Innosuisse Annual Magazine 2023

A traditional company shifts its focus to innovation

When Annette Heimlicher speaks, she sounds just as you would expect of a charismatic and dynamic leader of a global technology company: she brims with energy, puts complex concepts into simple words, and is full of laughter. Heimlicher has retained her youthful charm. Just over ten years ago, at the age of 35, she took over from her father at the helm of Contrinex, a manufacturer of intelligent industrial sensors. Since then, she has been the driving force behind the innovative family business from the canton of Fribourg.

«The new sensor is the start of an entirely new business unit.»

Annette Heimlicher

CEO Contrinex

Quite different from her father

The company takeover made Heimlicher the boss of around 500 staff in one fell swoop. Thanks to degrees in economics from the University of Geneva and the London School of Economics, she was ideally prepared. «I had already worked in various departments at Contrinex for six years before I took over,» the 46-year-old says. A picture-book company succession?

Heimlicher clarifies: «The first two years as CEO were difficult.» The employees first had to get used to the direct, sometimes brash manner of their new manager. «I have a completely different personality from my father,» says Heimlicher. Her management style was also new: «Being young, I couldn’t tell people what to do. I didn’t have the experience for that.» Her approach: participatory management, rather than top-down management.

A company present in 12 countries

The entrepreneur did make a few changes to Contrinex’s strategic direction, however: «I pushed ahead with internationalisation in the spirit of my father.» Today, Contrinex is present in 12 countries. Over the past five years, the CEO has increasingly focused on the USA as a key market. «Interest in high-tech sensor technology is currently seeing strong growth there, especially in the field of robotics.»

In order to penetrate further into the US market, the 50-year-old family business must offer one thing above all else: innovation. At the headquarters in Corminboeuf, 25 engineers are driving new ideas forward.

A problem solves itself

The latest creation from Contrinex: an intelligent sensor with integrated object recognition. «This allows quality control in industrial production to be automated cost-effectively,» explains CTO Laurent Genilloud. In a chocolate factory, for example, the sensor «sees» whether all the chocolates are sitting correctly in the cavities of the box, in 3D. A ground-breaking innovation: «Previously, the images captured by 2D optical sensors had to be sent to external computers to be analysed. This required special software, and was more complicated as well as more expensive.»

Genilloud had been harbouring the idea of integrated object recognition for some time. But he knew: «The required algorithm goes beyond our expertise.» The CTO was quite taken aback when his phone rang in November 2020, and he was offered the opportunity to join an innovation project aimed at developing just such a sensor. «Innosuisse had already pledged its support, and the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts was on board as a project partner. But the original industrial company had dropped out.» Genilloud could hardly believe it. Contrinex took over and developed the hardware – with the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts writing the algorithm.

«Thanks to this new product, we are creating several new jobs.»

New sensor, new foothold

This innovation is paying off for Contrinex: «By 2030, we expect a significant increase in sales,» explains Annette Heimlicher. The company is also creating several new positions for engineers, female product managers and specialist sales staff. «The new 3D sensor is the start of an entirely new business unit,» says the CEO. She doesn’t want to reveal any details yet, just this much: «The sensor’s first little sister will not be used in automated production lines, but in robotic arms.» A full hundred square metres have been reserved for the new department in Corminboeuf.

While the development of the new business unit is in full swing, Contrinex has already initiated the next innovation project with the support of Innosuisse. Together with the Haute école d’ingénierie et d’architecture in Fribourg, the company is developing sensors that provide precise information about their environment and thus allow for greater control of machines, robotics and automation systems.

But anyone who thinks that Contrinex is constantly chasing new developments would be wrong. «Innovations are important, yes. But careful, consistent implementation is just as important,» Heimlicher articulates, expressing a core belief for her. «As the head of a successful technology group, I constantly have to find the balance: between innovation and commercialisation.»

Support from Innosuisse

  • 1 ongoing innovation project with the Haute école d’ingénierie et d’architecture in Fribourg (HEIA-FR)
  • 1 completed innovation project with the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU)