Between balance sheets and toilet paper
Markus Kainer calls himself a “classical marketing guy.” With thick black hair and darting blue eyes, sporting a white button-down, he is quick to laugh, has a friendly demeanor and, in keeping with his marketing persona, knows how to tell a story or two.
His personal journey begins in Graz, where he went to university and got to know Stephan Laske doing sports. Fifteen years later, he would found a small company in Leoben, Styria, together with his friend. It would be a small startup with a big mission: to develop polymer-based biodegradable packaging products to contribute to solving the problem of waste disposal.
But more on that later.
Having worked as the head of marketing in a major Austrian furniture retail company, the 39-year-old Styrian, who is married with two children, says he basically had “nothing to do with technology or engineering.” But there had always been this question: Should he do his own thing?
Thinking of self-employment
For a while, it was just a thought, a distant possibility that would only come to fruition when in 2011 his friend Stephan from Graz, who had become professor forplastics technology at the University of Leoben, approached him about a preliminary marketing concept for a plastic foil that he had recently filed a patent for. “The more I immersed myself in the topic of renewable raw materials, the more interested I got,” Markus remembers. “It just happened somehow.”
Photo credit: IM POLYMER
The two soon entered their roughly drafted business plan in a competition, which they won. For the next year, the two toyed with the idea of starting their own business before taking the big leap in 2012 when they decided to found IM POLYMER as part of ZAT (Centre for Applied Technology Leoben).
IM POLYMER’s business concept is based on a captive system comprised of three pillars: IM SOLUTION (R&D for know-how transfer), IM COMPOUND (provision of Polymer granules for further processing by third parties) and IM PACKAGING (development, production and marketing of polymer Paper®). Ideally, the client approaches the company about a solution regarding a particular packaging problem (a producer of organic wellness and nutrition drinks seeking to replace the petrochemical aluminum with ecologically sound packaging for their product, for example), which the startup then works on and develops based on the individual needs of the client, followed by the actual production of the packaging by IM POLYMER’s partners.
From the beginning, Markus and Stephan were adamant about assembling a capable team made of “young wild ones,” as Markus puts it, and experienced people that would cover all areas needed to successfully run a business. While Markus was put in charge of marketing, Stephan would clearly be the head of R&D. Within half a year of the official founding, a process engineer was brought on board for production and engineering, as well as a banker who would deal with the legal and financial side of things. “We were pretty well set from the get-go,” Markus says.
For the first two years, IM POLYMER’s work was very much research-focused – and award-winning-focused. In 2012, they received the Fast Forward Award, followed by the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the category “environment” in the same year, and the State Award for Innovation (Econovius) in 2013.
Every year, 800 billion plastic bags are produced. […] They just don’t rot. And we end up ingesting them with our food.
“Although winning such awards doesn’t help much on the market, it provided us as a small business with a lot of reputation,” Markus says. With a marketing budget of €6.500 in their first year, the awards were “extremely important for publicity,” he adds.
8 billion lost plastic bags and half a Green
But no publicity in the world can replace a sound strategy and mission that gives meaning to a startup’s work. For IM POLYMER, it’s sustainability. Their approach comes out of a sense of responsibility for the environment in the context of the challenges posed by today’s consumer society when it comes to waste disposal.
“Every year, 800 billion plastic bags are produced. One in a hundred gets lost – that’s 8 billion plastic bags each year,” Markus says. “They just don’t rot. And we end up ingesting them with our food,” he adds, knowing well that this has been an issue for the past 20 to 30 years. Although Kainer says he is not “on the charitable track,” he does admit having turned into “half a Green.” “Wherever it’s useful and makes sense economically and ecologically, we should replace petrochemical plastics with green plastics,” he says.
Since IM POLYMER’s products are rarely ever cheaper than conventional packaging, the Styrian startup knows it needs to emphasize the value-added component that is visible to consumers.
“Ours is not a mass market, it’s a niche – but with plastics, it’s a pretty big one.” Areas of application range from food and beverage packaging, folding cartons, power and specialty papers to products outside of the packaging segment, such as vouchers or business cards, cutlery, and toys, especially for young children whose parents don’t want them licking conventional plastic.
- IM POLYMER milestones:
- DECEMBER 2011: won business plan competition
- JUNE 2012: founded IMPOLYMER as part of ZAT (Zentrum für Angewandte Technology Leoben / Centre for Applied Technology Leoben).
- SEPTEMBER 2012: received the Fast Forward Award
- NOVEMBER 2012: named the Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award in the category environment
- MARCH 2013: won the State Award for Innovation (Econovius)
Despite knowing that they have a product that is ‘modern’ and attractive to investors seeking to add an environmental component to their portfolio, IM POLYMER has found it difficult to get funding from the free market to meet their 750.000€ financing needs. Instead, Austrian funding bodies have played an important part in getting IM POLYMER up and running: The Leoben-based startup has secured a venture capital investment from StBFG (Steirische Beteiligungsfinanzierungsgesellschaft), as well as funding from FFG.
For IM POLYMER, bringing investors as strategic partners on board in the future is a viable option, according to Markus. “But an exit is definitely out of the question in the next five years,” he adds. “We’re simply having too much fun with this.”
When Markus says „fun“, he means juggling a lot things at the same time. As a young entrepreneur, “you shouldn’t be too proud to do something,” he says. Sometimes that means meeting with CEOs of major companies and picking up toilet paper for the office on the way home.
Amidst all this, Markus has found it crucial to maintain a clear focus in an effort not to get bogged down. For IM POLYMER, this has meant learning to say no and to realize that not every client order can and should be attributed the same level of importance. Another take-away for Markus: “A lot of things take longer and cost more than expected.” And: “You need to have thick skin – only very few people make it. You really have to believe in what you do.”
You need to have thick skin – only very few people make it. You really have to believe in what you do.
With self-employment also came a great deal of self-realization and, with it, an acute awareness of Markus’ own strengths and weaknesses. “Either you try to eliminate your weaknesses, which takes a lot of time and energy, or you find someone to compensate for them,” he says.
In the future, IM POLYMER seeks to strengthen marketing and distribution, to build and intensify partnerships in Austria to establish their products in the marketplace with a clear commitment to keeping production in Austria. “Even though it might be a bit more expensive: It’s a quality criterion and clear statement,” says Markus. And as a marketing man, he likes clear statements.
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.