While many founders seem to have concrete ideas about their business models and exit strategies, for some of them, starting a company is not an explicit career goal, but more of an unexpected opportunity taken. This was the case for Valentine Troi, founder and CEO of superTEX. Originally from Southern Tyrol in Italy, the energetic young woman had come to Austria to study architecture in Innsbruck.
After her studies, Valentine was working as a self-employed architect and teaching freeform geometry at the Institute for Architecture in Innsbruck. As a research assistant, she helped students turn their architectural designs into prototypes in 2008. Many of the freeform designs with rounded, irregular shapes were, however,difficult to build from materials available to the students, such as wood and metal. Valentine did research on other materials but did not find what she was looking for. This led her to take the initiative herself: “If the industry doesn’t take the time to develop a material that architects can use to build their prototypes and models, we might as well just have to do it ourselves,” she thought.
Five years later, Valentine is creating a highly innovative and flexible composite material with her startup superTEX – the patented and registered splineTEX. Started as a research project at the University of Innsbruck, the spin-off’s product not only met the needs of architects and designers, but also found a market in the automotive, aerospace and sports equipment sectors.
The realisation that the research project could turn into a company came only when the university stopped funding it after a year. Valentine wanted to keep working on the product with her team including another architect and two advanced students, so they applied for a university programme for entrepreneurs.
A natural-born entrepreneur – without business skills
At the beginning, Valentine was “basically working alone”. “This aspect of starting up was fairly easy for me,” she says, “because working independently and being self-employed is natural to architects.” While Valentine seems to have had the right attitude to become an entrepreneur, she admits to having lacked some of the business basics. When she got in touch with the Center for Academic Spin-offs Tyrol, CAST, which supported the company foundation in early 2011, they helped her acquire these business skills through mentoring. “I had almost weekly sessions with Christian Mathes from CAST, which helped with my personal development as an entrepreneur,” she says. “This went from recognising that you need a business plan to a more general understanding for doing business, which I still had to learn.”
A part of the superTEX team. Credit: superTEXBesides learning to think in business terms and considering possible future scenarios, building up her team proved to be quite a challenge to Valentine. “A CEO I knew told me that human resource development is key and I second that – it’s crucial to find the right staff, and this is a skill that you have to learn and develop.” But “the hardest part was actually about the administrative aspects – getting a concession, getting permissions for our production, running from one administrative unit to the next. If I hadn’t gotten support and permanent slaps on the back telling me I was doing a good job, I might have given up there,” she recalls.
Contrary to what other entrepreneurs preach, Valentine does not think that this was particularly difficult in Austria. In fact, she believes she could not have pulled it off in her native Southern Tyrol: “Italy is even wilder as far as the administrative part is concerned. But it also used to be much easier to start your company in Austria, as our industry partners at Thöni told me.” Valentine believes that founding a research intensive company is relatively easy in Austria, “because the real risks are taken from you by providing public funding and support. This allows startups to simply get going and gives them a lot of flexibility whilst not having to think about the risks too much,” she argues.
Against this background, the superTEX GmbH was founded in 2011 in the town of Telfs outside of Innbruck, with the support of CAST and public funding from AWS. “This opportunity was highly attractive to me, because we did not require any equity and then as a 32-year old architect, I had no capital to speak of,” the CEO says. The University of Innsbruck and superTEX’s industry partner Thöni are invested in the limited company with 11% and 18% respectively. The remaining 71% of shares are held by Valentine Troi.
From design to automotive OEM
The highly flexible splineTEX tubes can be used for multiple purposes. Credit: superTEXEver since the company foundation, industrial usage implying high quantity production of their splineTEX technology was in the foreground for superTEX. Now, their clients include premium OEM from the automotive, aerospace and sports equipment sectors. Alas, Valentine cannot name any of them: “You know, rivals never rest – not necessarily ours but those of our clients,” she says with a wink of the eye. In 2012, superTEX had a revenue of 50.000 euros with which they cross-financed the company and their R&D budget of about 300.000 euros.
As for future plans, superTEX intend to focus on highly automatised production with additional public funds. This would enable them to produce quantities in the hundreds of thousands by 2015. Indeed, the market for splineTEX seems to be rather broad, as Valentine sees their focus “everywhere where light-weight tubes and pipes are needed.” There seems to be particular potential in the automotive sector, where their high-tech fibre tubes can be used as a substitutional technology for cooling pipes and conducting tubes in cars, which have to become lighter to emit less CO2.
Interestingly, outsourcing production was never an option for Valentine: “We believe it’s an exciting technology and as a small company, it made more sense for us to produce our own patent than to just to find a licensing partner – which is also difficult – because it enables us to represent our product at fairs and get in touch with potential clients personally.”
Combining research with business
Use of superTEX technology as a lounge. Credit: superTEXTravelling to fairs and presenting their technology at conferences and symposiums is one thing that Valentine particularly enjoys doing as CEO of superTEX. “This is the research aspect that I like, I can still present my work in an academic context,” she explains.
In hindsight, Valentine seems to have made the right career choice: “Architecture is such a wild sector. So, I am really happy to have picked this path, when I look at my architectural colleagues, who are working long hours and basically slaving away in their offices, struggling for new projects and clients, but are not really paid a lot of respect for their work.”
While the founding team was also working “a lot and very uncoordinatedly” in the first two years of developing superTEX, the team, which currently counts seven full time employees, have become more efficient over time. “At first everyone did a bit of everything, but now we have optimised our company as far as organisation is concerned,” Valentine explains. “Surprisingly enough, I’m usually in the office from 8 to 6. It’s important to have a regular working routine, to keep yourweekends off.” In her free time, she enjoys climbing and downhill biking, which the surrounding mountains come in handy for. This seems to have been another reason for starting superTEX: “Founding a company has enabled me to stay in Tyrol, which is what I wanted, not least because of the beautiful environment.” Personal motivation is the key for Valentine Troi, who says she is proud, that she could realise her “initial vision of creating a meaningful product, which the world actually needed and that we created a company climate that is pleasant for all of us.”
What the hell is an exit scenario?
She recounts an anecdote that reveals her idealist approach to entrepreneurship: “At one podium discussion at a CAST event, I was on stage with four other founders. I was the first to answer the questions. One of them was about my exit scenario. I thought they wanted to know how my company would go on without me if I left – say, through a plane crash. Of course they meant something else – I didn’t even know the expression in that context,” she laughs.
“I think this episode shows my original motivation, which wasn’t about building up a company quickly to sell it off after a few years, but to create something more sustainable. A life project, something I could imagine doing all of my life. So, an exit is definitely not my ‘carrot’. I might not be the CEO forever, still my main carrot is not the money, but creating a great product with an attractive company. I think, that if you have this attitude to life, it will help you as an entrepreneur, because that’s real motivation.”
in partnership with CAST Tyrol