Windhab has also helped to create spin-offs in the field of sustainability, the most recent of which is Groam, which develops foamed plastics from biowaste. Two years ago, the spin-off Micropow emerged from his ETH team. The company specialises in producing encapsulated colours and flavours that are preserved in a consumer-friendly way during product manufacture and storage, and are released during food preparation or consumption. This makes it possible to save on ingredients, because they aren't lost during production and storage.
But the spin-off making the biggest waves right now is called Planted. “The new company develops meat substitutes based on peas, and is deservedly winning prize after prize,” says Windhab. Planted now employs around 120 people. Windhab is proud of this achievement by two of his doctoral students: “I’m really pleased we were able to get off to such a great start with Planted at ETH despite Covid-19 restrictions, and that other former members of my group have also moved on to continue their scientific and professional careers at Planted.”
Windhab provides valuable support to the start-ups in the initial stages. “The founders are, or were, members of my lab family,” says Windhab. “The atmosphere in the lab always felt like being around extended family.” He is highly appreciative of his staff and worked hard to nurture a sense of community. “After the second or third generation of doctoral students, I realised that my alumni are the best multipliers of good development ideas.” This also further enhanced his attitude towards teaching. “Educating the right people and guiding them onto the right path has a greater impact on society than anything I can do myself.”
Spending time with his people is something he values a lot. Windhab is convinced that “coffee in the morning and beer in the evening are the most creative platforms”. Even during the pandemic, he has been working on cultivating exchange as far as the situation allows.
Just don’t get bogged down
Windhab also maintains exchanges with other ETH professorships, and has worked on joint projects on the topic of deficiency symptoms in developing countries. For example, scientists have succeeded in encapsulating iron, vitamin A and/or iodine-containing supplements in rice or salt. “Nutritionally speaking, these were great products, but they were often not economically sustainable without government or other support,” laments Windhab. “They were sometimes much too expensive for local markets.” He's not ready to admit defeat, however. “This continues to be one of the biggest technological challenges for me. Process technology is one of the things we need to rethink in terms of healthy and sustainable nutrition that people can afford, even in developing countries.”
Exactly where he will focus his energies after retirement is still under review. He certainly has no shortage of ideas. “If I think about everything that interests me, it would all be far too much. I have to learn to be a bit more selective,” says Windhab. “Not to end up with a diffuse blend, but to bring together things that I’ve done and that offer a challenging outlook going forward.” One thing is certain: his family is a big priority. “In that respect, I have some catching up to do after a fulfilling professional life.”
He will continue to enjoy making music, immersing himself in the different worlds of classical, jazz and rock – just as he playfully juggled scientific thinking, the world of patents and consensus finding in the UN. “The variety helps you to avoid getting bogged down in one particular world.” He's a chocolate professor who likes to be seen from different angles.