Making High Performance Materials Affordable
Laura Reich Diez
With the goal of making high-performance materials affordable for high-volume production, the German startup FibreCoat is offering a revolutionary coating technology with coated fibers for composite and shielding applications as the basic building block for tomorrow's mobility and construction industries, revolutionizing the composites market.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, each of us has bought fiber composites at some point. Fiber composites are the materials of the future for lightweight construction. Unfortunately, these materials are often not used due to their high price.
- Robert Brüll
"As part of our work at RWTH Aachen University, we dealt a lot with fiber composites and the complex process chain," says Robert Brüll. "With the idea of reducing this complexity and doing the entire production in one step, I approached Alex, as he was dealing with part of this complex process chain. Together, we then proved that our idea of a plastic-coated glass fiber actually worked. Then, with Richard, came an eye for the market and applications. We quickly realized that we were on to something big here and that exploitation could only happen through us."
Necessity is the mother of invention - supply bottlenecks caused by Corona finally lead to a breakthrough
While many people, including the founders of FibreCoat, had to restrict their private lives, especially their leisure activities, as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic, they were able to concentrate completely on their startup.
"Business-wise, Corona was a dream," Brüll explains the situation. "We had no more conferences or meetings, Corona gave us time and peace of mind. During the lockdown, I had a presentation in Japan in the morning, in Australia at noon, and was still able to attend an event in the USA in the evening. All from the comfort and convenience of my own four walls. Before the pandemic, that was unthinkable and simply not physically possible. This gave us a lot of time to develop and build our business.
When we started FibreCoat, our focus was on coating plastic on glass. Through Corona, we had supply bottlenecks for the equipment and materials. So we started an idle run with the same technology to see if the whole thing could be done with metal. The surprising thing was that it was much easier and could be produced much faster. About five to six months later, we had AluCoat, as we called our product, at industrial scale."
The AluCoat material behaves like an aluminum fiber, but is actually a basalt fiber with an aluminum coating. A fiber is actually drawn from the basalt stone and then aluminum is added. The strength and heat resistance comes from the basalt and the electrical and thermal conductivity comes from the aluminum.
This combination of properties already exists today, but comparable fibers cost around 600 euros per kilo or even up to 25,000 euros per kilo. FibreCoat offers its fibers between 30 and 80 euros per kilo. "This means we are ten times cheaper than the state of the art and then we also have the unique selling point above that," explains Brüll. "The AluCoat material in itself, has immense advantages over other materials: Thermal conductivity and shielding. On the one hand, I can use it to cool various systems, accordingly when I want to dissipate heat.
But it can also be used for shielding. For example, for electromagnetic shielding either in e-cars for battery housings or in buildings to protect against 5G or in electronics in general.
A versatile product for every market
FibreCoat is currently running nearly 30 pilot projects. These are divided among diverse markets. "At the moment, we serve the automotive industry on the one hand, here mainly the areas of supply and production of electromobility, and the construction sector on the other, which deals with the shielding of buildings. Then we have a small part in the filtration sector as well as in the defense industry," Brüll explains the broad target groups. "We don't necessarily focus on one target group very explicitly because the material is always the same with us and we always sell the fiber B2B in the same or a similar way."
Our fibers are versatile and only require minor adjustments. The easiest way to imagine this is probably with a comparison: A cotton fiber can be used in a sweater, a T-shirt or a pair of pants. In the process, nothing necessarily has to be changed about the cotton fiber.
- Robert Brüll
The startup is more concerned with the different dynamics of the markets in its sales strategy. "Our problem is that the markets are very different, so while the automotive industry needs several years before a major order is placed, the construction sector is much faster. That's why we're currently trying to target customers in different markets, so that we can set up our fibers broadly across different markets in the future."
Another property - electromagnetic shielding
In electromobility, the batteries, the powertrains and the wiring harnesses, they all ignose different currents and lead to electromagnetic radiation. This in turn leads to interference, which means that the computer may fail or the navigation system may calculate incorrectly or the autonomous driving system may produce errors because of interference. For this reason, all these things have to be shielded. This shielding already exists today, we just offer it much cheaper.
"We have technically a very good product, because we combine a relatively strong fiber with metal, thus we achieve higher strengths. 90% of fiber composites are made with glass and we have the same properties as this glass, which means that you can simply put our fiber into this composite and it has the same properties in terms of strength and hardness and stiffness, but our product has another bonus: shielding.
That means this is an advantage that all our competitors in the market are currently neglecting. Since we are a startup, we can also act very quickly and flexibly and implement customer-specific requests. For example, customers are always asking for a slightly different type, whether the coating needs to be a bit thicker or whether they don't want it as yarn in the end, but perhaps as a textile or braided textile. We can react very quickly because we are not dependent on any one form. That's not necessarily the case with the big (companies)."
Top 50 Startups - How do you explain its success and what advice would you give to founders?
"There are several reasons for that. For one, you can only win prizes if you apply for them. Many founders think they are not ready yet and therefore don't enter competitions. But you just have to try. Even if you don't win, the mentoring and the support you get is worth its weight in gold. If you have the capacity as a startup, you should always participate in competitions, because even a supposed defeat has an infinite learning effect.
Regarding success: we have a large market and are very scalable. In addition, we can already prove that we have paying customers, which shows that the whole thing has a hand and a foot. In the end, if you make a business plan and can answer all the questions, it's a good plan, but if there are holes in the plan, you should rethink your idea."
From university to the startup scene
"Well, on the one hand, RTWH Aachen is largely to blame for the fact that I ended up in the startup scene," grins the founder. "RTWH offers an environment in which you can really do and try a lot, especially technically you move very close to the industry. As a result, you always had an eye on the market.
Then it was actually the frustration. We always had good ideas and promising results but nothing was taken up by the industry. The reason is simply that it is very sluggish. And here we simply said we have the potential. Thus, we made the impulse to start up."
Among many other awards, the startup won the Rise Business Plan in spring 2021 and received a lot of attention and encouragement. However, the company is not resting on its laurels.
"We are currently running an investment round, the goal is to complete this by the middle of the year, in parallel the 30 pilot projects should be completed. Then the next goal is to scale up our production, currently we produce 5 tons per month and would like to produce 60 tons by the end of the year. In the long term, of course, we want to scale up more and more and conquer more and more markets to also have large production facility outside Europe in 2023. In addition, more product launches are planned."
Continuous innovation and strong partnerships
"Currently we already have several patents, the oldest patent is also already filed in Europe and the USA, so to speak, and the latest one has just gone out at the beginning of the year. However, the goal is that we patent worldwide with increasing success. The advantage of our patents: we have patented the process, but we also patent the material.
At the moment, we are not setting up our own production, but renting these production facilities from current manufacturers," Brüll explains her current business model. "So we have the advantage that almost everyone currently has excess capacity. That means in some cases 50% of their plants are underutilized and as a result we are welcomed with open arms. Our goal is to scale globally. Our module is relatively small and handy what to include in the process. It is about 4 hours from set up to production.
Materials are the basic building blocks of our industry, and by making them more affordable, we can have a huge impact on our society," explains Robert Brüll. "At FibreCoat, we focus primarily on continuous innovation and strong partnerships. We are making steady progress in our production efficiencies. 5-HT is shaping up to be a perfect partner for us as our next product is chemically focused.
We are happy to be an active part of the ecosystem, because from our point of view, a good network is worth its weight in gold for any startup."
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