A dead-end street running through a 1970s industrial zone, backed up against the hill overlooking Neuchâtel. The town’s Château towers above. The historic centre is a few minutes’ walk away. As far as attractions go, there’s better. Then again, if you come here it’s for a reason, and one of those reasons is Preciflex. Away from the big-city hustle and bustle, this is where the company develops microfluidic systems that display information, inject a product or control pressure. Its research involves aspects of chemistry, physics and microtechnology, and has potential for applications in areas as wide-ranging as cosmetics, interior design, automotive and medtech. Its main client, however, is in a different field altogether. Since it was set up in 2012, Preciflex has provided the technology for the unique time displays of HYT watches. Which makes sense considering the two are sister companies, work in the same building, and have the same shareholders.
An idea that sprouted in 2002
Given the stern exterior – only a small brass plaque confirms that this is the right address – the start-up environment comes as something of a surprise. Bosses and staff wander from office to office, a file or a laptop under their arm. Most don’t even register the unfamiliar face. I’m shown up to the first floor, home to the labs and the workshops. Which are Preciflex, which are HYT, it’s hard to say. In fact it’s this blurring of lines that makes the whole enterprise unique in the watch industry. “One is a means of promoting the other’s technology,” says Federica Carpano, Business Unit Fashion Director at Preciflex.
The idea for a “liquid watch” came to Lucien Vuillamoz at Expo.02. Over the next few years, this multi-talented nuclear engineer imagined a fluidic time display made from a capillary tube and two flexible reservoirs. Developing the idea further would need greater capacity than he could muster alone, and so Vuillamoz called on serial entrepreneur and business angel Patrick Berdoz. They were joined by Emmanuel Savioz, an old hand at launching high-tech start-ups who became the company’s third founder.
Problems and solutions
As it turned out, defining the concept was the easy part. The real challenge lay ahead, namely to develop a glitch-free system. Two liquids move through a closed circuit, repelled (like magnets) by the opposite poles of their molecules. Pressure applied to one bellow releases the coloured liquid into the capillary, which has the effect of pushing the colourless liquid into the second bellow at the opposite end of the tube. Simple in theory, complex in practice, starting with the fact that any fluid inside a tube will expand and contract. A third liquid, chosen for its dilation coefficient, inside a flexible capsule and inserted into the first bellow compensates variations in temperature. “Otherwise our watches would be thermometers,” jokes Federica Carpano.
Residue deposits inside the microtube posed another problem. Though smooth in appearance, the glass is in fact textured. This prevented the fluid molecules, particularly those of the dye, from moving through the tube. Preciflex’s engineers developed a chemical coating that is compatible with both liquids and renders the inner surface of the tube fluid-repellent. “Of all the suppliers we contacted worldwide, only one was able to come onboard. This is the most costly stage in the entire process.”
Given the sheer magnitude of the task – and the number of hard-earned solutions – the three founders didn't just set up a watch brand; they created a research lab too.
These are just two of the many obstacles the company had to overcome. Given the sheer magnitude of the task – and the number of hard-earned solutions – the three founders didn’t just set up a watch brand; they created a research lab whose brief is to adapt the technology to other uses. “So far, we’ve developed five fluidic modules for HYT,” says Carpano. “We’ve also patented other hydro-mechanical displays, as well as an automatic winding system based on dilation.” In a completely different field, Preciflex has designed a car dashboard that uses coloured liquids to show speed, for example.
The company also has its eye on the cosmetics and medtech sectors. A third company, Preci Health, was set up in August last year and is working, among other projects, on micro-injectors. Given the long and rigorous regulatory process, research in this area is only just beginning.