A World First in Membrane Technology
Monika Lelonek – a trained business chemist – and Petra Göring – an engineer specialising in the development of new technologies – have spent almost four years pouring their combined energy into developing their SmartMembranes GmbH. The product that the two chemists have come up with is unique the world over. Using innovative production methods, they have succeeded in creating a high-tech membrane capable of separating particles no larger than double-digit nanometres (one millionth of a millimetre!). This level of precision is unequalled worldwide. The process – which the two have been reasearching and perfecting at various universities and research institutions for over a decade – has the potential to be worth millions. This is because there are plenty of applications for the flow-through process. Fine-tuning the filtration of gas, air, blood, dust, bacteria or viruses is a thematic constant in the fields of environmental engineering, of sensor technology, even of medicine and microelectronics. ‘Our process is based on a special honeycomb structure and can be adapted to meet the client’s custom parameters exactly’, explains Lelonek. This means that pore diameter, pore distribution and overall membrane porosity can be adjusted to fit any need.
The two scientists got to know each other during the first NenA in 2007 – short for Nano-Entrepreneurship-Academy – where they came up with the idea to create ‘SmartMembranes’. Within a short time they had been awarded the academy’s founder prize. In 2009, they became the first start-up to emerge from the academy, receiving a great deal of support from both the Fraunhofer Institute for Mechanics of Materials IWM and the Martin-Luther-Universität of Halle-Wittenberg as well as from the regional entrepreneurial networks as a result. Currently, the invention stands among the finalists for the ‘IQ Innovationspreis Mitteldeutschland’ (IQ Innovation Prize for Central Germany), competing in the Chemical Industry and Plastics Cluster category.
‘The conditions in Saxony-Anhalt have always been optimal’, Monika Lelonek underscored. One of the advantages that she touted was being located on the campus of the ‘Technologie- und Gründerzentrum Halle (TGZ)’. Direct access to the Fraunhofer IWM also ensures access to the necessary materials and infrastructure. ‘Our production process requires technology which we simply cannot afford as a recently founded company that is still growing’, Petra Göring explains. Financing assistance was also made available without any serious bureaucratic hurdles. The Investment Bank of Saxony-Anhalt (‘Investitionsbank Sachsen-Anhalt’) made available credit via the SME-loan fund (‘KMU-Darlehensfonds’), for example. That particular credit was co-financed by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF). Contributions also came from the European Social Fund (ESF) as well as from the state of Saxony-Anhalt in the form of a training programme for founders of new businesses, for example. It was only with help of this support that the investments which were required to get the company off the ground could be managed.
‘Nanotechnology is highly cost-intensive. When we were starting out, we had to put €230,000 into our production facilities alone. They are partially automated and had to be developed by us from scratch’, Monika Lelonek explains.
These expenditures should be paying off soon however, since nanotechnology is considered to be the epitome of cutting-edge technology. The most promising sector for both research and industry in the world is anticipated to become a one billion Euro global market by 2015. In Germany alone, some 950 enterprises – representing between 60,000 and 100,000 jobs – develop and market products and industrial processes based on nanothechnology. That makes the Federal Republic leader in the field, ahead of both Japan and the United States. SmartMembranes is one of those companies well on its way to profitability. It has been able to build contacts worldwide, including in the USA, in Japan and in Canada. A number of research projects and the company’s first large-scale development contract mean that orders are now coming in steadily. In the meantime, the little nano-business produces about €100,000 worth of high-tech membranes per quarter. In the coming year, the enterprise aspires to generate over €450,000 in revenues.
Meanwhile, three new members have reinforced the SmartMembranes team. Over the next five years, ten more employees are slated to join the ranks. The most important task at this point is to build awareness. ‘Unfortunately, so far hardly anyone in the market is aware of the fact that the technology required to ensure such enormous precision is even available yet’. Ultimately, developing and building the necessary distribution, marketing and partnership structures in the international marketplace is a question of capacity. This means that investments will have to be made in these areas over the coming months. The fitting personnel also need to be recruited. The founders are certain about one thing already, however. ‘By the end of this year, we will need to be making profit and we will be’.