Dr. Iris and Dr. Andreas Filzwieser met while studying non-ferrous metallurgy at the Montan University in Leoben, a city in Styria, Austria. Out of necessity, they learned quickly how to work hard without much sleep and how to communicate with each other openly and efficiently. These lessons proved to be essential for their future success.
Soon after Iris received her PhD, she realised it would be nearly impossible to find a job giving her enough flexibility to manage her home life with three children. She resolved to start her own company. Andreas quit his company job and together they found Mettop GmbH, a university spin-off, in 2005.
Mettop is short for “metallurgical optimisation”. The company has patented technologies for metal-smelting furnaces – replacing potentially dangerous water-cooled processes with an innovative ionic cooling system – that make them far safer and more efficient. Today, with a staff of 13 scientists and engineers, sales agents on every continent and some 50 industrial clients, they are generating annual revenues of about 2 million euros and are profitable. Still based in Leoben, they continue to develop new solutions for the non-ferrous metal industry and are growing at a steady rate.
AplusB programme integral to startup success
We thought we knew enough, but found out quickly that we knew nothing about being entrepreneus Iris Filzwieser about first steps
Neither Iris nor Andreas had had any previous entrepreneurial experience. “Both Andreas and I gained some business knowledge throughout our studies. We were always completely responsible for the whole project – not just for the research side, but also for the financial and legal matters. We thought we knew enough, but found out quickly that we knew nothing about being entrepreneurs,” she admits.
When the couple learned about the Academia plus Business (AplusB) initiative and its academic spin-off incubator in Leoben, the Centre for Applied Technology (ZAT), they applied and received a combination grant-loan award for 70.000euros. This, combined with their own savings, enabled them to found Mettop about ten years ago.
“We were very excited about being accepted into ZAT,” recalls Iris. “We set up our office there, taking advantage of the infrastructure and administrative services offered.” While the funding enabled them to survive during the first year of research and development, as well as to travel around the world rounding up business, “the biggest advantage of ZAT was its network,” she says. “It was possible to get a variety of people around the same table. We got the valuable business, financial, and legal support we needed, participated in different types of free on-site seminars, and it was possible to get one-on-one counselling.”
A quick start leads to rapid growth
Mettop is short for “metallurgical optimisation”. The company has patented technologies for metal-smelting furnaces – replacing potentially dangerous water-cooled processes with an innovative ionic cooling system – that make them far safer and more efficient.
By their second year of operations, they already had enough contracts and customers to finance their business through cash flow and did not have to find additional sources of investment. This has only changed recently when, in April 2015, the CEO of KTM, Stefan Pierer invested 1.25 million euros for a 24.9% stake in Mettop. Iris explains that “Stefan also studied Metallurgy in Leoben, so when we pitched him our technology, he was easily convinced of its potential. He contributes more than just his capital. He brings his big network in other industries and is helping us to find other uses for our cooling technology, such as casting systems for automobile production and the steel industry applications.”
Over the years, Mettop has also hired several students from the university, one of whom became a partner for two years. He is now the General Manager of a spin-off company they started together called Urban Gold, which has a patented new technology for recycling metal from scrap electronics waste.
Partnership, at home and the office
In many companies, especially in the Austrian culture, managers are afraid to show their true feelings about each other, but this isn’t the case with us.
Urban Gold was not the Filzwiesers only new daughter concern. In 2010, their fourth child was born, a girl this time. The Filzwiesers have managed to become a tight working unit both in the office and at home. “When we started the company together, everyone – friends, customers, bankers – told us it was a bad idea and that we would be divorced after a few years of working together,” Iris remembers. “But, in my opinion, the power of our partnership is stronger than with non-married partners.”
For many, it seems inconceivable to merge one’s domestic and professional relations so intimately and not let one damage the other. However, Iris couldn’t imagine doing it differently: “Of course, we had our doubts along the way. It wasn’t always so comfortable but required about two years of hard learning, how to work together and live together without letting discussions get emotional.”
Iris observes that “In many companies, especially in the Austrian culture, managers are afraid to show their true feelings about each other, but this isn’t the case with us. We always take the time to reflect and give each other critical feedback. If he weren’t my husband, I would probably never tell a partner or boss that I thought he did something stupidly or should have done it differently.”
Likewise, being business partners has helped them communicate better about personal matters. Unlike many other married couples, “We’ve always had to discuss every aspect of both our business and private life until we came to a decision or resolution. As business partners, we never say yes if we don’t mean it, and this extends to our personal lives. We’ve learned to be completely open with each other and always agree on a way to work together.”
Putting the pedal to the metal
Sometimes it is necessary to go new ways; Photo credit: Mettop
Ever since she was still working on her PhD, Iris has followed a gruelling schedule starting at 6:00 am and ending 20 hours later. In between, she juggles her domestic and occupational responsibilities. How does she keep up her stamina? “There is no option for burnout. With four kids, you have to be much more relaxed and flexible. My children actually prevent me from getting burned out. They ground me and show me what’s really important. Our kids are proud of their parents and are happy to have more freedom than their peers.”
Because 99% of Mettop’s customers are abroad, Andreas travels frequently, leaving Iris with the lion’s share of housework and management of the headquarters in Leoben.
“One of Andreas’ biggest talents is listening to our customers, learning about their problems, and then converting this knowledge into new project solutions. He can give me a call when he’s traveling and I can manage the technical work here. It only works because we share the technical expertise and both speak the same language. That makes it much easier to communicate, whether it’s about business or private affairs,” Iris says.
With the recent inflow of capital, Iris and Andreasare ambitious to keep growing and diversifying. They have no plans to step back from actively managing the company. “We plan to increase our revenue and double our staffing to become a well-established mid-sized technology company.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.