Dr. Marc Fricke and Dr. Raman Subrahmanyam of aerogel-it, Osnabrück, Germany, talk with Dr. Vera Koester for ChemistryViews about their 100 % bio-based superinsulating lignin aerogel, their buy-out from BASF, and their different paths from pure science research to entrepreneurship.
In 2005, Marc Fricke began researching nanoporous foams for BASF during his postdoc at the Institute de Science et d’Ingénierie Supramoléculaires (ISIS) in Strasbourg, France. This led to the development of the polyurethane-based aerogel SLENTITE®, patented and marketed by BASF and ultimately acquired by the new company aerogel-it GmbH.
aerogel-it GmbH was founded in the middle of 2021 by Dr. Marc Fricke, another former BASF employee, Dr. Raman Subrahmanyam, two other aerogel experts from Professor Irina Smirnova’s research group at Technical University of Hamburg (TUHH), Germany, and two senior business advisors. Besides SLENTITE®, the new company already offers a new product: a superisolating lignin aerogel that is 100 % bio-based, recyclable, and suitable for a wide range of applications from the construction industry to refrigerators to outdoor clothing.
Marc, you had a secure job as a project manager at BASF before you started your own company. Was that a big adventure?
Marc Fricke: It is a big step and an opportunity at the same time. I wanted to make this experience in my working life by building a new company based on the achievements in aerogels of the last 10 to 15 years.
So you have thought about becoming an entrepreneur before?
Marc Fricke: Yes, I thought about it before, but I did not want to leave the aerogel topic, so I didn’t pursue the idea any further.
And what about you, Raman?
Raman Subrahmanyam: Starting Aerogelex and aerogel-it was the consequence of my passion for aerogels, not the goal.
During my schooling in Hyderabad, India, my teachers Chukka Ramaiah and Madhusudan Rao taught me that real problem solving is not about solving the questions presented on paper but taking the topic, framing the key questions, and cracking the puzzle. In many cases, we cannot even decipher the real problem, let alone the questions. The joy of learning lies in acquiring the knowledge base while developing mental models in preparation for these problems.
How prescient those words were: Now that I have spent almost 13 years in aerogels, every day is just as exciting as my first day on this topic.
How did you come to be involved in aerogel-it?
Raman Subrahmanyam: I have been working together with Marc ever since he made the first SLENTITE formulation all the way back in 2010. I revel in the thought that I am the second-longest participant in the development of SLENTITE after Marc even though I am not from BASF. It was a no-brainer for me when Marc came calling regarding setting up aerogel-it.
Mar Fricke: We look back on many years of very good collaboration with the TUHH.
What’s different now about your day-to-day tasks?
Marc Fricke: To be honest, there is no big difference. In the last 15 years, I learned a lot to be prepared for the current tasks. Nevertheless, the main difference is the fast decision-making process in our company, which I appreciate a lot.
As a chemist, where did you get the knowledge about how to write a business plan, how to extract knowledge from the old company, how to acquire money to set up the production plant, and everything else that has to be considered?
Marc Fricke: We had to learn it by doing and we also have two business advisors among our founders.
At BASF, we accompanied the development of the high-performance insulating material SLENTITE right through to the pilot phase and first sales. So in the last 10 to 15 years, we already learned a lot about how to commercialize a completely new product we developed molecule per molecule by ourselves.
Raman Subrahmanyam: As Marc said, aerogel-it is the decade-long amalgamation of university and industry perspectives in aerogel technology. Of the seven founders, three bring a university perspective to investigate, create, and scale up the product with elegance, while the other four bring an industry perspective of product-to-market fit, capital allocation, monetization, business protection, and expansion.
My life’s ambition is to make aerogels for as many applications as possible from as many materials as possible. aerogel-it allows me to focus on the context for which an aerogel has to be made.
What do you like best about being an entrepreneur?
Marc Fricke: Fast decisions, much less internal briefing, just doing. I really like working on clean or green tech topics that have a significant impact based on our own materials and processes.
Raman Subrahmanyam: I am not an entrepreneur in the strict sense of the word but more a person who has the rarest of rare opportunity to build the aerogel legacy along with like-minded people. It allows me to don different hats ranging from a chemist, chemical engineer, and process developer to an aerogel material and technology disseminator and a prudent capital allocator. I find this exciting.
What was or is the most challenging?
Marc Fricke: Handling many different things at the same time, including having to make investor pitches with a very special impact story based on chemistry and process technology and different application areas.
What tips would you give to someone starting a business or wanting to start a business?
Raman Subrahmanyam: In one word: TEAM. In one sentence: A team willing to achieve the dream together. The rest is derivative.
Marc Fricke: I agree, finding the right team, long-standing persistence, and a huge network are essential.
Raman Subrahmanyam: I am probably not the right person to give advice on starting a business because I am a terrible entrepreneur in the end. I know this because I see the topics Marc focuses on and I would really struggle with them.
The aerogel technology and business topic is excessively immense and comprehensive. Fortunately, as mentioned before, our founding team has prior experience covering almost all aspects required for a fully functioning company let alone a start-up. The team covers material development, product-to-market fit, product quality assurance, intellectual property management, customer site validation, production process development, basic and detailed engineering, 24×7 production experience, market segment adaptive business models, marketing, business development, and capital and resource allocation skillsets. We are one year old as a company and have progressed a great deal in this period.
What’s different when you don’t start a company from a university lab idea, but instead spin it off from another company?
Marc Fricke: Unlike a classical start-up or even a university spin-off, we are a management buy-out, so to speak, with 10 to 15 years of experience in industrial R&D, business development, scale-up, and production plus leading university knowledge.
We produce small quantities of our bioaerogels at the TU Hamburg-Harburg, that is, for customer tests, not commercial quantities. We are currently building up the pilot equipment plant components we took over from BASF in Hamburg to increase capacity there. This gives the university access to ready-to-use components that it would otherwise not be able to obtain easily, and we can provide our customers with more material.
So you will soon be building your own new production plant?
Marc Fricke: Yes, we are currently in intensive talks with investors and hope that the plant will be ready by the beginning of 2024. The products are ready and customers are there. Nevertheless, there is still a lot to do before commercialization.
Will SLENTITE be produced in the plant or also your newly patented bioaerogel based on lignin?
Marc Fricke: We will only produce bio-based aerogels there, and we are producing granules, not boards, because this gives us much more freedom. There are applications for granules or also powders, and we can bring these into different shapes if needed. The granules are stable, do not dust, which is not at all typical for current aerogel products, and are easy to handle and process.
So far you have been in the construction industry with SLENTITE as an insulating material. Can you give an example of other applications for the bio-based lignin aerogel?
Marc Fricke: Outdoor clothing, for example. We run a project with a customer who integrates aerogels into functional apparel.
Raman Subrahmanyam: Since we have longevity in this topic, we can provide aerogel-based solutions for various market pains caused by political and social megatrends at an exceptional speed. I guess you will see what I mean with our new range of bioaerogel and biomineral aerogel products coming up in the near future.
BASF assumingly didn’t think SLENTITE was particularly profitable for them and that’s why they didn’t continue. Why do you think it is profitable?
Marc Fricke: We believe in aerogel technology and especially bio-based aerogels. Our slogan is: We decarbonize industries with green superinsulation.
Thermal insulation materials save CO2. In addition, our raw material is 100 % bio-based, and the products can be reused; they do not have to be incinerated or thermally recycled, as it is called. You can use them again after deconstruction or disassembly, and mill them or recycle them. This is what companies need right now to reduce their CO2 balance (or carbon footprint) and what is needed for a circular bioeconomy.
When I think of the refrigerator industry, for example. With our material, they have the chance to improve their CO2 balance. In refrigerators, rigid polyurethane (PU) foam filled with cell gas is used for insulation. [Ed. note: The inclusion of cell gas (air or CO2) achieves the high insulating effect of the PU foam plastics.] This can be substituted with our bio-based aerogel.
Did you develop your bio-based aerogels in the one year since aerogel-it was founded?
Marc Fricke: Yes. This is our first “own” product and we filed the patents on the materials this year in the name of aerogel-it.
We started working with bioaerogels as a result of the cooperation with TU Hamburg-Harburg. This is currently a very strong topic in academia, but no one has yet brought a commercial product to the market. We wanted to change that.
So this is an example of the university’s research being brought to market by start-ups?
Marc Fricke: We were helped by the combination of cooperation with the university and the experience from past years, which we naturally brought with us. We developed the lignin-based aerogel in half a year. SLENTITE took about ten years. That’s where we benefited from the experience plus, of course, outside a large company you are much faster. But we have other hurdles to overcome.
Good luck in overcoming these hurdles and thank you very much for the interview.
Marc Fricke studied chemistry at the University of Bielefeld and Munich, both Germany, and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. He earned his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the University of Bielefeld, Germany, in 2000. After a postdoc for BASF at the Institut de Science et d’Ingénierie Supramoléculaires (ISIS), Strasbourg, France, he joined BASF Polyurethanes GmbH, Lemförde, Germany, in 2007, and became Laboratory Head for Advanced Materials & Systems Research and responsible for the development of SLENTITE. Since June 2021, Marc Fricke has been the CEO and co-founder of aerogel-it, Osnabrück, Germany.
Raman Subrahmanyam studied chemical engineering at the National Institute of Technology Warangal, India, and Hamburg University of Technology, Germany. From 2012 to 2021, he was a Research Scientist at TUHH, and from 2016 to 2021, he was also a Research Scientist at Tutech Innovation GmbH, Hamburg, Germany. Since 2018, he has been the CEO of Aerogelex, Hamburg. Since June 2021, he has been both the co-founder of and responsible for the R&D of aerogel-it GmbH, Osnabrück.
aerogel-it GmbH researches, develops, and manufactures novel aerogels such as bioaerogels based on natural raw materials, biomineral aerogels as well as next-generation aerogels based on the SLENTITE® technology. In addition to thermal insulation, the company aims to develop various application areas, particularly in the pharmaceutical, medical care, and cosmetics sectors. The company combines world-leading aerogel expertise in its founding team and partners.
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- F. Mißfeldt, P. Gurikov, W. Loelsberg, D. Weinrich, F. Lied, M. Fricke, I. Smirnova, Continuous Supercritical Drying of Aerogel Particles: Proof of Concept, Ind. Eng. Chem. Res. 2020, 59, 11284-11295. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.iecr.0c01356
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- SLENTITE® Aerogel Panels for Construction, Buyer Information (accessed September 22, 2022)