of the microscope developed in the Liberali lab. But most of the time, he is on the road, attracting new customers at conferences or helping existing ones to set up Viventis’ system and training people who are going to use it. Sometimes, he spends one or two intense “demo weeks” at a prospective customer’s premises to promote Viventis’ technology. One of the best parts of his job, he says, are the “thank you” emails he receives from happy clients.
Six years after its launch, Viventis is thriving, and the owners have expansion plans, currently looking into selling their microscopes on the US and Chinese markets. “Even if we are a small company compared with some competitors, people enjoy working with us, because we have good products, we are reliable and we are agile,” Boni says.
Another reason why customers trust Viventis is because the company has experience developing and testing microscopes in research settings. To this day, Boni and Strnad continue to collaborate with the Liberali lab, working closely with technical research associate and former postdoc Gustavo Quintas Glasner de Medeiros. “When we make an improvement to the microscope, they test it right away, which is useful for us and for them — it’s a win-win,” Boni says.
For PhD students and postdocs who play with the idea of creating their own company, Boni has one piece of advice: “Go for it! It may be tough at the beginning, but what you will learn is invaluable.” A company may not offer the same freedom that academia provides; however, he adds, “being able to sell your own product is the best of feelings”.
Andrea Bonigrew up in a village near Feltre in the Dolomites, Italy. After studying biotechnology at the Libera Università Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan, he moved to Heidelberg for his PhD. From November 2015 to July 2017 he was a postdoc in the Liberali lab at the FMI. In February 2017, he co-founded Viventis Microscopy with Petr Strnad and is now the company’s chief operating officer. Cycling is one of his main hobbies, together with music: After playing the piano for seven years, he started learning the violin three years ago — an activity, Boni admits, that is not going as well as Viventis Microscopy is.
The team behind the FMI-Viventis collaboration: (from left to right) Petr Strnad, Prisca Liberali, Andrea Boni, Gustavo Quintas Glasner de Medeiros.
Boni at the Viventis booth at a stem cell symposium in Vienna (March 2023).