High-tech company va-Q-tec produces very effective insulation material. Its business founders, two physicists, develop new solutions for challenges of the energy transition. KfW has been there from day one. And with great success too: the start-up has become a listed company.
Joachim Kuhn surely keeps this photo in a prominent place. It shows the business founder and Chief Executive Officer of va-Q-tec with a bell in his hand as he launches trading on the floor of the Frankfurt stock exchange. It is the last Friday in September 2016, and for this unassuming manager one of the biggest days of his life. The shares of va-Q-tec, which have since been listed in the Prime Standard segment of the regulated market, have leapt in value. In Xetra trading they are listed at EUR 14, which is EUR 1.70 above their issue price. Success on the stock exchange is important for Mr Kuhn. This is where he sees an opportunity to continue the company's success story. Using the capital raised the manager wants to "expand international business".
The exemplary start for va-Q-tec shares did not surprise anyone at KfW Mittelstandsbank (SME Bank). "Everything adds up", said Director Robert Schlösser, with regard to the business sector of the fast-growing company: innovative insulation technology.
This SME from Würzburg insulates anything that can be made energy-efficient with a protective shell. Houses, even a listed church in far-away Scotland. He insulates refrigerators and pipes, sheathes car batteries and fuel tanks – and containers. These containers come in four sizes, and the internal temperature can virtually be chosen at will, guaranteed for five days. This means, for example, the pharmaceutical industry can use them to transport medicines under cooled conditions in hot regions.
Of course, these high-tech panels are not cheap. "The square-metre costs of our material are admittedly more expensive than the costs of styrofoam, for instance", conceded the CEO. "But if clients save space or avoid additional construction work by using thin panels, then this ultimately pays off." As an example he refers to a residential and office building in Munich which could not be insulated with conventional materials owing to a lack of space: "Using our insulation we managed to make more interior space available which the developer could then rent out or sell more lucratively."
Mr Kuhn was convincing 16 years ago too. Back then as a young entrepreneur, he and Development Director Roland Caps impressed KfW with their business idea. Together with a private lead investor, the promotional bank gave capital to the young stock corporation from the ERP Start-Up-Fund, which has since been replaced by Coparion (a venture capital fund financed by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy and by KfW). "The funding has always worked well for us, thanks also to KfW; they were one of our founding investors and a great reference to have in our search for further investors", said Mr Kuhn.
The core element of a va-Q-tec product is the vacuum insulation panel (VIP). It works like a thermos, just in the shape of a panel. The cavity of the panel conceals a compressed, micro-porous powder. The company discloses no further details. The competitive advantage of the handymen from Lower Franconia is that their VIPs save more space than conventional insulation materials.
Where others use 20-cm-thick styrofoam, va-Q-tec only needs a 2-cm-thick panel. "This opens up market opportunities for us where good thermal insulation is needed but there is not a lot of space", explained Mr Kuhn. In airplanes for example, or ships, small homes or cramped urban districts.
The down-to-earth manager holds a doctorate in physics, just like his colleague, Mr Caps. Both studied in Würzburg, both helped to build up the Bavarian Center for Applied Energy Research in the same city, and both wanted more than just a career at this renowned research institute. They had the requisite know-how for self-employment. "During my physics studies I took business administration as my minor field of study, and not astronomy", explained Mr Kuhn.
He still had to learn the hard way though. The original business idea of selling the va-Q-tainer did not take off. The breakthrough came only with a leasing option. Worldwide there are now 23 contact points for customers, with another 19 in the pipeline. Together with freight company Yusen Logistics, va-Q-tec recently opened its first centre in India. Expectations for the business in this fast-growing country are high.
Steeled for new challenges
When CEO Kuhn thinks about Asia, his entrepreneur's heart pumps faster. After the first two foreign branches in the United Kingdom and the USA, va-Q-tec opened a third in South Korea. "In Asia, space plays a more important role than here in Europe", explained the manager, who wants to be prepared for changes on the market.
This is why va-Q-tec pursues a multi-pronged approach, and is expanding not just abroad, but also its product range. It currently employs around 300 men and women, and the number is rising: thanks to the management's expansion plans the headcount will "certainly continue to rise", said Mr Kuhn, wholly convinced.
The year before last saw the launch of business with VIP-insulated boilers. The loss of heat compared to conventionally insulated boilers is around 40 to 50 percent less, raved Mr Kuhn. A typical 500-litre boiler can save 550 kWh of energy each year, he added. He then ponders the ecological benefits of insulated boilers, and starts to count out loud. The result: for every 100,000 VIP boilers installed, approximately 35,000 tonnes of CO₂ emissions can be avoided each year.
As a model entrepreneur, success is measured not just in sales figures, but in measurable impacts for the environment. This attitude also attracts public recognition. The Würzburg firm has already been acknowledged several times for its green technology, most recently as national champion for the European Business Award.
These awards are not just something for the company's display cabinet, they also prove useful when the opportunity for a flotation comes along. They help to generate trust on the capital market – and the hopes which investors have in va-Q-tec shares are clearly high: during the issuance the shares were well over-subscribed, the demand far outstripping supply.
Looking back, Mr Kuhn talks about some "intense months". He spoke of long working days and short nights in the weeks running up to the flotation. The excitement before the big day. Of course he knows about the many frustrated expectations of other entrepreneurs and the unpredictability of the markets. And Mr Kuhn suspects that sooner or later he will have to live with fluctuating share prices that cannot be explained solely by the actual business operations of va-Q-tec, but will also be influenced by multifarious economic constellations and – significantly – by psychology.
The article appeared in VC "Financing Innovation" (2016). It was updated for KfW Stories in February 2017.To German edition
Mr Kuhn checks the share price two to three times a day. Investors are currently well-meaning towards him and va-Q-tec. The share price is on an upwards trajectory. Swiss Post has just ordered an entire fleet of reusable transportation containers for the distribution of pharmaceutical products from the Würzburg firm. That is news that brokers love to read.
Last updated: Tuesday, 28 February 2017