EXIST start-up grant for Amovion

Experiences and insights by Christian Linnartz

A team from the DWI - Leibniz Institute for Interactive Materials and Aachener Verfahrenstechnik (Aachen Chemical Engineering, RWTH Aachen University) wants to revolutionize the desalination of water. When we think of the desalination of water, we quickly consider of the production of drinking water, but there is much more to it: the recovery of salts as a valuable resource that is used in various industrial applications and is also a waste product. This is where the Amovion technology comes in: It aims to close the material cycles of salt and water through so-called flow-capacitive deionization (FCDI) and recover salts in line with the circular economy.

The Amovion founding team consisting of Niklas Köller, Max Zimmermann, Kerstin Brökelmann and Christian Linnartz will receive funding of EUR 820,000 over 18 months from January 1, 2024 to further develop the technology and bring it to market maturity. They are receiving the funding as part of the EXIST program of the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate Action.

Amovion team member Christian Linnartz (on the left in the group photo), who has been working on the technology since the beginning, talks about his experiences of how an innovation from research can find its way into industry, the importance of patents, the composition of a founding team and what he might have done differently with today's knowledge.

Can you give us a brief summary of how your technology came about and what exactly it is about?

Christian: In our working group (Matthias Wessling), we had an Israeli postdoc colleague (Youri Gendel) between 2012 and 2015 who worked on various topics in electrochemistry. This also included flow capacitive deionization. This is a process in which salt ions can be separated from an aqueous solution by applying an electric field. Our working group then considered how our membrane knowledge could help to gain new insights in this field. After all, there was a great need for new technologies here, both then and now: In many manufacturing processes and in agriculture, wastewater streams with a high salt content are produced. In order to both reduce environmental pollution and conserve resources, we need new methods for purifying process water that also enable the recovery of dissolved salts.

All this led to the master's thesis of my former colleague Alexandra Rommerskirchen, whose initial results were very promising. I started working on the project with her a short time later. We then had a groundbreaking moment at a conference in 2018. In a keynote speech, we presented the results of the BMBF project "ElektroWirbel", where we investigated wastewater streams with a high salt concentration. We hit a nerve with this and received a lot of interested feedback, particularly from industry, which was very important. With the feedback from the conference, we then considered how we would like to continue. There was a lot of interest in working with us on joint projects, which is what happened. The technology development took its course, so that today we can speak of "Amovion".

What role did patents play in the Amovion technology?

Christian: A very big one. With the feedback from the conference, we started the patent search with the results of Alex's master's thesis and protected the technology of using flow electrodes for the desalination of water. That was an important step for us, and over the last few years a whole family of patents has been created. If you are convinced of the innovative character of your research, I would therefore recommend that you not only deal with scientific literature from the outset, but also review the patent literature at an early stage. Many people only do this at a point in time when it may already be too late and which also has to do with a pitfall in the publicly funded research world.

Can you explain in more detail what pitfall you mean?

Christian: The currency in science is publications and the H-factor that results from publications. Added to this is our obligation to make the knowledge we gain in publicly funded projects accessible to everyone. Accordingly, our ambition and motivation to publish the results quickly in a renowned journal are very high. However, if I am considering transferring a technology that has emerged from a publicly funded project to a company, the publication of my newly acquired knowledge in a publication stands in the way. Once published in a journal, my technology is no longer patentable.

How can this dilemma be solved?

Christian: In my experience, a good way is to write the manuscript of the publication and first approach a patent law firm with it. The manuscript then forms the basis of the patent specification. This is the best possible way for me: The patent is filed, my technology is protected and I can still submit or publish the publication manuscript in a timely manner. I have also made the results available to the public.

You've come a long way since you received EXIST funding - what advice would you give to people interested in setting up a company from the outset?

Christian: When you start up a company, many topics come up that you generally haven't had any contact with in the academic world. Above all, this includes the German tax system apart from the income tax return as most of us know it. It has different rules and a different way of calculating than at least we engineers are used to, but it is important to get to grips with it.

Another important point: focus and simplicity. From the mind of a scientist who deals with his technology at a very abstract level, it is often immensely difficult to step back so far that you firstly have a focus on the application and secondly can explain in a generally understandable way what what you are doing is actually good for.

So my advice is to find people you trust and who have an outside perspective on your topic. You need to be able to accept their opinion if they are not satisfied with your answer and tell you for the 100th time "Explain to me again in one sentence what your technology can do". Because when you're talking to potential partners or customers, you need to have your technology tangible in one sentence in a way that immediately shows the added value. This is a different approach to what we scientists are used to when we write a proposal for a scientific project, for example, and go into great detail.

The third and most important point is that the team is the top priority. The technology can be very promising, but if there is no functioning team behind it, there is no chance. I'm very lucky because, among other things, we have people within our team who can take exactly the right view from the outside.

What would you do again, what would you do differently?

I would go down the path of founding the DWI as a research organization again. It's not just the circle of technology experts for exchange that you have around you or the access to the network of potential partners or companies that you get. The uncomplicated ways of working together and the quick, short decision-making processes are also extremely valuable. There is a great openness to take the path of founding a company if you see it for yourself.

If I had the opportunity to turn back time, I would do it sooner. If you already have a good idea during your Master's degree or are working on a more advanced technology and can rule out the possibility of pursuing a career in science, I would take the opportunity to realize myself and the technology.