Photo credit: eologix;

published 15 Jun 2015 by Michael Bernstein in Austria 5 minutes 13 seconds to read

A good idea gets wind

A professor and two PhD candidates at the Graz University of Technology turned their research on autonomous sensors into a startup called eologix thanks to a pre-seed grant from Austria's federal promotional bank (aws). Their stick-on sensors are currently used on wind turbines with many more applications in the pipeline.

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eologix

Eologix introduces an easily retrofittable sensor system for all types of wind turbines.

If Michael Moser's long hair makes him seem more likely to be the guy standing behind a mixing board at a rock concert than in a PhD-level research lab, this might be explained by his studies of both Sound and Electrical Engineering – a combination Masters programme offered by the University of Technology and the University of Music & Performing Arts in Graz, Austria. “I've played piano since I was eight, but never professionally. But this programme was 70% about electronics and physics and 30% about music & arts,” says Michael, who chose a study path that blended both worlds.

As a research assistant during his PhD candidacy at the Technical University, he ended up in a workgroup alongside fellow student Thomas Schlegl under the guidance of Professor Hubert Zangl at the Institute of Electrical Measurement and Measurement Signal Processing. The three conducted research on autonomous sensor technology and introduced their concepts through the university as an employee-invention agreement.

Peel off back label and apply

The product they designed looks like a large Band-Aid – a self-adhesive sticker no more than 2mm thick with an embedded, solar-powered electronic sensor and transmitter. It requires no complicated installation or assembly and sends its data wirelessly to a remote receiver.

The aviation industry seemed to be an natural potential customer for the stick-on sensors, which can be configured to measure temperature and surface-ice buildup. However the certification process for aeronautic applications can easily take up to ten years or more, so the team looked for additional applications.

In 2012, they took part in an idea-generation contest at the Science Park Graz – the local AplusB incubator centre. A quirky idea emerged out of Thomas's hobby: volleyball. He noted that frequent arguments arise about whether the net is first touched by a hand or by the ball, and they thought that their sensors could be used to make more accurate foul calls than a referee could. Their idea won first prize.

Answer blowing in the wind

With the grant [from aws], we managed to implement field tests with mill owners and manufactures of turbines. We amassed a lot of data and experience...

Though they eventually patented the volleyball-net idea, they put it aside (until recently). Instead, they found a potentially more lucrative application in the emerging field of renewable energy. “By chance I received an e-mail invitation for a green-energy conference and we thought that our sensors would be ideal for use on wind turbines,” Michael explains.

Through their discussions with wind turbine operators and manufactures, they learned that the existing methods for detecting ice on turbines – a condition that decreases their efficiency, increases mechanical fatigue and endangers nearby people and property – are imperfect. “The advantage of our sticker-sensors is that they can be applied anywhere – even on existing mills – at any time and without any special qualifications or expertise.”

What surprised Michael and his team was that none of the big players in the field were attracted enough to take their idea and develop it themselves. “They were slow to catch on, so this enabled us to secure our patents and develop the product ourselves,” Michael says. Through Science Park Graz, they learned about the aws (Austria's federal promotional bank) pre-seed grant program for high-tech projects. In 2013, they crafted a business plan and submitted their application that June. While waiting to hear the outcome, they continued their research work without any outside funding until, by the winter, each partner had left the Graz University of Technology.

aws pre-seed funding enables rapid development

By December they learned that their aws High-Technology pre-seed grant had been approved and the available funding (up to 150,000 euros) would support adequate testing of their prototype product. They founded their company, eologix sensor technology gmbh in August 2014.

“With the grant, we managed to implement field tests with mill owners and manufacturers of turbines. We amassed a lot of data and experience and are adapting our findings,” Michael explains. “Without the aws grant, we couldn't have gotten so far so quickly. We would never have been able to afford having as many systems in the field by using only our own money.”

Beyond the financial support for their research, the grant also helped add credibility to their efforts. Michael believes that “our potential customers could see that our concept and business plan have already been analysed and approved by an official organisation, and we weren't just some guys with a big idea.”

Now that the pre-seed stage is complete and they have positive test results, the team is actively trying to acquire customers – both wind farm operators and turbine manufacturers. The largest growth markets are Germany, Sweden, France and Canada. Michael and his partners are busy writing proposals for new funding, seeking private investment and getting their product known in the industry by networking through interest groups. “Depending on how many orders we receive in the next few weeks, we will know our production volume,” Michael says. “We are prepared for a rapid scale if necessary.”

Balancing focus and opportunity

We are prepared for a rapid scale if necessary

The product's application in to both renewable energy and high-tech fields would seem to make it an attractive target for outside investment. Nevertheless, the founders are not limiting themselves to the green energy field. “Among potential investors, there are two opinions about this: one group always tells you to keep focused on your main market and make it great, while the others demand a broad spectrum of possible opportunities.” says Michael. “But we are doing both: investing time in making our product better and also keeping an eye open for other market applications.”

Those potentially include sensors for monitoring large bridges and buildings. “It appears that such environments are less harsh than on windmills, so it shouldn't be too much work to adapt the existing system to this application,” believes Michael. Another option involves ensuring humans and industrial robots do not collide while working together. The volleyball net idea remains simmering on the back burner, and in principle it could be applied to line calls in almost any sport.

This story is brought to you in partnership with aws

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