Mikkel Kongsfelt, CEO and co-founder of RadiSurf tells us about building polymer brushes to create unique, strong, and tight bonding to plastic materials.
First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Mikkel Kongsfelt: Thank you for kindly asking. Like everyone else, I am trying to find my way through this extraordinary situation – but thankfully, both myself and my family have been spared from the worst effects so far.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded RadiSurf.
Mikkel Kongsfelt: Since I was just a small kid, I have burned with a passion for understanding the world. A passion that led me to study nanoscience and later continue research in surface chemistry during my Ph.D. However, at the same time, I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit and created my first company already when I was 14 years old. So, in the end, I did not feel truly at ease in the academic world but had this drive to create something of unique value and meaning for myself.
Then during my Ph.D., I encountered this amazing science of polymer brushes. A hidden technological goldmine of vast potential that had been studied in universities across the world for decades but never realized commercially. Polymer brushes have been used to create lasting antimicrobial surfaces on metals, put on nanocrystal for pin-point drug delivery or enhanced oil recovery. The lowest friction materials ever created on the planet are based on polymer brushes!
At Aarhus University, polymer brushes were explored for bonding between otherwise incompatible materials, such as metals and plastics – an immense challenge facing the manufacturing industry and the reason we still rely on unsustainable glues. In 2015 I took a huge gamble and founded RadiSurf together with my three supervisors to solve this challenge and bring polymer brushes onto the large market. The gamble has paid off, and products are now being put on the market with our adhesive solutions as a key element in their performance. However, we will continue our journey and consider success first with mass industrial adoption and the recognition of our technology as a true and better alternative to glues.
How does RadiSurf innovate?
Mikkel Kongsfelt: As RadiSurf itself was conceived around a highly innovative approach to solve detrimental industrial challenges in adhesion and surface designs – innovation is in our DNA and an integral part in everything we do. You can also imagine that as the pioneer in the industrial use of the polymer brush technology, there is no lined-up path to follow, we regularly face both technical and commercial challenges for the first time.
So, to solve this, we embrace innovative perspectives and entertain creative approaches as part of our company culture. This is also traits we put high on the list when we hire new employees. With a strong science background across the organizational chart all the way up to top management, we ensure a balanced innovation approach centered on scientifically sound ideas. Being small and agile is also a great advantage compared to the traditional competition from adhesive manufacturers, as we can rather quickly adjust the business to new markets to take advantage of emerging opportunities or when facing challenges. Such as changes in the industrial landscape emerging from situations related to Covid19.
Finally, in the development of new applications for the marked, we follow a 5-step innovation approach centered on tight collaboration with leading universities and industrial actors. This approach provide us with the commercial ownership but also allows us to more rapidly target the larger market with new technologies.
How does the coronavirus pandemic affect your business finances?
Mikkel Kongsfelt: We have luckily avoided any adverse effect on our financial situation, despite putting a ceiling on the occupancy in our facilities and sending personnel to work from home. Quite the opposite, 2020 was our best year ever, with an almost 100% increase in revenue from the previous best year, which was 2019. However, we have lately begun to see a slight trend from companies in some of our markets who have become more risk averse and less willing to invest in non-conventional solutions.
Did you have to make difficult choices regarding human resources, and what are the lessons learned?
Mikkel Kongsfelt: Fortunately, I am very grateful not to have been put in that situation yet, and the company is now in good shape financially. We did face strained situations in the earlier stages where such plans needed to be contemplated, but we managed to hang on. However, I am not naïve and accept that taking difficult decisions regarding your employees is the gritty part of the responsibility you take upon you when running a business, whether it is due to financial constraints or other reasons.
How did your customer relationship management evolve? Do you use any specific tools to be efficient?
Mikkel Kongsfelt: We are based in Denmark but target a global market, so we have since the beginning relied heavily on online meetings, email, and phone calls in our relations with the customers. Simultaneously, the majority of our Leads are generated online through our SEO management that leads to a steady flow of prospects to our webpage. So, even though we also use physical presence at trade fairs, exhibitions, and network events to collect Leads, the general situation has not changed that much. However, in the end, it is always easier to build common trust and relations through physical connections, and we do miss that edge – especially for the deal-making process.
Now, with that being said, we have just closed our biggest deal with a US based customer without ever crossing the Atlantic. That has certainly been a steep learning process, but it has also given us some tools on how to make a stepwise approach. The benefit of online deal-making is that the previous “decisive meetings” can be taken on much shorter notice and be spread across a number of shorter engagements – giving both parties more room to maneuver and leverage, and in the end, reach a deal with more satisfaction for both parties. Being a small company with limited resources dealing with larger actors and corporations, we do not necessarily see this as a disadvantage.
For CRM, we rely on Pipedrive to keep track of our Leads and Deals in the early stages. However, since we run a project-based approach towards a sale, we engage more intimately with the customer through the communication within these projects until we are both ready to reach a deal. The sales team is linked onto the communication with the customer with the successful completion of the projects.
Did you benefit from any government grants, and did that help keep your business afloat?
Mikkel Kongsfelt: Yes, we have been quite successful in receiving public grants from both the Danish government and EU, netting more than 4 million EUR in total. All these grants have been instrumental in keeping us afloat, holding onto key employees, and overcoming the technical and commercial challenges facing deep tech companies. Especially important was being awarded substantial blended finance, in the form of grant money and investment, through the EIC Accelerator Pilot last year, the holy grail of public funding for all innovative European SME’s. Although we have continued with our good traction through the Covid19 crisis, grant money has certainly been critical by giving us a safety net that allows us to remain focused on innovation and development.
Your final thoughts?
Mikkel Kongsfelt: Although we have not been hard hit by Covid19, we have certainly had a huge learning curve this last year. I would say that our biggest lesson has been that in the current environment, even a highly science-based startup can successfully take a lot of its operations online and not only move ahead but even accelerate its growth.