Dr. Joachim Kuhn, CEO & founder of va-Q-tec AG tells us about a dynamic high-tech company that has been pioneering in the development of innovative solutions.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: These are challenging times, of course – on many levels. The pandemic and the associated logistical challenges we have been facing for the past year have brought temperature-controlled supply chains and demanding requirements into the public eye. This attention is good and important, as they are a fundamental part of the fight against the pandemic.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded va-Q-tec.
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: 20 years ago, va-Q-tec was founded out of the university. For several years, my colleague Dr. Roland Caps and I had been researching the incredible physical possibilities and advantages that vacuum insulation, in the form of vacuum insulation panels (VIPs), entails. Initially, we were thinking of the construction industry and its need for highly efficient yet space-saving insulation. Unfortunately, the industry was not ready at the time. About 17 years ago, we developed highly insulated transport boxes. With those, we hit the mark – the biotech industry was booming, and the need for safe, constant temperature over five to ten days was growing steadily. We continued developing the technology, and 10 years ago, we began to build what is now the largest fleet of passive thermal containers and boxes available within a global rental network. As a result, there are currently more than 2,500 transport containers and several 10,000 boxes moving within our 40 TempChain Service Centers all around the globe. Additionally, the demand for VIPs in various industries such as Technics & Industry, appliances, construction, and mobility is significantly increasing in recent years in connection to the global topic of energy efficiency.
How does va-Q-tec innovate?
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: Innovation is one of the main drivers of our company. Thus, we are constantly developing the components of our key technology – the VIPs and our temperature storage elements (va-Q-accus). For example, we have recently been able to achieve excellent results in the area of high temperature and fire protection with our panels, thereby expanding the areas of application of our technology. But we are also researching temperature-controlled supply chains in the low-temperature range down to -80 °C and how we can design them safely and reliably without the use of dry ice. As you can see, we still have a lot of plans!
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: As previously mentioned, we have already been a highly demanded supplier of super-efficient thermal boxes and containers for several years. The Corona pandemic and related projects allowed us to make up for other losses suffered in the panel business. Overall, our company performed very well last year despite all the challenges, as our preliminary 2020 figures showed.
Our goal is to provide the best possible support for the global distribution of the vaccine with our outstanding technology, which is why we have massively ramped up the production of our boxes and containers at both production sites in Germany. To do this, we had to hire additional staff, who are currently working around the clock in three shifts.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: There were many difficult choices. One of them was how we were going to introduce our new technology to the market. For example, we were ahead of our time with our original idea of using the panels in the construction sector. At that time, there was almost no need for such super insulation in this sector. Here, our flexibility and open-minded thinking, as well as a good sense for different markets and timing, helped us. Nevertheless, one must never lose sight of one’s goal.
We have learned a lot and are still learning every day. Due to the rapid development of the company, we had to realize that areas of responsibility often grow faster than the employees who fill them. A successful entrepreneur has to be flexible and, if necessary, find new and adequate positions for his employees. With success so far, we have been able to find ideal solutions and create a positive working environment.
What specific tools, software, and management skills are you using to navigate this crisis?
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: For many years, we have been investing in digital services – which we call TempChain 4.0. We ensure the digital control of an uninterrupted, constant temperature chain during logistics and uncomplicated verifiability, as well as research into the use of artificial intelligence in the scheduling of our container rental fleet.
For example, to offer our customers services that are flexible to use and as easy to handle as possible, we have developed the TempChain Service Software – an intuitively usable portal through which the entire ordering process can be handled, right up to control and shipment tracking. These are just a few examples from our TempChain 4.0 strategy.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: Of course, there are some competitors in the market, which is a good thing. After all, it is the competition that stimulates business and the further development of new products! It is only possible to stand out amongst the competition in the long term with this innovative spirit. For us, we are perceived as the technology leader in the precise subzero temperature range between -80 °C and -20 °C. Usually, within this temperature range, a lot of dry ice is required. Since this is a hazardous material and may only be used in limited quantities, e.g., for air freight, we have a decisive advantage here. Thanks to the highly efficient vacuum insulation of our boxes and containers, we only need small quantities of it. We are currently working on ensuring these temperature ranges entirely without dry ice.
Your final thoughts?
Dr. Joachim Kuhn: I am proud that we have an absolutely groundbreaking and key technology that is helping to solve what are probably some of the greatest challenges society is facing today. Our advanced thermal boxes and containers help with the safe logistics of vaccines – both in the international distribution of large quantities and in the last mile to the doctor’s office or final destination.
Nonetheless, our panels will also play a decisive role in combating climate change. Sixty percent of global energy consumption is used for thermal purposes, i.e. heating or cooling. Therefore, we can still achieve a great deal using our VIPs for energy efficiency. That being said, it is always important to remember to keep the vision you had from when you started your business!