Buy-in from end users and OEMs keeps filtration company afloat

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Editor’s note: The Netherlands-based Aquamarijn uses microchip manufacturing techniques to make filtration devices. The parent company, launched in 1993, has spawned three separate businesses: Micro Filtration in Zutphen, Medspray in Enschede and Nanomi in Enschede.

May 12, 2005 — Aquamarijn started in 1993 as a one-person technology company focusing on the development of filtration membranes made with microsystems technology. In 1993, I received $12,500 for writing the best technology business plan in the Breaking Out Contest, organized by the ABN Bank, Moret Ernst & Young accounting firm and the Ministry of Economic Affairs.

Based on my business plan, the University of Twente provided me with a loan of $15,000, to be paid back after the first year at $3,000 a year. The funding allowed me partly to pay the University of Twente for use of its clean room and office facilities. The technology support of the micromechanics research group at the university proved to be very valuable. At the time, they were the world’s leading research group in microsystems technology.

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In 1995, subsidized technical collaboration projects on blood, beer and milk filtration with representative Dutch companies helped keep Aquamarijn afloat. The collaborating companies were willing to co-invest in the technology after being given licenses on specific conditions for beer and milk filtration. This guaranteed a match between technology push and their market needs. An added benefit: capital needs were strongly diminished.

I tried a few times to ask Dutch venture capitalists for financial support, without success. They appeared to me to be too risk-averse (like bankers), not very competent at evaluating the technology and a bit preoccupied in evaluating the “management team.” In my view, the only real Dutch VC was the 17th century Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (the Netherlands East India Co.).

Twice I sold, for a moderate sum, production and market licenses to OEMs, on the condition they co-developed the technology. Unfortunately, one OEM went bankrupt and the other changed its management team, which killed the co-development project.

The Aquamarijn Group has been split into three different companies, with separate shareholders and management teams, in order to keep an application focus. The common base is the filtration membrane from 1993. Micro Filtration provides filtration for beer, water and milk. Medspray uses these filtration membranes for spraying for medical applications. And Nanomi focuses on emulsification techniques.

These divisions have been done without the participation of VCs, although we had some offers. Our reply is that we only go for smart money, that is money given by people who at least have a certain technical intelligence related to the company, such as an end user, OEM, etc. Until today we do not regret this choice. We only wish we had it done a few years earlier.

If I had a second chance to set up the company, I would not change too much, given the non-entrepreneurial climate in Holland. I can only recommend to follow one’s own entrepreneurial stubbornness and to avoid as much as possible VCs, lawyers, etc. Also, do not expect too much interest or commitment from university research groups, even if you have provided them with projects and funding for students. You will be accused of using governmental grants for the research and development of technology potentially useful for a small innovative company.

The technical research money in Holland runs either parallel with the interests of the large multinationals or with the less useful interests of the research groups themselves. Luckily, this scientific attitude in Holland is changing a bit and I try to contribute to this a little bit too.


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