The professor



After earning a doctorate in electrical engineering at Darmstadt Technical University, Germany, and being involved with industry research projects centered on components for ISDN and digital mobile phones, Gerhard Tröster joined the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich as head of the Electronics Laboratory in 1993. At that time, mobile phones were bulky, heavy and looked more like bricks. Tröster’s aim was to miniaturize the electronic components that went into them. To assist him, he brought in three outstanding engineers: Dani Ammann, Jean-Pierre Wyss and Andreas Thiel.

After pursuing your personal vision of miniaturizing electronic components for several years, you became a co-founder of u-blox in 1997. Can you tell us how and why it all happened?
GERHARD TRÖSTER (GT) – As you say, our initial aim was to reduce the size of the electronics for our systems. At some point, someone on the team had the inspired idea of building a GPS system as a way of demonstrating miniaturization in practice. That, it turned out, was the starting point for everything that followed. When we first embarked on our journey, it felt like we were entering uncharted territory. We had no role models to base ourselves on, and spin-offs in the technology field were virtually unknown. So, we built our GPS system, and at the time it was the smallest of its kind worldwide. It generated an enormous amount of interest in the press and the media, and we were soon asking ourselves: Where do we go from here? Anyway, my three assistants came into my office one day in 1997, sat down and asked me how I felt about founding a company to commercialize the GPS systems we were developing. I thought about it for a second and said, “OK, let’s do it.” And that’s how it all started.

Could you tell us a little about your role at u-blox back in those early days?
GT – In the beginning, I was playing multiple roles. I was the supervisor of my three students and also their partner. I was also de facto the company’s official contact person with the ETH  and  handled  all the negotiations with the ETH. My background in the industry had also given me the know-how needed to talk to potential investors. So, there I was, playing  several parts: as senior mentor, supervisor and CEO, and even Chairman of the Board for two years until the end of 2000. After my two-year term was up, I had to set about finding a successor. Fortunately, I found an eminently qualified individual and former Mercedes-Benz CEO, Edzard Reuter, who was delighted at the prospect of coming on board with a start-up company.

Who were u-blox’s first customers?
GT – We had a few small customers back at the beginning, and some of them were quite unusual. For instance, I had a colleague at the University of Zurich, a professor  of  anatomy,  who  took  a  special interest in homing pigeons. He asked us to come up with a GPS system that would help him understand how pigeons could find their way back home from take-off points thousands of kilometers away. But our first big client was FELA (see page 40), the company responsible for putting the Swiss national road pricing system into action. We won the order against a remarkable amount of competition, which was gratifying. And the fact that so many vehicles are still driving around using our GPS system 20 years later is also very pleasing.

What has it been like guiding a company over a period of 20 years, through both good and difficult times?
GT – One thing we’ve all learned to appreciate is the value of finding the right people. The fact that we’re all still involved, 20 years on, says a lot about our ability to jell. Of course, over time we’ve managed to get other outstanding personalities on board, people like Hans-Ulrich Müller, Edzard Reuter and Thomas Seiler. They’ve all played key roles in orchestrating the company’s success to date.

Speaking of success, can you perhaps tell us what is u-blox’s recipe for success?
GT – Apart from the people factor, one of our prime advantages was being able to supply our customers with the right technology at the right time, cutting their time to market and giving them a competitive edge over their rivals. We weren’t afraid to make crucial, often difficult, decisions, such as giving ourselves another leg to stand on by extending our products from GPS to wireless communication. And even when things went off course, we believed that the best course of action was to remain solid, keep on doing what we were best at, and stick by our guns.

How do you see things developing in the future?
GT – Before I comment on that, I should point out that we were naïve, or at least overly optimistic, when we started out. Our business plans were out of touch with the realities of growing a business in a hotly contested market. We misguidedly believed we’d get to the IPO stage in three or four years. That’s all changed now. On the basis of experience in the first couple of years, we have a much clearer idea as to how to develop the business and we’ve made some very sensible decisions: to go down the “fabless” path, to make modules the heart of our business and to invest in wireless and short range technology. I’m confident that the course we’ve taken over the years will enable us to meet the challenges that lie ahead and to go from strength to strength.