“The social impact is our main focus”


Within the space of a year, Davide Paparo and Ian Häusler have gone from being students to becoming young entrepreneurs with a hyperthermia device that has already convinced a number of juries.

Cutaneous leishmaniasis is probably something that not many people in our latitudes have ever heard of. The disease is, however, widespread in the equatorial region, says Ian Häusler, co-founder of DermatoTherma. At least 12 million people are currently affected by it. Triggered by the bite of a sandfly, the parasite nests in the lower layers of the skin, giving rise to ulcer-like wounds. “So far, the illness has been treated with a cocktail of drugs similar to chemotherapy”, says co-founder Davide Paparo.

“The only device that has been approved so far is very expensive, heavy and can result in second-degree burns.”

Davide Paparo, 

Using the hyperthermia device from DermatoTherma, however, the affected areas of the body are heated to 50 degrees centigrade for 30 seconds, thus killing the parasite. It was already known that this disease responds to hyperthermia treatment. But cutaneous leishmaniasis is a so-called neglected disease. Low profit expectations mean it receives little attention from medical research and the pharmaceutical industry. “The only device that has been approved so far is very expensive, heavy and can result in second-degree burns”, Paparo explains. On behalf of non-profit organisation DNDi (Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative), the two systems engineering students took on the challenge of developing a reliable and affordable device as part of their Bachelor’s thesis. This involved optimising the hardware and finding a method for keeping the temperature constant and preventing burns.

Chasing awards

And they have certainly come up with a convincing result. With their business plan, they have already been able to secure grants from the Gebert Rüf Foundation (see box) and BRIDGE, a joint programme of the Swiss National Science Foundation and Innosuisse. In addition, they are receiving support from the ZHAW Sustainability Booster – a programme that accompanies the founding of sustainable startups. “We were nervous about asking highly decorated professionals from eminent institutions for money”, Paparo admits, but “winning these competitions is naturally the best confirmation we could have had for our work.”

Next milestone: approval by the US Food and Drug Administration

Using the funds obtained, the team is aiming to complete the final device by the summer and then obtain medical certification from the US Food and Drug Administration. By February 2024, they hope to acquire another 1.8 million Swiss francs, which will be spent on manufacturing the first devices and hiring additional employees. The pair try to avoid venture capital as far as possible. "We are afraid that venture capitalists would push us to switch to more profitable markets too quickly", Paparo explains. The hyperthermia process is also used in other areas, such as in anti-wrinkle therapy. “While we are indeed planning to diversify into other markets over the longer term, the social impact is our main focus for the time being.”

“Our advice for others wishing to start up in business: simply go ahead and do it.”

Ian Häusler,  

Häusler attributes their success primarily to their motivation and commitment. “We have a goal in our sights and are working tirelessly toward it.” Paparo concedes that, because of the grants, they have not had to take on other jobs simply to put bread on the table. While Häusler is completing his Master’s in medical technology alongside his work for DermatoTherma, Paparo is devoting all his time to the young company. “The DNDi non-profit organisation is an eminent partner and is helping us to forge contacts. And we have workplaces and laboratory space at ZHAW, as well as specialist and business contacts there.” Despite this, a convincing product is what counts most. Their advice for others? “Simply go ahead and do it!” Häusler recommends. Over the past few months, both men have attended a number of courses for young entrepreneurs and benefitted enormously from them.

Full diaries

“Who would have thought that interested companies would be contacting us even before we launched our products on the market?” says Paparo. Both of them certainly have their hands full. The market launch is planned for 2024 and they are aiming for DermatoTherma to be profitable by 2026. Other projects, such as collecting data for skin characteristics, are already being considered. First of all, however, the device is to be tested on people in one of the affected areas. This study is being organised by DNDi but the two founders don’t want to miss out on these first impressions. “We’ll be going too, as service technicians”, Häusler grins, “… and taking plenty of mosquito spray with us as well”, Paparo adds.

“First Ventures” grants programme for UAS students

With its “First Ventures” programme, the Gebert Rüf Foundation supports students who are developing innovative business ideas for their Bachelor’s or Master’s theses. It is the only grant programme in Switzerland to focus solely on Universities of Applied Sciences. A sum of up to CHF 150,000 and a coaching programme await the winners. The next application deadline is 1 September. The Foundation is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Jean-Marc Piveteau, ZHAW President, is a member of the interdisciplinary Foundation Board.

Other ZHAW student theses receiving support from the Gebert Rüf Foundation include “The Midwife Kit”, an e-learning programme for midwives that addresses the needs of women asylum seekers. And “Aurora”, an intelligent lighting system for greenhouses that simulates the ideal lighting conditions for different plants. This makes it possible to optimise not only plant characteristics but also the greenhouse energy requirements. The grants programme has helped both projects to found a successful startup. 


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