Start-up of the Day: Vienna Textile Lab dyes fabrics with bacteria

Bakterien, Textilfarben, Vienna Textile Lab

“Bacteria are the most intelligent, environmentally friendly and resource-efficient way to produce textile dyes,” says Karin Fleck, founder of Vienna Textile Lab. “Bacteria occur in nature, can be stored as a strain in laboratories and propagated at any time. They synthesize colors in a natural way”.

Karin studied technical chemistry at TU Wien in Austria. For many years she had various managerial positions at several energy companies such as Vattenfall Energy Trading in The Netherlands and in Germany. When she met Cecilia Raspanti (who had founded the company Textile Lab Amsterdam), she became inspired to use bacteria to make textile dyes. Cecilia had already tried this herself, but without much success. “It is not so much about the challenge of using bacteria as a raw material. More than anything, you actually need a lot of know-how and understanding of scientific methods. You then also have to go about it very carefully. There could potentially be germs among them,” Karin explains.

She had already been working with dyes when she was graduating. But the whole sector was new to her in principle. That’s why she sought support via:

  • Fritsch, a textile dye company in Vienna, which specializes in environmentally friendly dyes;
  • Erich Schopf, a bacteriographer from Vienna, who makes paintings using bacteria;
  • the Institute of Applied Synthesis Chemistry at TU Wien.

Microorganisms tend to produce microbial dyes in response to altered growth conditions. They protect cells from external influences such as salt or temperature stress, light or intense competition. These substances often also have an anti-bacterial effect. Bacteria-based textile dyes have the same properties as conventional synthetic dyes when used on a daily basis.

Karin Fleck elaborates further:

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab
Karin Fleck, Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

What solution does this bacterial-based textile dye offer and why is that important?

It is an alternative to synthetic dyes, which to a large degree have a detrimental effect on health and the environment. But also particularly for people in the textile industry who are constantly in contact with these dyes. Furthermore, everyone wears clothes and is therefore exposed to the chemicals that they contain. These dyes are currently under critical examination throughout the world. The EU has guidelines on synthetic dyes too. Dyes are banned on a regular basis or their use is restricted. This creates more room for new, innovative dyes. But especially for new production systems which do not rely on crude oil.

What has been the biggest obstacle that had to be overcome?

Our limited ability to hire people. The Austrian labor market is geared towards permanent jobs and employee security. Yet the world of start-ups is unpredictable. Above all, people are needed on a project basis in order to be able to cope with any peaks. You need to be able to react flexibly to the circumstances when you’re a young company who has growth spurts.

What has been a high point so far? What are you particularly proud of?

There have been many wonderful moments. Such as winning prizes. When we first started out, we already won 3rd place at the Climate Launchpad. This year we won the BOKU Start-up Prize from the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna. All the invitations we’ve received have also been very encouraging. For example, for the TEDxCanggu in Bali or for a pitch at CLIX , part of the 2018 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week.

It’s also great to see how people, customers and organizations from all over the world know how to find us. We talk to people from the US, Indonesia, Sweden, Estonia, the Netherlands, Germany and so on. For instance, I came in contact with Material Connexion in New York. This is a collection of some of the most diverse, innovative materials for industry, local tradespeople, artists and designers. Samples from Vienna Textile Lab have now also been included in their collection.

We derive the most pleasure from everyone who supports us. People who let us know that they appreciate how good our bacteria-based textile dyes are. The experts who really help us out when we can’t figure something out right at that moment. But also local organizations that believe in our success. These include the Vienna Impact Hub or the TCBL, Textile clothing and business labs.

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab,
Bacteria are applied directly onto the fabric, where they multiply and develop a pattern. Karin Fleck, Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

How is everything going at the Vienna branch?

Fine. We can have confidence in the structures and systems. We have had many rewarding and supportive experiences involving funding agencies and universities. There are people here who are promoting us, even when they don’t know us personally. I can’t judge whether things are any better anywhere else. But I know that there is more money available for the biotech sector in Germany and the US.

Where will the start-up be in five years’ time?

By then we will have elevated our manufacturing method to an industrial level. We will have a customer base that will facilitate further growth, and perhaps we’ll be expanding on a global scale.

What distinguishes Vienna Textile Lab from similar companies?

We have opted for solid partners. This in turn makes us stronger and more competent. Aside from that, we want to remain transparent and have discussions with all potential customers or partners. Not only with large corporations, but also with niche companies, artists and designers. That may well make it more complicated, but that makes it all the better as well. We learn a lot through this kind of interaction and are therefore able to position and develop our products much more effectively. Last but not least, we have an extremely wide variety of our most important employees: bacteria.

Bakterien, Textilfarbe, Vienna Textile Lab
Bacteria are capable of producing a large proportion of the colors in the color palette. Nevertheless, some colors are problematic and need to be mixed. Vienna Textile Lab (c) Michael Fraller

Read more articles about start-ups here.

 

 

Start-up of the day: How old diesel engines can run cleaner

A dirty diesel engine will be able to drive much more sustainably thanks to the TORQAMP, an electric compressor. “It almost sounds too good to be true,” admits the co-founder of TORQAMP, Jelke Hoekstra. “Yet we can reduce carbon emissions by up to 35 percent. Which makes a car significantly cleaner.” Four years ago, together with Daniel Hilgersom, he started TORQAMP, a spin-off from Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e). What started out as an electric turbo for motorsport, has gradually progressed more towards making a variety of vehicles more sustainable.

How does TORQAMP work?

Hoekstra: “There are various devices available that can boost the performance of a car, such as superchargers and turbos. A turbo injects more air into the engine so that it has more power in combination with extra fuel. For example, the car is able to accelerate faster or drive faster. We have created an electric turbocharger. It uses less fuel and is much easier to install. In fact, it is comparable to a compressor or an air pump. It can be used on all combustion engines whether they use petrol, LPG, diesel or kerosene. This makes the TORQAMP suitable for all kinds of applications, such as road vehicles, motorsport and in the shipping industry.”

In what way does this contribute to sustainable mobility?

“Unlike a normal turbo, the TORQAMP does not rely initially on exhaust fumes in order to blast out air. Soot (as in carbon emissions) is reduced, since air can be blown into the engine proactively. Soot is a result of too much fuel and not enough oxygen when fuel is burnt. We want to prevent a diesel engine from emitting any soot at all in the future. That would be ideal. We already have a few solutions in mind for this, but that also calls for a lot of research. We are currently investigating the options for lorries and ships as well. Electric propulsion is not possible for these vehicles in the short term, but our device could very well be a solution.”

“Ways are being thought up that aim to make new cars cleaner. For example, by making the engine smaller so that it uses less fuel. The government even encourages us to buy new cars. But with our device, we are also able to make existing diesel cars cleaner relatively inexpensively. We have even designed it so that most people are able to install it themselves. Moreover, the TORQAMP is suitable for all cars. The unit is made in such a way that every engine can cope with the extra air pressure.”

Hydrogen

“As well as making diesel engines cleaner, the TORQAMP is able to contribute to the development of hydrogen cells. A hydrogen cell needs a compressor to pump air into its system. The oxygen is needed as part of the chemical process for generating energy.” Hilgersum adds: “Combustion engines suck in air themselves by they way they operate, but a hydrogen cell doesn’t. That’s why they have a separate compressor. Otherwise it won’t work. The hydrogen cell’s efficiency is also increased this way.”

“There are several compressors on the market, but they are comparatively expensive,” continues Hoekstra. “Most compressors which are suitable for the hydrogen market cost around 25 thousand euros. Our compressor is €2,500. Therefore, the TORQAMP could significantly reduce the price of a hydrogen cell.”

“We are working towards further development in this area with various parties. For example, TU/e-start-up DENS, which is working on hydrogen cells, has already asked us to supply a compressor. We have also submitted a plan together with TNO so we can take this application to a higher level. In addition to that, we are testing with yet another party a prototype of an electric aircraft. In this project, our compressor regulates the air pressure in a cabin. That’s how we are able to contribute in a number of ways to cleaner means of transportation.”

How did the idea for TORQAMP come about?

“During my final year I was working on high speed electric motors. That’s how the idea came about,” says Hilgersom. He graduated from the TU/e in automotive sciences. Hoekstra: “Daniel and I were introduced to each other via via. That clicked right away, so we started a company together in order to develop this even further. He is the engineer and I do the sales side as the business manager. We originally thought we could have developed the whole product within a year. In the end, it turned out to be four.”

How do you make sure that there is enough funding to roll this out further?

“We hope to be able to sell a number of TORQAMPS fairly easily in the motorsport sector. Selling to large car manufacturers is more difficult because they have set far too many conditions. In motorsport there are plenty of car enthusiasts with a lot of technical knowledge. That’s a better fit for us,” says Hoekstra.

“We have to test our product on various cars in order to gain the confidence of these car enthusiasts. We do some of this ourselves, but we also have small-scale tuning companies do this for us. They convert cars too. We approach them to test a car and ask them if they are interested in selling the product. When they realize the value of the product, they start talking about it to everyone. And word of mouth is still the best way to go. We have also set up a Kickstarter campaign through which we are aiming to sell fifty TORQAMPS.

“With the money that we are making in the motorsport world, we also want to expand the development of compressors for hydrogen cells and create cleaner diesel engines. We are currently applying for European subsidies for this. Our greatest passion lies in these applications. That’s why we are focusing the company’s long-term vision on this.” Hilgersom: “This is how we want to make a positive contribution to the environment by making it possible to drive in a more environmentally friendly way.”

Where will you be in a year’s time?

“We hope that within a year we will have enough financial resources to hire two extra engineers and a marketing professional. With several engineers, we will be able to speed up development. This will make it easier for us to place products on the hydrogen market and to do more research in the diesel market. Good marketing is a must”, says Hoekstra. “People and companies are expressing more and more interest in the product. They regularly ask us if we can make something for them. Now we are so busy with day-to-day issues that we can’ t do everything. That’s a pity. Extra engineers would certainly help with this.”

Start-up of the Day: Working with nature instead of against it

Two young architects have crossed the boundaries of our centuries-old architectural knowledge. Strohboid, as they call it (Strawboid in English), aims to make houses CO2-neutral and harmless to the environment and to humankind. The combination of traditional raw materials together with an innovative lightweight construction means that the concept is accessible to a wide range of people.

Maximilian Schade and Fritz Walter developed the Strohboid as part of their master’s thesis at Graz University of Technology. The prefabricated model uses 90% less energy than a conventional steel and concrete house. The design takes gravity and the position of the sun into account. The materials are utilized on the basis of their natural properties.

The architects work with natural raw materials such as straw, wood and clay, which all have various advantages:

  • With this combination they are resistant to fire, wind and moisture, they optimize the indoor climate and they will last for centuries.
  • They are available worldwide on a regional scale.
  • They retain more CO2 in their organic mass than what is released during the construction and occupancy of conventional buildings.

From tiny house to Olympic Stadium

Strohboid is a free style system and can be applied to buildings of any size and diameter – from a tiny house to an Olympic Stadium. The structural frame consists of a wooden framework made of birch. This has similar properties to steel and is shaped when it is damp and warm using a traditional wood bending technique. The insulation layer consists of straw which has exceptional insulating properties and an excellent capacity for storing energy. It makes heating redundant and saves more CO2 than any other comparable material. The straw layer is plastered with clay. The silicon in the clay has the ability to clean and regulate the indoor air.

The very first product from Schade and Walter is a collapsible party tent that can be transported with a twelve-meter-long trailer. Conventional tents are constructed from an aluminium frame and a PVC tarpaulin. The party tent is made up of a wooden frame and a lyocell tarpaulin. Lyocell is a textile that is based on wood fibers. An Austrian patent has been filed for the tent. The start-up is now generating its first revenue with the rental of this tent. New products will be launched soon.

Interview with Max Schade:

Strohboid founders Maximilian Schade (left) and Fritz Walter.

What motivates you? What kind of problem do you solve?

At the moment, the construction sector is still extremely energy-intensive. Environmentally friendly construction is still a niche, but it is critical for a CO2-neutral future. Straw, wood and clay can be used to build buildings that store as much CO2 as conventional building methods emit. This is how we can effect an ecological shift in the construction sector. With a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions, a permanent conversion would save more energy than electric mobility would.

Why is that important?

Our product is CO2-neutral and has no chemical compounds. This avoids a depletion of building materials and the associated sick building syndrome. The tent has more of an atmosphere, a better indoor climate and functions autonomously. We combine climate-neutral construction with an appealing design. The tent does not require any decoration in order for it to be effective.

What has been the main obstacle you have had to overcome? Was there a moment when you wanted to give up?

We have never wanted to give up. However, the phase where it was not yet clear whether the idea of the wooden grid structure would work was certainly the most difficult phase. It took three weeks to set up the first structure. So the key question was, how can it be assembled and transported quickly and easily? It was unclear for quite some time if it was even possible to assemble and disassemble it in the first place.

What have been the greatest moments so far? What accomplishments are you really proud of?

The most wonderful moment was to see how quickly a complex structure is able to be set up and dismantled. That was in 2018. The best moments in 2019 were the positive feedback from customers and seeing how well the tent was received by the visitors.

What can we expect from you in the coming year?

At present, we only supply tents. But we have already had concrete discussions with sales partners from Germany and Switzerland. Up until now, we have often had to travel long distances in order to find interested parties. However, that’s not exactly environmentally friendly in the long run. We also want to start work on our next project, the Strohboid Chalet. Construction has already been scheduled for next autumn. The model house will be built on the premises of our business angel, Barbara Ebner, where we will offer it as a vacation home and a minimalist living experience. It is a new structure that will be realized and prefabricated within one to two months.

Strohboid Chalet
Strohboid Chalet (c) Strohboid

Where do you want to be in five years time? – what is your ultimate goal?

In five years time we want to be selling our party tents to tent rental companies all over the world and be concentrating on the manufacture of these tents. Aside from our current party tents, which have a width of eight meters, we are also developing tents with a width of twenty meters for large scale events. Hopefully, our second product, the Strohboid Chalet, will undergo series production. We also want to realize larger construction projects with the same environmentally friendly construction system.

What makes your innovation better or different from the competition?

The party tent is ecological and made of natural materials. It fits in with future-oriented themes like CO2-neutral and ecological construction, has a perfect design and simply cannot be compared with conventional tents.

 

Interested in start-ups? Find more articles on this subject here.