The denim revolution
It’s hard to know what path will lead to a successful venture. In Christian Schimper’s case, the idea behind the company Acticell, which he founded in 2012, began at the Univeristy of Innsbruck with a bra. In fact, it started long before that.
“I have always been a scientist,” says Schimper when we meet at his office at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. “Even as a kid I always wanted to wear a white coat.” He’s a soft-spoken man from Vorarlberg with a slender physique and a warm smile. Not your typical gung-ho entrepreneur.
From bras to denim
Ten years ago, he was working for Prof. Thomas Bechtold at the Christian Doppler Lab in Innsbruck, finding new techniques to separate lace embroidery, like that you find on bras, from its textile foundation. The company wanted to avoid conventional acids and used natural enzymes instead. This procedure was discovered when the US army bemoaned the speedy deterioration of military clothing in the South Pacific in World War II. Ironically, what was once a pesky enzyme is now being used en masse in the textile industry. While working on the bras Schimper and Bechtold developed a pre-treatment, which made the enzymes work faster. When the lace company went bust, Schimper was left with just the proof of concept. Prof. Bechtold had experience in the denim industry, so they decided to try the procedure on jeans and the first experiment was a success.
After submitting the procedure as his master’s thesis in Innsbruck he set off to Vienna to do his PhD in Biotechnology. When he completed it, he won an award from the Austrian Society for Microbiology, but not for his PhD – for his master’s, the one on jeans. After this, an investor approached him and asked whether someone was already using the procedure. “That was the first time I thought about it being a marketable product.” Schimper got a INiTs startup grant for the project and became a businessman. In 2012 he received 215,000euros from AWS, and used 35,000 euros of his own money to launch the project.
Creating a sustainable “used” look
Photo credit: Acticell
Most of us know what the “used” look is when it comes to jeans, but there is a darker backstory to the procedure. Besides enzymes, other methods include sand-blasting (now banned in Turkey and by major jeans labels like Levi’s). The method is very dangerous for workers, with the dust from the procedure giving them chronic silicosis. The alternative is to use potassium permanganate (PP), an inorganic oxidising agent, like bleach. In production, the areas of the jeans designated for treatment would be roughed-up with sand paper and then sprayed with PP.
Enter, Acticell. Whereas the degrading enzyme was formerly just as an overall treatment to give the jeans a “used” look, Schimper’s product can “tell the enzymes where to work”. So they do double duty, both to give the used look and – with the help of the prepping agent – to make the abrasions on knees, seat and wherever else the customer wants it.
On the shoulders of experts
At this point Schimper had a lab assistant but was the lone founder, the CFO, CCO and CEO. He needed to put together a team. He had met Tom Hawthorne from Scotland who had been in the business for almost 40 years. Hawthorne had worked at wrangler in the 80s and developed first jeans with used effect in the time when it just started and now functions as Sales Manager. Juergen Jelly, an experienced founder, began as a consultant and decided to join the team, taking over Finances and Business Development. And with his lab assistant Paul Pachschwöll in R&D, Acticell’s team was complete.
“At times, you come to a point where you don’t know if you should keep going,” says Schimper. That’s when you know if a team is really committed. While at first Schimper only paid for work hours, the team’s dedication and belief in the dream gave Schimper the confidence to offer them shares in the company. The final shareholder is the University of Innsbruck that has now given the patent to Acticell.
The moment of truth
At times, you come to a point where you don’t know if you should keep going.”Christian Schimper
Around the world, three billion jeans are produced per year. While 90 per cent get a “used” look, 50 per cent of those get local abrasions, which means Acticell’s potential market for their products is 1,5 billion jeans. But the product itself is more expensive, so they have a concentrated strategy. They’re going for the high-end brands, where it’s acceptable that the price is a little bit higher, but where they appreciate a greener product. The innovation has come at a good time. Since everyone in the industry is looking for a potassium permanganate replacement, just putting “PP replacement” in the subject line gets people’s attention, Schimper says.
Their sales approach is both from the supply side, reaching out to the chemical companies, and from the demand side, by marketing to the big brands. If the label is ready to pay for it, the chemical companies have to provide it. Acticell is in the middle of the pre-production stage now. If all goes well they’ll start selling. “It’s kind of like prototyping,” Schimper explains. But the process can take anywhere from six months to a year.
There is competition. “In this market everyone wants to be first,” and Schimper knows there will be a lot of “inventing around,” but since Acticell has the patents they plan to push hard at the beginning to make sure they get the biggest market share.
“But anyway, we have to focus on sales,” Schimper grins. “At the moment, that’s the most important thing.”
This story is brought to you in partnership with AplusB, a programme funded by FFG.