Navigating the Path from Academia to Industry: An Interview with Franziska Fleischli, Senior Material Scientist at konplan.
By Saloni Mittal
poly-E-fair Company Relations
October 6, 2023
Franziska Fleischli, Senior Material Scientist at konplan talks about her journey to her current role at konplan. She discusses her responsibilities as a material scientist, the unique aspects of working at konplan, and offers valuable advice for new university graduates.
Franziska Fleischli has been working as a Senior Material Scientist at konplan for 10 months. Before joining konplan, Franziska worked as a Development Engineer and Lab Manager. Franziska earned her PhD in Material Science from EPFL in 2010 and her Master of Science in Materialwissenschaft from ETH Zürich in 2007. During her time at Imperial College London as a Postdoctoral Fellow, she was awarded a fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation. Additionally, Franziska served as a PostDoc at ZHAW Zurich University of Applied Sciences.
Franziska, you have a remarkable professional pathway. After
pursuing your PhD, you worked in several important institutions and
built up a large experience. What drivers led you to continue your
career at konplan?
My academic pathway led me from academic research to a PhD and lastly to a post-doctoral position. I slowly drifted from academic research to industrial research and development. Now I’m at a service provider for development. As you see, I moved more and more into industry. I’ve always loved to do research in academia, to dive into a topic. However, I realized that I was missing the team component in my work. The academic world can be very competitive, you are usually focused solely on your own pathway. However, in the industry and especially at konplan, I found what I was looking for: a team. When a customer approaches you with a specific issue and asks for your advice, you sit together as a team and face the challenge together. I also enjoy the fact that you don’t really know what you will be expecting next month. The interesting part of this fact is that you need to figure out how you get to the solution.
“When a customer approaches you with a specific issue and asks for your advice, you sit
together as a team and face the challenge together.”
How did your education and previous positions prepare you for your
At ETH I learned two things: First, I was trained with the basics. As a material scientist, I don’t have a typical professional background profile. We are quite volatile and have much scientific background knowledge such as biology, chemistry and physics. The second thing I was prepared for was the analytical aspect: “What method helps to analyze the problem? How do I find an explanation for the effects and what could be the solutions? How can I find the relevant literature? How can I structure my thesis?” We addressed all these questions in my studies at ETH. In material science, you work closely with the research labs and you learn to question what you read and find other sources. It’s like a typical paper: you have your introduction, your methods, your results, and in the end, you have a summary that goes to the client. The understanding of the scientific method that I developed at the labs is an essential part of the skills and tools that I most use at my work at konplan.
What are your responsibilities in your current role within konplan?
As a material scientist, I’m involved in the early stage of development. I analyze what the problem is and define the starting point. Systematically, we go from ideation to rough concept creation until we end up with a functional prototype or mock-up. This is the basis for the final product. We are working at the starting point of engineering.
At konplan, I see myself as a facilitator of development. Usually, the customer will approach us with a specific challenge. They might require our service because a specific topic is outside their expertise or they already tried an approach but without satisfying results. Here is the biggest benefit for customers to work with Konplan: We are experts who see the problem for the first time and are not biased. And I think that makes us so valuable.
As a material scientist, my work ends in general where the process of CAD drawing or manufacturing in detail starts. Let’s take the example of medical devices: In this field, regulation and risk assessment are crucial. There are requirements and we need to figure out how we can fulfill the requirements for the final product. Another example is the packaging of sterile products. We ask questions like: “How do we sterilize? Are the materials adequate to sterilize in a certain way?”
“We are experts who see the problem the first time and are not biased. And I think that
makes us so valuable.”
As a material scientist, you said that you need to know about a large
range of topics. How would you describe this ability?
I get familiar quite fast with a lot of topics as a material scientist. I learned how to become familiar with a specific topic. As a starting point, you need some expertise to at least figure out the problem. Then you can approach the specialist to ask the right questions. Ultimately, you could describe the ability of material scientists as learning the language of others. We are essentially facilitators. We connect the topics and the knowledge of experts and explain and summarize them to our customers.
What makes konplan unique? Do you think it is an environment that
enhances your strengths?
Since we are a small company, most of us are sitting in the same office and can therefore come together quite quickly, without any physical barriers. We also have lean processes. Our processes move quite fast and at the same time, everyone has a lot of responsibility. Working at konplan gives you a lot of responsibility. If you like the idea of starting somewhere but not being quite sure where the journey will end up or what the exact roadmap will look like, konplan is a good option for you.
Now looking at konplan from a business perspective, you’ll see that we support a lot of start-ups that come to us with a lot of questions. They will usually bring a list of tasks, a budget and a timeline. Then, we need to decide quickly how we are going to design our roadmap. We ask ourselves: Where do we start? What are the tasks that have to be completed as soon as possible? This planning stage is crucial since we need to decide what must be done immediately and what can be saved for later. All that makes konplan unique is the combination of business and engineering, and on top of this the enormous amount of talented people with experience in the field of medical device development. konplan is a place for everybody who likes to do master projects. Here you can be trusted with responsibility and can plan and make something innovative and different with direct feedback from the customer So, if you like to discover different topics and enjoy the dynamic of jumping from one project to another, then this is the place for you!
“All that makes konplan unique is the combination of business and engineering, and on
top of this the enormous amount of talented people with experience in the field of medical
How do you and your team stay updated and relevant in a fast-moving
In our industry, we constantly need to track what is going on in the market. It’s not necessarily academic research, but more about finding the current trends. Usually, our business units evaluate in which direction trends are going. For example, one of these trends is sustainable packaging that fulfills the performance requirements. This is an example of a fast-changing trend, where we believe that the trend will take years until there is a significant change or impact in the industry. However, now new packaging solutions for food enter the market and appear in supermarkets for example. And there are increased innovation activities also for other industries.
We stay up to date by seeing and feeling how trends are developing in the market and where we can create new services. Networking and being active in conferences are crucial to achieving this goal.
What kind of talents and skills that students learn at ETH would excel
in your environment?
Besides the technical background, all the methodological skills to organize yourself and manage your time are important. I have an intrinsic motivation to learn new topics. Methodological skills and motivation to learn new topics are a good starter pack for the service provider sector.
Additionally, you must like to be in close contact with customers. They pay for your service, and they see directly what you are doing. Although I’m not a traditional salesperson, we are all a bit in a way. I’m more on the technical side but in the end, I want to sell my solution. So, if you like to present your work and ideas, you would enjoy working in konplan’s environment. Summarizing these attributes, I think that as a friendly and curious person, who likes to go the extra mile, you would be a perfect match.
A good example to illustrate what I’m trying to say is a situation from last week. We are working on a project where we mix small quantities of different components. We developed different designs of mixers. Our team is not sure whether they perform well or not. However, we send all mixer designs to a test. To our own surprise, exactly the mixer type which we had put less trust in, was the one that worked out best. For me, this illustrates the attitude that I’m trying to explain: Being open to the unexpected and being ready to go the extra mile, even if you are not sure about the outcome. In the end, it is all about being interested and open-minded but having as well a backup plan prepared. However, you don’t learn or develop this ability at ETH.
What opportunities can konplan offer to fresh graduates?
As a fresh graduate at konplan, you are integrated into a mixed team of various backgrounds: people who studied at ETH and universities of applied science (Fachhochschule), people from different fields, and people who recently graduated to highly experienced professionals. For me, the most challenging thing at the start of my professional career was managing short deadlines. In industry, a deadline means that there is a design freeze and afterward production starts. An issue has a large impact on time and cost.
The other part is the methodology that is used at konplan as a service provider: how to do a good ideation workshop, what methods to use in development, how to make functional samples, etc. In short, the variety of people at konplan is the offer because everyone can learn from each other.
Do you have any advice for students who are about to graduate from
Looking back on my journey, there are three things I find the most important when figuring out what to do after you graduate from university:
First, if you go to industry, do something you are interested in. If you are truly interested in the product that the company is developing and you have a passion for what you are doing and want to learn more about it, you should go for it.
Second, go somewhere where you have options to grow and to go into other positions. For example, starting as a junior, you could later go into production, operations, or product management. Go step by step and try to grow within your position so that you have the possibility to change lanes if you want.
Third, when going in for an interview for example, always ask yourself: Do I like the environment here? Would I want to come here every morning? Trust your gut feeling on whether a workplace and the people fit you or not.
So overall there are three things to remember: 1) do something you truly love and are passionate about, 2) find out if there is space to grow and change positions, and 3) trust your gut feeling.
“Always ask yourself: Do I like the environment here? Would I want to come here every
morning? Trust your gut feeling on whether a workplace and the people fit you or not.”