Gerard Cadafalch CEO Co-founder, Eurekite BV, Enschede, Netherlands in conversation with science writer Jonathan Marks.
“I’m sure you’ve never seen this!” says Gerard Cadafalch. We meet in The Gallery, the University of Twente’s brand new centre for entrepreneurs in Enschede. He’s holding what looks like a crumpled white cloth next to the flame from a cigarette lighter. Even refuses to catch fire. He smiles. “Don't worry – that’s supposed to happen. We’ve developed a unique patent-pending material we’re calling Flexiramics. And customers are helping us realize our full potential to disrupt several industries. Let me explain what we're doing”.
40,000 sq.metres dedicated to startups and scaleups
Today's Printed Circuit Boards are always a compromise.
Open almost any electronic device and you’ll find components mounted on a printed circuit board. The PCB is needed to mechanically support and to electrically connect the electronic components. Thomas Edison experimented with chemical methods of plating conductors onto linen paper as far back as 1904. And he was followed by many other inventors who played a role in developing the two types of printed circuit boards we know today.
But that’s exactly the problem.
Printed Circuit Boards have evolved in two different directions and both are a compromise.
- One path makes it possible to build smaller and lighter devices by printing circuits on top of polymers. But in some applications, the polymer attenuates weak radio signals. And it cannot be used where there are large variations in temperature environments.
- The other route is to use ceramic substrates. They have good dielectric and thermal properties. But they are also brittle, rigid and heavy.
“Our team in Enschede has combined the best properties of both to produce a material that’s extremely versatile. This is good news for many industries, especially those firms making devices with an antenna.
Wi-Gig is coming to a device near you
We can make cellphone antennas much more efficient. We all know that your phone battery drains much faster when the WiFi is switched on. But the next generation of super-fast Wifi is called Wi-Gig and has even bigger challenges. So we’ve built light, efficient demo antennas for the two emerging standards Wireless HD and IEEE 802.11ad that operate at 60 GHz. In short, we offer much better signal integrity, requiring less amplification. The material also conducts heat well, which is often an important advantage for devices operating in high temperatures conditions. And who is interested? In the upcoming Las Vegas show you see what the consumer electronics industry is working on. We already see the need for our technology to transport Ultra-High Definition (4K) video between large screen monitors, set-top boxes, cloud storage, game consoles, and other video devices capable of streaming uncompressed HD video. The choice of materials will be important to ensure maximum range coupled with excellent battery life. And what works for WiFi would also work to help make DAB+ (digital radios) more compact yet efficient.
Apart from mobile phones, Cadafalch sees many applications in the car. “Autonomous driving radar technology needed for collision avoidance can be worked into the car body, yet withstands the punishing thermal cycling; from -30 to 300 C is not a problem. The material can conduct heat so the material supports power electronics which get hot. But we discovered it’s also ideal for wireless sensing in extreme environments. You not only want the batteries to last for years, you could be trying to monitor conditions inside an oven heated to 1200 C by some chemical process. No cables are needed and there’s no corrosive action because of cables coming into contact with other metals. Our material can even wrap around the pipe. so you can make a small sensor which doesn't take up much space, yet have a wide transmission range.”
Following the classic advice from Lean-startup guru Steve Blank to “leave the building” and validate business cases, the Eurekite company is becoming more of a “materials spec on demand” service. They have a punishing schedule of appointments lined up with companies at the huge Consumer Electronics Show 2016 in Las Vegas in early January.
“Our customers are good at explaining the need for such specialist materials. Being able to print circuitry and wireless sensors onto such a light flexible fireproof material has also raised interest from fire-fighters. Weight is always a problem – but new types of sensors could reduce heat stress. In the United States, the most common cause of on-duty fatalities for firefighters is sudden cardiac death.”
"Being embedded inside a strong scientific cluster like University of Twente has helped us accelerate the research. We get access to their labs, so we can iterate fast as we go forward. I often draw the analogy with cooking. Basically, we are developing recipes for cooking up new materials, but the pots and pans for doing so are tried and tested. That's important because sectors like the space-industry only want validated technologies when they’re so far away from a maintenance crew. We’re currently talking to drone manufacturers and the next generation Airborne Internet projects because Flexiramics would be ideal for operating at high altitudes.
This environment in earth orbit is punishing for any material
Producing breakthrough samples is always a team effort
We closed an investment of just over US$1.1 million in September 2015, enabling us to expand to 6 people. We’re growing the company fast, but it takes time to find the right match for our team – we need people who are system thinkers with a specialism in chemistry or material physics. Having that business sense in the back of your mind is essential if you want to turn a good idea into a serious business that will scale. We also took the advice from international investor Cottonwood to file patents early, so we’re capable of producing in large volume within 18 months. Eurekite is targeting an initial market size of US$80 million, which is around 10% of the total market of heavy duty PCB's. The exponential demand for smaller, lighter and more efficient devices means the total market opportunity is much larger.
We’re able to produce at the same price as what’s called “Rogers material”, but to a much better spec. There are competitors out there with a similar business goal. But they have chosen for a more expensive fabrication technology which means they need to charge more than twice the price for a material that turns out to be heavier. We’re unique in being able to manufacture a free standing flexible ceramic.
The more we talk to customers, the more we understand how our technology solves the problems they are facing. It’s a continuous reality check. But we really thrive on cutting edge challenges like this. And the East of the Netherlands is an inspiring place to plan our rapid expansion.
To contact Gerard Cadafalch please use the email address [email protected].
Inside the Gallery, the dedicated incubator space of the University of Twente