Idea + X = success

By Björn Carstens
Startups have a pioneering spirit deeply rooted in their DNA. The following examples show how an innovative startup scene develops clever ideas further so that they achieve success in the marketplace.
© iStock

Traceless plastics

© Traceless Material

Startup: Traceless Materials (16 employees)

Founded in: 2020

Idea: Originally, she’d “merely” meant to move forward with her PhD work in process engineering but now Anne Lamp may be holding the game changer in the fight against the global flood of plastics in her hands: a granulate of agricultural waste generated, for instance, in the production of corn starch. From this base material the startup founder from Hamburg developed a natural type of plastic material consisting of natural fibers, a so-called biopolymer. Without chemical modification, without harmful additives and without solvents. According to an initial carbon footprint assessment, production and disposal of the plastic substitute cause up to 87 percent less CO2 emissions than virgin plastics. Even so, the material is said to be tear-resistant, waterproof and suitable for multi-optional uses: as a wrap for food packaging, in the production of hard-plastic components or as coatings for cardboard. Lamp says: “Our technology is ‘back to the roots.’ Even the first plastics 100 years ago were natural materials.” Cellophane, for instance, that’s produced from cellulose and is fully degradable. “At some point in time, petrochemicals replaced all that and those technologies fell into oblivion,” explains Lamp. 2 to 9 weeks is the time it takes for the biomaterial from Traceless to become fully composted.

Implementation: While she was still doing her research work, it occurred to Anne Lamp that this idea called for thinking big. Via a startup assistance program, she teamed up with strategy consultant Johanna Baare. Together, they founded Traceless Materials. The startup’s approach is a holistic one. Like the product itself, the process to produce it is planned to be eco-friendly. The Traceless granulate is intended to be a direct alternative to the products that chemical corporations offer. The two founders have already raised several million euros in funding support and investors’ money.

Hurdles: Hundreds of startups around the world have been experimenting with eco-friendly and petroleum-free plastics for years, and successfully so. The problem is that the production costs of most alternatives are higher than those of the current, petroleum-based plastics. In a highly price-sensitive competitive environment, that’s a real pitfall. By contrast, Traceless is supposed to be competitive in terms of price in industrial-scale production. The basic prerequisite, says Lamp, is that, “To get there, we have to become really big really fast.”

Next steps: The first big player to partner with has been found. Together with German mail order and e-commerce giant Otto, Traceless is working on a sustainable shipping bag. In addition, larger-scale production is planned to be launched this year. The pilot plant has already been established.

Idea + X = success
Aiming to curb the flood of plastics: Traceless founders Johanna Baare (l.) and Dr. Anne Lamp© Traceless Material

3D pioneers

© Hyperganic

Startup: Hyperganic (50 employees)

Founded in: 2017

Idea: An artificial intelligence system that designs objects fully automatically for 3D printing. Designers only have to feed the AI with requirements to be met by the product and start the print run. The idea evolved when serial entrepreneur Lin Kayser bought a 3D printer in 2012 – actually, for a totally different startup idea. “But then it dawned on me. When you think about molecular structures that can be moved algorithmically you can design anything that’s physically possible and then issue it on an industrial printer.”

Implementation: Good things come to those who wait. As far back as in 2014, Kayser’s partner, Michael Gallo, who used to be a pioneer in digital image editing in the movie industry, developed the basic technology while Kayser traveled to countless centers for additive manufacturing around the world to explore their willingness to enter mass production. Kayser: “In the course of time, we’ve developed the technology to a level allowing us to work together with third-party developers. We prefer for our customers to develop their own applications using our platform and creating their own intellectual property.”

Hurdles: Aside from technological ones, the main challenge was to bring ­customers on board. Kayser: “We had to prove that 3D printing can also work differently. That objects can be designed by means of computer codes instead of manually editing them using CAD ­programs.”

Next steps: The platform is planned to be presented to the general public at the end of 2022.

Idea + X = success
Founder Lin Kayser© Hyperganic

Use an app to see a doctor

© Teleclinic

Startup: Teleclinic (more than 100 employees)

Founded in: 2015

Idea: Good-bye to the rampant presence of viruses in waiting rooms! Long before the pandemic struck, lawyer Katharina Jünger created a digital 24/7 video consultation service – the first one in Germany. At the mere age of 24, that made her a true pioneer. As the daughter of physicians, she said she was used to receiving immediate medical attention when­ever she needed it and wanted to provide this kind of access to everyone.

Implementation: Together with a physician, she implemented the teledoctor app project. The company earns a percentage of the physicians’ treatment costs.

Hurdles: Due to the fact that other countries like Sweden lifted the telemedicine ban earlier than Germany, international competition is fierce.

Next steps: With the help of a collaborative partnership with DocMorris online pharmacy, the startup aims to sell even more clients and doctors (currently several hundred) on the benefits of online treatment.

Idea + X = success
Teleclinic CEO Katharina Jünger (30, above) says: “70 percent of all treatments can take place through Teleclinic.”© Teleclinic
Idea + X = success
More than 100,000 patients in Germany are using teledoctor apps like the one from Teleclinic© Teleclinic

Feeder of the needy

© Rolex

Startup: Chowberry (more than 10 employees)

Founded in: 2014

Idea: Oscar Ekponimo remembers well what it felt like to be hungry. “Even as a child I said: someday I’m going to make sure that others won’t have to experience the same.” Nearly 20 years later, he kept his word. The professional software engineer developed an app that makes surplus food available to poor people in Nigeria. Here’s how it works: retailers scan in their food products and reduce the price progressively as the best-before-date of the product comes closer. The system sends a message to needy customers and to charities.

Implementation: Ekponimo signed a large number of partnership agreements with NGOs and retailers: “We help retailers reduce their food losses by 80 percent.”

Hurdles: Accessibility. Many of his potential customers have no cellphone.

Next steps: Ekponimo is planning to supply up to 100,000 low-income households with food. In the long term, the app is intended to fight ­global ­hunger.

Idea + X = success
Oscar Ekponimo: “Even as a child I said: someday I’m going to make sure that others won’t have to experience the same.”© Rolex

„Weed Wood“

© Fibonacci

Startup: Fibonacci (more than 25 employees)

Founded in: 2018

Idea: For some young people, hemp is just a product to achieve a “higher state of consciousness” – but not for Greg Wilson, who even as a college student in search of eco-friendly alternatives to wood experimented with biomaterials. HempWood, as Wilson’s product consisting of crushed hemp fibers glued together with soy protein is called, is 100 percent biodegradable. It looks like oak wood but is 20 percent more resistant and clearly more sustainable because hemp grows back in just six months, he says.

Implementation: Wilson obtained the necessary know-how to launch HempWood in 2019 from Murray State University (Kentucky/USA). To produce it, he established a ­manufacturing site in Kentucky, the heartland of American ­industrial hemp production. Fibonacci grows its hemp as close as possible to the factory to avoid CO2 ­emissions caused by transportation.

Hurdles: The biggest hurdle disappeared in 2018 when industrial hemp production was legalized in the United States. The question of sustainability is debatable because hemp cultivation requires large areas of land. To avoid deforestation, only the fields for food crops are left for producing industrial hemp.

Next steps: By introducing new products, Fibonacci is planning to replace as much precious oak wood as possible by “hemp wood.”

Idea + X = success
Greg Wilson is well versed in wood alternatives: whether it’s bamboo, eucalyptus or – hemp© Fibonacci

High-speed market research

© Unsplash

Startup: Appinio (approx. 120 employees)

Founded in: 2014

Idea: Two slow, too expensive, lack of data quality – Jonathan Kurfess wasn’t a great believer in classic consumer surveys. Instead, he wanted to create the world’s fastest market research system – a digital platform enabling its clients to address specific target groups within a very short period of time. The questions are sent directly to the app’s users by push messages and the answers are returned within a few minutes or hours. Survey participants can collect points in a playful way and either donate them to social ­projects or convert them into vouchers.

Implementation: Not the iconic Silicon Valley garage but almost … Appinio was started in a storage room measuring eight square meters (86 square feet) located near the Hamburg port. After studying business administration, Kurfess founded Appinio together with an IT expert. Without a real product, without money. “And without knowing how to run a business,” the CEO recalled in a podcast. Then Lady Luck came in: liquor producer Jägermeister had a small budget to spare and awarded Appinio its first contract. Kurfess: “Fortunately, it panned out well.”

Hurdles: Although Appinio by now has a client base of more than 700 companies and over half a million active users, the competition (Google, Facebook) is breathing down the company’s neck.

Next steps: Appinio aspires to become the world’s biggest consumer panel, a portal for consumers whose buying patterns are monitored.

Idea + X = success
Jonathan Kurfess: He founded Appinio while he was unemployed and six years later was voted into the Forbes “30 under 30” list of Europe’s most successful young entrepreneurs

Digital battery recycling

© Li-Ion electric vehicle battery recycling concept. Recycle symbol with EV batteries on wooden desk. 3d rendering.

Startup: Circunomics (13 employees)

Founded in: 2019

Idea: Electric cars have a problem: their batteries typically have to be replaced after a few years. Then what? Throw them away or recycle them? For founder Patrick Peter, that’s not a question because “old batteries are by no means ready for the scrapyard.” They contain recyclable raw materials or can be repurposed, for instance, to store energy at home. Consequently, Peter, an MBA graduate from Frankfurt, came up with the idea of a digital marketplace in which automakers, secondary users and recycling companies trade used batteries and so return them to the circular economy.    

Implementation: Strategic partnerships in the mobility business and know-how – especially know-how. That’s a pillar Circunomics relies on. Every team member contributes something. While one may have experience in the digital and automotive sector, another one may in the battery and energy industry or in the circular economy, such as founder Cesar Prados, who as a technical director previously developed blockchain solutions for the European Space Agency ESA. Such decentralized databases are crucial for the startup because Circunomics works with digital battery twins to analyze the condition and value of a battery using AI technology. To do so, the company uses information from automakers, charging station operators and suppliers. 

Hurdles: Selling people on the vision of a sustainable battery value chain was arguably the biggest hurdle. “The challenge was to achieve a paradigm shift toward collaboration, because only through collaboration can an effective and profitable battery industry without unnecessary waste of resources be made a reality. As a founder you need a lot of perseverance.”   

Next steps: By 2025, the startup is planning to broker 1.2 million batteries. In a further step, by 2030, ten in-house recycling facilities are supposed to be established, in which batteries with a capacity of 10 GWh are to be made fit for a ­second life. 

Idea + X = success
The founding trio of Cesar Prados, Sebastiaan Wolzak and Patrick Peter (from left) gives electric car batteries a second chance© Miga and Mike

Predictors of damage

© Compredict

Startup: Compredict (25 employees)

Founded in: 2018

Idea: Automakers like being able to plan. That was what the two aspiring mechanical engineers Stéphane Foulard and Rafael Fietzek experienced as early as in their student days. Accordingly, their startup has the mission of predicting how individual components in a vehicle are being stressed and when they can be expected to fail. How does that work? Compredict establishes utilization profiles of vehicles, taps the umpteen sensors installed in a car and analyzes them by means of algorithms.

Implementation: As early as while they were working on their PhDs at TU Darmstadt, Foulard and Fietzek studied digital solutions for online load monitoring. Thanks to an initial financing round the startup picked up momentum. Absolute discretion is critical because automakers don’t appreciate others peering under the hoods of their cars. 

Hurdles: In addition to the fear of industrial espionage that is pursued aggressively in the automotive sector, the founders are faced with the problem of finding highly skilled engineers. 

Next steps:  So far, the service has been limited to B2B clients. The plan is to develop such a service for consumers as well.  

Idea + X = success
Rafael Fietzek (r.) and Stéphane Foulard. “For automakers, the data result in major savings potential,” says Fietzek. Of up to four euros for wheels, for example. In mass production, that’s a fortune© Miga and Mike

Instant charger

© Unsplash

Startup: StoreDot (more than 100 employees)

Founded in: 2012

Idea: Mitigating the “range fear” that keeps many consumers from buying an electric car by means of a battery that’s fully charged within the space of five minutes. 

Implementation: In May 2021, StoreDot signed a basic agreement for mass production with a Chinese producer. The extremely fast-charging batteries provide manufacturers with the major advantage of being suitable for production in existing manufacturing lines for lithium-ion batteries. StoreDot collaborates with global players in the automotive industry and has already raised several hundred million euros of venture capital. 

Hurdles: Designing the battery content using novel electrolyte solutions and nanomaterials so that the battery will retain its capacity even after more than 1,000 charging cycles.  

Next steps: Mass production for global vehicle manufacturers is planned to start in 2024. 

Idea + X = success
StoreDot CEO Dr. Doron Myersdorf: “Our battery will help overcome the major barrier to EV ownership” © StoreDot

3 questions for...

... Carsten Merklein, who is responsible for the development of novel manufacturing technologies at Schaeffler. The automotive and industrial supplier collaborates with numerous startups worldwide, including the Munich-based startup Hyperganic (see above). 

© Group of business professionals in a dark room standing in front of a large data display screen with information.

What does the collaboration between a corporation and a young startup look like? 
Carsten Merklein: It’s creative and results-focused. It’s fun to discuss technologies and solutions to problems without any constraints and to implement them quickly. As a corporation we benefit from out-of-the-box thinking in action. On the other hand, corporations can support startups in industrializing their products and provide input concerning product adjustments that may be needed. 

In what stage of a startup does a connection with a core partner in industry deliver the greatest value? To what extent are innovation platforms like “Startup Autobahn” helpful?
As a corporation, the earlier you connect with a startup the more opportunities you’ll have to shape things and the greater the chance to generate shared intellectual property and a unique selling proposition. However, in this context you mustn’t measure a startup’s way of working against your own standards and requirements or else the collaboration will fail. Innovation platforms are immensely helpful in finding the right startups for the problems you’re working on yourself. The “casting” process they’ve gone through ensures that the level of maturity of the innovations is already measurable and not just “pie in the sky.” 

Know-how, manpower, investment – what are the key factors of leading an idea to success when a big player like Schaeffler collaborates with a young tech company?
All of these are essential prerequisites but to be successful you’ve got to be open-minded, prepared to deal with new solutions and convinced that the pathway that you’ve pursued will lead to success in spite of setbacks or resistance. On the other hand, you shouldn’t continue to feed a dead horse – so, if it’s not the right fit, it’s just not the right fit.

Idea + X = success
Carsten Merklein, who is responsible for the development of novel manufacturing technologies at Schaeffler© Schaeffler