Empa Zukunftsfonds

Showing foresight

Nov 9, 2023 | ANDREA SIX

As an innovative developer of surgical tools, Heinz A. Oertli founded the company "Oertli Instrumente" at a young age. He knows from own experience how great ideas flourish on a small scale and grow into sustainable start-ups. Now Heinz A. Oertli is supporting innovative projects at Empa with a fund of his very name as part of Empa's "Zukunftsfonds".

Confocal microscopy image of a retina: The retina, which lines the inside of our eye, is already a fantastic evolutionary "innovation." The cells of the retina convert light into nerve impulses. Image: PC Koch, M Hess; J Neurosci Res 89:1316 (2011); doi:10.1002/jnr.22651

He has never been short of ideas – Heinz A. Oertli started his own business at the age of 24 as an instrument maker for ophthalmic surgery, along with a wealth of ideas. Thanks to his sought-after innovations, the original one-man business quickly grew into a quality factory in the Rhine Valley of St. Gallen with currently around 220 employees, although he handed it over to other hands around 30 years ago. The latest idea of the inventor, who is now over 90 years old, came to him some time ago during a visit to Empa in St. Gallen: Research at the innovation hotbed Empa, especially in the field of instrument development, could be promoted with private funds.

The common ground between the former instrument maker and Empa's materials scientists goes beyond the spirit of innovation: Oertli was fascinated by innovative materials and technologies right from the start of his entrepreneurial activity. As a pioneer in his field, he was looking for new materials for stainless, anti-magnetic precision instruments for eye surgery. He found what he was looking for in the watch industry, which places similar demands on its tools. Heinz A. Oertli is now promoting this inventive spirit, which is peculiar to him, with a fund of his very name as part of the "Zukunftsfonds", the fundraising endeavor of Empa.

Pressure sensor for self-healing
Heinz A. Oertli is now promoting the inventive spirit at Empa with a fund of his very name as part of the "Zukunftsfonds", the fundraising endeavor of Empa. Image: Adobe stock

Now the "Heinz A. Oertli Fonds," established in 2022, is supporting the first two projects. One of them deals with new therapeutic options for glaucoma. The goal is to enable the eye to treat itself without medical assistance. In people suffering from glaucoma, the nerve cells in the retina die over time – leading to blindness. In a large proportion of those affected, increased internal pressure in the eye poses a risk for the development of glaucoma. Empa researchers led by Yashoda Chandorkar and Markus Rottmar from the Biointerfaces lab in St. Gallen, together with the Department of Ophthalmology at the Animal Hospital in Zurich, are now developing a self-regulating system consisting of a tiny, highly sensitive sensor that measures the eye pressure and normalizes the pressure of the chamber fluid in the eye via a valve made of a biocompatible hydrogel.

Soldering instead of sewing

The second project aims to protect the highly sensitive eye tissue during operations thanks to a laser-based adhesive procedure. Until now, the use of needle and thread has been common practice for interventions on the lens in cataract or corneal surgeries. Lasers are also currently being used for a welding process at rather high temperatures. Inge Herrmann, professor at ETH Zurich and head of the Nanoparticle Systems Engineering group at Empa in St. Gallen, is working with her team to develop a minimally invasive laser soldering process that can be used to close wounds on the eye efficiently and gently. The biological soldering material with so-called nanoabsorbers is intended to improve the mechanical properties in the tissue, accelerate healing and reduce scarring. Thanks to the support of the "Heinz A. Oertli Fonds", the project can now start in cooperation with the Cantonal Hospital St. Gallen and the University Hospital Zurich.

Promoting research
Empa's Zukunftsfonds is looking for private donors for exceptionally talented young researchers and for outstanding research projects that are not (yet) supported elsewhere. The Vaduz-based Uniscientia Foundation is funding the present project.

Loris Pandiani
Empa Zukunftsfonds                
Phone +41 58 765 47 03

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