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Trinamic produces little invisible helpers that we can’t do without

An unusual inhabitant has joined the Estonian startup hub LIFT99 at the Telliskivi Creative City, a former soviet space tech factory turned Hipsterville of Tallinn. Trinamic is a German company whose microsystems transform digital information into physical motion − so something to see, feel and touch.

The founder of Trinamic Michael Randt told Life in Estonia that he fell in love with LIFT99 immediately: “We felt at home here. I don’t want us to be at an isolated outpost. I want our engineers from Germany to like to come here. They really love to spend time here.” And hopefully sharing the office space with start-uppers will lead to new synergies and create new little things that change our daily life like magic.

Randt has a long track record of doing business in Estonia: “The cooperation with Estonia goes back to 2005. Estonian companies were helping us to develop our products. It was a very positive experience as we didn’t need to micromanage the Estonian engineers; they were delivering. Coming from Hamburg with the Hanseatic background, we found that again in Estonia. We could make deals with them by handshake − no huge contract work with lawyers but rather from engineer to engineer. Deadlines were kept, problems solved. This cooperation evolved over the years, so in 2017 we came to the point that we needed our own team here. We didn’t want to create just an extended workbench but rather our own centre of excellence. There are skills in Estonia that we don’t have − communication and networking, software. Starting a company in Estonia is very easy, the very positive experience with the Estonian engineers an added bonus − they are like us, humble and dependable. We like the entrepreneurial attitude here.”

When Michael started his company as an electrical engineer in his kitchen in 1991 the word “startup” wasn’t even invented yet. The “one-man-show” grew and in 1996 they designed the first chip. “Today everybody gets in touch with our products in everyday life − when you go to a cash machine, money comes out. But how? We design small electrical motors that drive these machines. The usage is everywhere: analysing blood, flying drones, 3D printers, the motor that would lock or open the door of an AirBnB, and so on. It’s about automation of the human environment.”

Trinamic is not the only company in this field of course, but nevertheless it’s a technology leader in many applications − 3D printing, medical liquid handling, DNA preparation, prosthetic controllers, and security cameras.

Trinamic is a very engineer-driven company. The first EU grant in 1996 was used to develop the first integrated circuit: “We just wanted to make our own “lego brick” − a dream of every engineer.”

With the main operations still in Germany, Trinamic expanded to Estonia and to the US in 2017. Michael explains: “Our customers are all over the planet. Motors are everywhere. So, we need the best possible locations to operate worldwide.”

While startups often have the reputation of inventing solutions to problems people didn’t even know they had, Trinamic is producing something quite tangible, yet something we take for granted around us. Michael Randt: “On one hand, today we have more and more products that engineers invent, like in medical robotics. At the same time, engineers are shifting more and more toward software rather than a deep understanding of motors. This is where we come in, where we bridge it. We transform digital information to perfect physical motion. We control the power that goes to the motor to get a very soft and precise movement. If you move a camera you want it to move very quickly but very smoothly and precisely. You don’t want a noisy printer, nobody likes vibration, and everyone needs efficiency.”

What are the main challenges in achieving these goals? Michael: “We are looking for champions. Everybody needs smaller stuff − a blood analyser that used to occupy a whole room now fits on a desktop. The big topic that combines motion and electronics is called mechatronics − mechanics and electronics merging to one building block. Miniaturisation. Our typical customers are engineers who know exactly what they need but recently we are being approached more and more by designers who just have a vision and tell us “this needs to move; can you make it? I want it silent and precise”.”

Michael likes to compare his company to Estonia: “We are a relatively small company in the market. Trinamic is a bit like Estonia − small but very agile. Estonia is very down to earth, easy, humble; so is my company. Maybe that’s why we feel connected. A small country needs friends and so does a small company. What is very complicated in Germany is very easy here. Now I have the immediate comparison with the US as well, and setting up business was far easier here. Our challenge is always to keep innovating. Estonia as a country also has to keep pace; it can’t just keep saying “we invented Skype”. Estonia is doing a very good job with the new generation and bringing them close to entrepreneurship and technology, not everybody wants to be a lawyer.”

Internet of Things IoT has suddenly made hardware sexy again

Randt has witnessed a shift in Estonia towards more hardware products: “I feel Estonia is a good place for us to be. Everything used to be very software oriented. Now, with IoT many new physical things are being created that have IT content but also need hardware. Our products combine both. Everything fits nicely. People are interested in doing hardware, inventing stuff. Robotics is a very good entry point here. There is something like a hardware renaissance going on right now. In 2016, I spent some months in an accelerator in Silicon Valley. At the time, I was the only one from a hardware company. Everyone was really sceptical until I said it was actually just the IoT. Suddenly they all got excited. That is hot stuff, why didn’t you say so! Hardware became sexy all of a sudden.”

Where will the IoT bring us in ten years? What is the impact to our daily lives? Michael Randt: “Microelectronics democratises things. A phone gets better every two years − at the same cost. Dental replacement from ceramic or eye surgery used to be very expensive − both these areas have become dramatically cheaper through the development of microelectronics. We have an aging society. We will need a lot of little helpers to keep us at the workplace as long as possible.

How the development of this technology can make life better has many examples, like the low-cost malaria analyser − now we can use high-res camera systems and do early detection at a low cost. The cost to cure the illness is much lower at the early stage and gives everyone a chance. Many of these developments in the medical sphere will radically change our lives. People want to pay for things that give us many more years on this planet. So instead of a luxury car, health is a new status symbol. Also, people want security − be it a surveillance camera, an access system, control of their blood or other systems. People want comfort − nice climate-controlled rooms, building automation, recovery of air, air exchangers to bring the cost of energy down. This is a growing market. More and more clients ask for custom solutions − like electronics that fits into a knee joint. Manufacturing is moving super fast. 3D printing is available everywhere. This is going to change our lives towards more customised products. The aim of this centre of excellence here in Tallinn is to do this kind of customised miniature mechatronics. There’s a lot of knowledge about these things here and we want to tap into this talent pool.”

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