Jan Neuman: Only together can we make Brno the world center of electron microscopy

21. September 2023
Every third electron microscope in the world is made in Brno. But what makes the South Moravian metropolis the mecca of the field is the whole ecosystem of collaborating organizations and people. How are they interconnected? And what do they do to nurture and attract new talent and top experts? Jan Neuman, CEO of NenoVision and initiator of the Regional Microscopy Platform, answered questions about electron microscopy's past and future in #brnoregion.
Jan Neuman: Only together can we make Brno the world center of electron microscopy
What are you most proud of regarding Brno as the electron microscopy hub? 
The fact that Brno is known almost worldwide in this field. When I talk to people working in electron microscopy abroad and say that I am from Brno, I often hear, “Wow!”. I am proud of all the colleagues before us who have managed to get to the top of the world so we can actively contribute to the technological progress around us. Electron microscopy is one of the fields that is pushing forward development worldwide. And with a third of electron microscopes manufactured – not assembled, but developed and produced – in Brno, the region's influence on global technological progress is simply enormous.

What are the main benefits of working in Brno in electron microscopy?
I enjoy talking to people who are responsible for this success, watching how they do things, and learning from them. Being in this environment is very inspiring. Brno is already a major world center for electron microscopy. Everyone in the industry is in awe of what companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific (formerly FEI), Tescan, and Delong Instruments have done here. We have large successful companies, start-ups in the field – including our own NenoVision –, a good base for training people, excellent know-how in how to build and develop microscopes, and just a good "spirit". I say that electron microscopy is in our DNA in Brno, which gives us a huge advantage right at the starting line. This is a huge benefit for me to be able to work in this inspiring environment.

Is there anything we can do to make it even better?
There is no need for a revolution, but I think it is essential that we create and move Brno together as a world centre for electron microscopy more effectively than we have done so far.  
I think it is important for all of us that Brno is seen globally as the best and most well-known place in electron microscopy, even in the wider professional community. We want to use the potential that we have historically had here. It is crucial to continue to nurture and attract talent and world experts. We want more microscopy companies to be established here and for innovations at universities to become successful products in the marketplace. We also need supplier companies directly linked to microscope development and production to grow here.

All these points are important to members of the microscopy community and, in essence, cannot be successfully accomplished except through collaboration. Individuals or companies, without collaboration and coordination with others, do not have the capacity or power to achieve these goals independently. Much of this currently works based on good relationships between people who meet at events, try to support each other, and usually just get along somehow to move things forward together. Electron Microscopy Days are a good example. But I think that professionalization, common strategy, and coordination can move the whole region and the potential of the field much further.

Regional Microscopy Platform is established in Brno

So, how does the joint effort to develop electron microscopy in the region look like now?
In recent years, we have started to form the Regional Microscopy Platform. This is currently an informal group, which is the result of about three years of work and efforts to bring all the key players in the field of electron microscopy together and start working together on common topics.

Until now, we have been more of a group of fans from companies, universities, and scientific institutions who have been devoting time and energy to the development of Brno microscopy with the vision that Brno will be the first thing that comes to mind when people in the field anywhere in the world say microscopy. Our "fan club," as we sometimes jokingly call ourselves, has managed to set in motion a number of changes, but we feel that for further development, we need to professionalize and clearly formulate specific goals and activities that we will create, support, and implement together.
What else is the need for a common platform based on?
The microscopy ecosystem in Brno has existed for decades; the tradition of Tesla and the Institute of Instrumentation of the CAS has grown into the successful companies Delong Instruments, Tescan, and Thermo Fisher Scientific in Brno after the Velvet Revolution, and many of their suppliers throughout the region. The companies are then partnered by the academic part of the ecosystem: in addition to scientific institutions, universities are educating new generations of microscope developers and users. The Institute of Physical Engineering at the BUT, headed by Professor Šikola, is a good example.  It has long been educating talents involved in developing microscopes at home and around the world.

Many people have known each other since they were students, others have met in the context of some kind of cooperation and have stayed in touch. Thanks to these friendly relationships, so typical for Brno, many great projects have already been created. Some of them started literally "over a beer". 

JIC has also played an important role as it has, for 20 years, systematically and successfully created an innovative, open, and collaborative environment. We see how JIC has managed to profile the entire region and innovation ecosystem and help it grow significantly faster than elsewhere. We, microscopists, have also realized that we need to support the further development of our industry in the region through systematic work at the entire ecosystem level. In other words, we need to create an environment in which it is easy to implement those "beer ideas" quickly and efficiently.  We believe that, in addition to helping current members, this will also enable the long-term strategic development of the entire region.
Electron microscopy
What is different today than in the beginning?
Why didn't we all meet at the same table 20 years ago? I guess some things just take time to mature. Small companies have grown into large enterprises employing almost 2,500 people, more companies are being established, microscopy has taken root in universities and scientific institutions, and a state-of-the-art microscopy infrastructure has grown within CEITEC.

I personally realized that microscopy needs collaboration when I saw how the space industry has grown in Brno in just a few years. I told myself that it is not possible for so many ambitious and successful companies to have emerged in Brno without a larger tradition. And so I started to think about how they did it and what they did differently than others. I concluded that one of the keys was the involvement of the JIC, which helped establish the ESA BIC incubator in Brno and greatly supported the promotion of this interesting sector.

That's probably another thing that is different today than in the beginning. We have specific positive examples that show that investing and working on a functioning ecosystem can multiply the success of individual members and accelerate development. And those examples certainly weren't there 20 years ago, and everyone was looking more in their own direction.

Key players in the field of microscopy at the same table

Why did you take the initiative to bring the various players together?
I have always received support, help, and advice from the microscopy community in Brno and JIC when needed. I also had an open door to the community, either because people already knew me from my time at CEITEC or simply because I was in the community. I had some of the best colleagues in the industry passing on their experience to me, which in our case means that I had some of the best in the world passing it on to me. I really appreciate the fact that I can go to almost anyone, and they will make room for me. This, I don't think, is quite common elsewhere.

Based on that, I realized that I was in a pretty good position to take the initiative and reach out to key stakeholders to ask if there were common themes that made sense to address together. It turned out that even competitors such as Thermo Fisher Scientific and Tescan had such topics, and it just so happened that all the key players in the microscopy field in Brno really came together around the same table.
Tescan electron microscope
What is your personal involvement in all this?
My personal involvement is mainly in initiating the activity, explaining the need, and organizing the sub-events so that the whole platform is created and set in motion. Gradually, working groups have started functioning on individual topics, and other active members have emerged to drive the activity forward. 
By my involvement in the creation and work of the community, I can at least partially give back what I have received from others, but at the same time, I know that I am co-creating an environment that will be very important for the successful development of my own company NenoVision. I have combined the pleasant with the useful, gotten to know a number of excellent people better, and grown personally because of them.

Where has your career path led you?
Professor Šikola pulled me into the field at school when I was already writing a project for CEITEC. Since it was a really big project involving four universities and two research institutes, I had the opportunity to meet a lot of people, including world-class scientists. At the same time, I started meeting people from JIC and dealing with the support and commercialization of the projects.

The second part is that as part of my Ph.D., my colleagues and I made our first prototype, which we then commercialized and founded the company NenoVision. Naturally, we also started to build the business on relationships with colleagues and partners we knew. They talked to us, supported us, cheered us on. And thanks to my classmates and the people I met, I became increasingly familiar with the microscopy community. And then later on, there was the ecosystem phase, alliances, just putting things and people together.

What are the pillars on which the whole ecosystem of electron microscopy in the #brnoregion now stands?
The whole community and the ecosystem stand first and foremost on people's willingness to work together and devote precious time and energy to building it. We all agree that together we want to: 1) connect companies, research organizations, and the public sector to strengthen the contribution of microscopy to the economic and technological development of the region, 2) support each other, inspire each other and create a safe environment for meetings and collaboration, 3) increase the visibility and attractiveness of the Brno microscopy ecosystem, both internally and externally, 4) create conditions for the development and arrival of microscopy talent, 5) support the emergence of new projects and collaborations. 

Education in the region

What is the role of cooperation between universities and companies?
Companies have realized that if they want to grow, they have to work with students in the long term – to engage them, to give them a space in practice. They have put in place several programs to engage students and strengthen collaborations to attract and attract promising talent. Even here at NenoVision, more than half of the people who did their thesis work with us first and joined us after graduation are here because we already know each other. But there are never enough students.

So, how can we increase their numbers?
Perhaps by making #brnoregion the best and most well-known electron microscopy center in the world, thus naturally attracting students from the Czech Republic and all over the world. Cooperation with companies in the field of microscopy can be one of the major draws for students who can start working in various internship programs during their studies. Indeed, very few cities in the world can offer study and work internships in top technology companies in the field of microscopy.
Education in electron microscopy
Are the study programs adapting to the needs of companies?
New fields and courses are being introduced; for example, a new study program focusing on microscopy is currently being established at Masaryk University. However, there are debates about a separate faculty of applied sciences, where microscopy, material sciences, and other disciplines relevant to microscopy would be under one roof.

We are also trying to grasp this within our microscopy platform. But it is debatable whether to educate in microscopy per se. And we are not just talking about developments in microscopy itself. At the same time, we are also looking for ways to bring microscopy closer to students in applied fields such as materials science, chemistry, and biology. Some of these students will one day help us develop better microscopes thanks to their knowledge of their field and the microscopy "craft". Others will then use these microscopes to achieve results in science more easily and quickly.

I consider it central to my studies to show already existing cutting-edge and sexy products on which good science is done, to introduce start-ups like NenoVision, and to create innovations through collaborations between schools and companies. Young people should already see that microscopy offers promising applications in the region and worldwide and that it is a field in which they can really change the world for the better.

What do you most appreciate about electron microscopes and their abilities?
I'm fascinated by the fact that, for example, with chips, we're doing architectures down to the atomic level and studying things at the level of fundamental structure. This is reflected everywhere – every mobile phone, computer, electronics, and even Facebook, Google, or ChatGPT are getting faster just because of advances in electron microscopy. And it's not just about speed. In Brno, we are currently working hard on reducing the energy consumption of microchips, which will allow us to continue to develop technologically and, at the same time, reduce the burden on the environment... And there are countless examples because almost every modern device or technology is affected in some way by electron microscopy. In this respect, it is simply invaluable.

Jan Neuman (*1983)

Co-founder and CEO of NenoVision, a company that develops and manufactures atomic force microscopes (AFM), extending the capabilities of electron microscopes to include additional analytical methods and enabling correlative analysis of materials. The company was founded in 2015 as the first spin-off company of CEITEC BUT.

He also worked as a project manager at CEITEC from 2009-2014. He is a Physical Engineering and Materials Science graduate at the Brno University of Technology. He currently serves as the chairman of the Regional Microscopy Platform. In his spare time, he likes to enjoy his newly grown family, play sports, do some gardening, and recharge his batteries by sleeping.

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