Ticino-born Marco Del Ponte is one of our consultants in Operations. As a youngster, Marco was a talented freestyle skier, but after a major knee injury he had to reconsider the feasibility of a career as a professional sportsperson. In his Spotlight, he tells us all about his transition from pro-skiing to project management…
From the ski slopes to ETH Zurich, tell us more about your journey to mechanical engineering…
In my teens I showed some promise as a freestyle skier and attended the Swiss Olympic High School to develop my hobby into a professional career. After four years of training, development, and competing, unfortunately a major knee injury meant I had to reconsider whether a making a living out of skiing was still feasible.
My injury was a combination of meniscal and ACL damage and broken bones, so it meant a year-long break from skiing. Of course, you hope that you’ll be able to get back to the level you were before, to reach the new levels set by the athletes who were training the whole time you were recovering, but realistically it just wasn’t possible in my case. After lengthy discussions with my parents and sponsors, I decided it was best not to continue, and focus on a new challenge instead.
My mother tongue is Italian and so during my time at sports high school I had to learn German and Swiss German. It meant that at the beginning of my time there, maths, physics and chemistry became my favourite classes, because the “language” for these subjects is universal. I discovered that I could excel in maths and physics, so I invested more time in these to compensate for the other subjects.
Alongside skiing and school, I had also often enjoyed many hours in my garage fine-tuning my moped. It was fascinating to me to see how matter can be transformed into energy, and the physics and chemistry behind how the parts worked in synchronisation was really interesting.
And so, when the time came to choose a new challenge, I chose to sign up for ETH Zurich, to study Mechanical Engineering. My initial idea of what a Mechanical Engineering degree at ETH would be like was totally different in reality. I was expecting hands-on mechanics classes, but instead it was a very theoretical degree. However, as my studies progressed, I discovered that I enjoyed the finality of the theory, the algebra, and the descriptions of the systems.
What were some of the challenges with moving from a sports focus to pure academia?
I went from eight hours of school per week alongside my training as a freestyle skier, to eight hours per day plus self-study in the evenings at ETH. Even though I enjoyed mathematics and physics, I was very behind on the subject matter. For the first few months at ETH, I was playing catch up, because what was being taught as a refresher for the other students was completely new for me. But the big advantage I had from my time at the Swiss Olympic sports school, was that I’d been taught to never give up, continually improve myself, and rise to new challenges.
It took me some time to find a healthy study-life balance. Initially I spent all my time studying because I realised I was years behind the other students. When you’re training to develop your sports fitness, you must push yourself to your limit to find out what your body can achieve. You reach your limit, recognise what was too much, take a break, reset and try to adapt your approach to exceed your previous achievements. I used this approach with my studies to eventually achieve the right balance.
Whilst studying mechanical engineering was one of the biggest intellectual challenges of my life so far, I saw it as a huge opportunity. So whilst it was tough at the beginning, in the end I caught up and my degree worked out well.
After your degree, you worked as a Research Engineer at ETH. What was the focus of your research?
The goal was to develop a sustainable, renewable polymer that could collect water from the humidity in the air and release it again, vaporising and condensing it during the day and night accordingly.
I think sustainability and our impact on the earth should be a high priority for everyone. Of course, it’s not easy, but I try to consider it within both my personal and professional life. The path we’re following now is one where sustainability is a key consideration for any product looking for investment – and that’s a good thing. It’s really important for large companies to pave the way in terms of sustainability – to actively consider it and act accordingly, rather than it just being included on a superficial level as a public relations tool.
In what ways did your first professional roles shape your career path?
After my time at ETH, my move into industry took me to ABB, where I worked as a Junior Quality Manager. It was during this role that I found I really enjoyed project management. I discovered that rather than sitting alone with simulations and calculations, I preferred to communicate with people, collaborating to create new ways to accelerate projects. This was a big realisation for me regarding my career path.
Following ABB, my interest in technology and new-found passion for project management led me to multimedia company Ringier, where I worked as a Project Manager Technology. Whilst I learnt a lot during this role, I was missing the maths and physics aspects, so after six months I decided to create a start-up. The business idea was to develop a digital platform that connects doctors, patients, healthcare workers and pharmacies via a web app / app on your phone.
How did you find yourself working in MedTech, and at Congenius?
It was difficult to gain funding for the start-up during Covid, which was a shame because I felt that during a period of enforced social isolation, the timing was perfect for a tool like this. Complications around data privacy and security seemed to hinder investor involvement, so after three months of learning a lot, I decided to re-join the workforce.
I met Jörg through a recruiter and found the opportunity at Congenius to be unique. For me it’s very important that when I wake up in the morning, what I’m going to do with my day has a purpose behind it that aligns with my ethics and morals. This is one of my main reasons for entering the medical devices industry. My background as a mechanical engineer, researcher, project manager in technology and quality manager also meant that Congenius was a good fit, as the company covers the research area, software as a medical device, and the quality aspect that is of course essential in medical devices field.
How does your background as a freestyle skier benefit your role as a project manager?
Freestyle skiing isn’t as competitive as alpine skiing – you’re happy if your friends learn a new trick and execute it perfectly. It’s a bit like the surfing community in that regard. It’s about having fun and enjoying the camaraderie. When you train together, you create a team spirit. You motivate each other to do better and share feedback and mutual recognition. Attending the Swiss Olympic high school taught me how important it is to feel part of a team.
As a project manager, instilling a sense of team spirit is crucial; asking team members how they prefer to achieve their goals, finding out their needs and expectations, getting to know their individual characters and adapting your approach depending on the person – knowing when to compromise when necessary. For me, project management is about facilitating the freedom for your team members to choose the way they want to achieve their tasks. Of course it’s important to make it clear what needs to be accomplished, but collaboration with the team members to define how to achieve that goal is vital. Every team member needs to feel heard.
Reaching a pivotal point in a project with multiple deliverables becoming urgent simultaneously means that tension can rise – and when it does you can feel the stress in the air! This is like the tension levels you experience just before a competition. Each is a culmination of a lot of hard work, and so the pressure is on to make sure the final goals are achieved. At times like these, you can’t let emotion drive your body. You need to manage the adrenalin and avoid taking drastic action until you are organised, re-focussed and ready to communicate what needs to happen next.
In short, both freestyle skiers and project managers must be creative, and both roles should involve team enjoyment. Both require being open to learning new things, and the need to know your limits. If you don’t know your limits as a freestyle skier you’ll get injured, and similarly as a project manager, you could burn out and jeopardise the success of the project. Prioritising human needs to achieve a good balance is key – whether you’re training on the slopes or working in the office.
And finally, what kind of impact do you want to make in your career longer term?
For me it’s about making a contribution rather than making an impact.
I am inspired by people who can achieve big changes on a global scale, like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk. But I’m also inspired by my fellow sportspeople – those who overcome repeated injuries through hard work and perseverance.
On a social level, I feel most comfortable when I’m lifting people’s spirits and impacting the team’s mood in a positive way. In terms of the actual work I’m doing, I am content to know that I am contributing to the development of affordable and safe solutions to those who are suffering.
During my lifetime I would like to see universal accessibility to affordable drug products and medical devices. And I hope that I can contribute to accelerating the launch of these products. Because every day we delay impacts the patient. The time I spent in hospital with my injury made me realise how lucky I was that I would recover, compared with those who would have to handle immobility throughout their lives. Contributing to a process that helps people in this kind of position gives me the satisfaction that at the end of my career, I can look back and be proud of the small part I played.