A business in the sun
“Most industries are currently powered by fossil fuels, therefore energy costs is always a big issue for them,” says Hartmut Schneider, CEO of Fresnex.
It’s a long but so far very successful way for Fresnex to make the use of solar steam attractive to companies that need process heating in their production cycle. In particular Fresnex is looking at industries ranging from food and paper, to the cleaning and chemical industry – making these companies more environmentally sustainable and most important more cost efficient.
On the most basic level (and for those among us without an engineering degree), Fresnex has developed a product that collects solar energy in the form of steam using the technology of concentrated solar power (CSP). Generally, these CSP systems are largely used to generate electricity in big power stations but not on a smaller scale where high installation costs often serve as a deterrent. At least until now, where Hartmut Schneider (42) and Denis Miklau (41) have set out to make the use of CSP technology feasible in other areas, such as for industries that need thermal energy or for the solar cooling of buildings.
Solar energy for the win
The product that collects solar energy in the form of steam using the technology of concentrated solar power; Photo credit: Fresnex
To this end, they have developed their own CSP-panels consisting of long narrow mirror strips that allow light to be focused onto a receiver. This receiver is connected to a pipe, which pumps water to the solar field, thus generating hot water or steam from 100° – 250° Celsius. Fresnex’ system is based on the so-called Fresnel principle (hence the name of their company), named after French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel and his work in the area of optics.
The initial idea was Schneider’s, building on more than a decade of work experience in the field of plant engineering. “After having worked in the area of solar energy for power plants, I wanted to make this technology available for other industries as well,” he says. First, he had to theoretically formulate his idea for which he filed a patent.
“I did it on the side,” he says. Two years later, Schneider decided it was time to put his invention into practice (at that time Schneider also received his MBA from the Vienna University of Economic and Business Executive Academy for which he had been awarded a grant by the Austrian business paper „Wirtschaftsblatt“). A few months later, Denis Miklau, an old friend from university and mechanical engineer who also has experience in plant engineering, joined him, which led to the founding of Fresnex.
Friends and business partners
“We’ve been friends for a long time, so we knew each other well but we had to learn how to work together on a business level”, Miklau says. “Being friends and being business partners are two very different things – but it is going very well.” Miklau describes Schneider as the one with the “innovative spirit” and himself as more of a practitioner who helps put Schneider’s ideas into practice. “Our skills are complementary – but of course we also overlap in some areas,” Miklau says.
I wouldn’t want to miss this international component in my work. It has taught me a lot of different intercultural skills.”Hartmunt Schneider
One passion the two engineers definitely share is their love for working internationally. Having lived and worked on different continents – Schneider mostly in Asia, Miklau in Australia and the US (while studying at university they both absolved an exchange semester in England, though at different times ), they have come to enjoy working with different cultures. “I wouldn’t want to miss this international component in my work”, Schneider says. “It has taught me a lot of different intercultural skills.”
Follow the sun
Needless to say, due to their international background it is not surprising that Fresnex has made it their priority to have an international focus from the very beginning – as opposed to other startups which tend to focus on the national market before attempting to penetrate the European or even the world market. “This definitely sets us apart from others,” says Schneider. “We want to bring our product from Austria to the rest of the world”, with their target markets being those where there is, obviously, a lot of sunshine.
Before Fresnex can conquer the global market, however, their product needs to be tested and approved. Schneider and Miklau made a first big step towards this goal this summer, when their first small facility was successfully tested by the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT). “Now we have proof by an external certifier that our collector performs the way we say it does,” says Schneider.
Photo credit: Fresnex
As with all new products, development takes a long time – and money. Although Fresnex refrain from commenting on the specifics of their capital, they do confirm that “for the entire product development up until the business can stand on its own, you need a couple of millions”. Funding was partially provided by grants from aws , Accent, FFG, the provincial government of Lower Austria, as well as investments from business angels and their own savings.
“We are currently also looking for additional investors,” Schneider says. “But we are generally very happy with the funding landscape in Austria. Without such funding it wouldn’t have been possible to develop our product” – and to hire some helping hands. The team of Fresnex currently comprises seven people, and they are looking to hire more. “By 2017, we want to reach somewhere between 30 and 40 employees,” says Schneider. Ultimately, Fresnex seeks to become the world’s leading B2B technology provider in the area of solar process steam.
A first step in this direction are the discussions Fresnex is currently holding with companies in Austria and – remaining true to their international motto – Greece. “This is definitely an exciting time for us – but then again, it’s always been exciting,” Miklau says.