ebeam Technology and the Start of a New Era
An interview with ebeam President Charles Flukiger
What is ebeam as a technology?
ebeam is a radical new technology that uses a focused electron beam to alter materials at a molecular level. The basic technology has been around for decades but the compact form that we have developed is entirely new. Indeed, for the first time we are able to accelerate electrons in a compact form and integrate them effectively for use in an industrial, manufacturing context. Our new ebeam lamp enables entirely new kinds of applications, for example, the creation of new materials, and also allows us to upgrade the efficiency of existing applications, for example, sterilization processes in food packaging. Our ebeam lamps can be integrated into numerous industrial level applications, and ebeam-enabled products use less energy, are environmentally friendly, and are cost effective. That means the technology has great upside and the potential to scale. We are at the start of a new era.
As of today we are the only company globally that has been able to develop a compact, closed, and integrated ebeam lamp that is cost effective, has an extensive lifespan, and can be used in diverse industries.
2. What are the important areas of business application for this technology?
The potential of ebeam is similar to x-ray, laser, or nanotechnology in the sense that the true impact of those technologies was not apparent to everyone in the beginning. However, our team realized early on in the development of ebeam technology that the application possibilities are endless. Indeed, we identified thirty-four different market segments for potential applications. The challenge was narrowing that down to four segments that we thought would strategically be the most immediately viable. Those are sterilization, environmental technology, curing, and new materials or plastics.
3. Electron beam technology has been around for almost half a century. Can you explain more about what is new and different about the technology that ebeam is offering?
We did not invent this technology. As you say, electron beam technology has been around for five decades. However, as of today we are the only company globally that has been able to develop a compact, closed, and integrated ebeam lamp that is cost effective, has an extensive lifespan, and can be used in diverse industries. That is our unique product offering that helped us win the Swiss Innovation Prize in 2009.
4. Can you give a brief description of ebeam as a startup company and business?
On Jan. 1, 2013, we announced our startup. We are not a traditional startup in the sense that ebeam is a business unit within the corporate setting of the Comet Group. That arrangement has advantages as well as disadvantages. We have functioned as a classic startup as we have built up our different departments such as supply chain, operations, sales, business development, R&D, and marketing. We have our own brand, vision, mission, and values. However, we are part of a larger business group, and have to respect their rules and regulations and answer to the Board. We can draw on our parent company for funding, talent, and expertise, but there is also a certain degree of pressure and expectations.
5. ebeam’s technology has been in development for a number of years. Tell us something about the ebeam origin story.
Comet AG has specialized in industrial x-ray technology for six decades. But the ebeam story started in 2002, when we looked at the scalable x-ray business and how we wanted to diversify the technology into new fields using the capabilities and expertise of Comet. Comet has developed tremendous expertise in how to accelerate electrons in a high vacuum tube. That gave us a very good foundation to start exploring and developing new forms of electron beam technology.
ebeam technology has higher performance, requires less energy, uses no chemicals, lowers costs, and increases production speed.
The idea of ebeam was developed between Ian Bland and myself. It was a very delicate pitch on our end because we were stumbling on new ground and did not know if it would work and we had to secure the financial support from the Comet Group, which was not easy. But we believed in the technology and in Comet’s capabilities. Still, we knew we would have to find an innovative partner that would be ready to join us on this adventure and who could see the potential of this new technology. Tetra Pak eventually became that partner. They believed in the concept and were willing to invest in the ebeam dream. In the end, the journey of ebeam’s development took ten years. The result was a powerful, functional, compact ebeam lamp that can be integrated into industrial applications.
6. What made you want to take the helm of this startup tech company with an unknown, unproven technology?
When I started working at Comet, I was given the opportunity to build up the x-ray business. We started with thirty-five people and built it up to a 200 million (CHF) business over ten years, eventually becoming a dominant player in the x-ray business. The buildup was fascinating to me and we were able to buy the Phillips x-ray business in 2007 and today have a very profitable business with a 70% global market share.
Where we have been able to implement ebeam technology as a solution, it has proven to save 50-80% on energy usage, which is massive.
With ebeam, I saw a challenge in an innovative field, a chance to develop a new type of technology on a blank canvas. It was high-risk on every front and that is very exciting to me—building a new business from the ground up and having it become a success is a demanding and exhilarating journey. I have always had a technical flair in my life so it has been natural for me to make career and business choices within the technology field. What has been more difficult for me is letting go of my responsibilities and passing on the torch, so to speak, of the x-ray business. One always knows that the day will come when it is time to take on new challenges, but letting go of my “baby” was not an easy transition for me. However, it was the right time to focus on a new challenge and start a fresh venture with my new baby—ebeam.
7. ebeam’s technical know-how grew out of the engineering prowess of Comet, a global expert in industrial x-ray. What is ebeam’s relationship to its parent company?
COMET Group is an innovative and technology-driven company. Therefore, ebeam fits perfectly within the group’s portfolio. The other two core businesses include x-ray and RF technology. However, given its potential and the size of the investment, ebeam is quite important, strategically speaking. It receives a lot of input and attention from the Board. There are, of course, synergies on a technological level, with the technologies of these businesses all being high voltage and high vacuum. That gives us the advantage of being able to share the technical know-how, which is a big plus for Comet. Given the time and investment that has been dedicated to ebeam, we envision that ten years from now ebeam will have surpassed x-ray in its growth level.
8. What role has the food packaging company Tetra Pak played in developing ebeam?
Tetra Pak is a key element in the success story of ebeam. Without Tetra Pak there would be no ebeam. Tetra Pak believed in the technology before anyone even knew about the technology. Together, we co-developed a very innovative business model, which allowed us (in a very transparent manner) to co-develop, co-create, and co-invest in ebeam.
We envision that ten years from now ebeam will have surpassed x-ray in its growth level.
Tetra Pak has been an ideal partner for us. Not only are they very professional, with a high standard of innovation on every level, but they also bring over sixty years of food packaging experience to the table. From the start, we always solved problems and found solutions as partners. We shared the same vision of a more secure, efficient, and environmentally conscious solution for food packaging. Tetra Pak is a huge, privately owned global player and Comet is a publicly listed, mid-sized firm, yet we managed to form a mutually beneficial and tight partnership that has worked successfully for over ten years now, which is very unique. We co-developed the technology, and Tetra Pak presented the ebeam lamp within their hyper-speed machines at ANUGA (the largest food conference in the world) in 2012, thus showcasing their commitment to the technology and to us as a partner.
Our Tetra Pak partnership has made the acquisition of new partners in other sectors much easier because of the extraordinary respect and reputation Tetra Pak has in the global food industry.
9. Are there other large multinational manufacturing companies you are working with?
The partnership with Tetra Pak is the longest and most important alliance that we have. However, we do work with other companies, big and small, and have slowly but surely built a solid customer base. Interest is growing by the day. I can tell you that this past year and a half, I have signed more NDAs than I have in my entire previous career. That shows the interest and potential that is out there. Unfortunately, that also means that we are not in a position to disclose the identities of the majority of our current customers and partners. It is a bit of a dilemma from a communications and marketing standpoint but once we have reached the proof-of-concept with our partners we are usually in a position to slowly start rolling out a joint communications plan. I look forward to that day!
10. Who are your competitors in this space, if any?
As of today, we are the sole electron beam producer in a compact form and our product offering is unique in the market. We are aware that there are currently two companies—one in Germany, the other in Japan—that are working on developing a similar electron beam product. We are keeping an eye on them, of course, but are also confident that we are five to ten years ahead.
Competition is healthy and important. It keeps you on your toes. We constantly observe what is happening out in the market that is relevant to our electron beam technology. I am convinced that in order to really develop a true market for ebeam, we need competitors. Being the only supplier is not always the best thing. In order to scale our business, competition is important because some customers are more willing to jump on the bandwagon once they have seen a few companies out there with a similar product offering. What is important is that the world knows that we are the pioneers, the original company that put the ebeam lamp on the global map.
Our goal is to gain traction and volume as fast as possible in the global marketplace. We are continuing to develop the technology, build our brand, raise awareness, and lower costs.
11. From a business case standpoint, how does ebeam compare to existing technologies?
The difference between ebeam and other existing technologies is truly radical. It is a paradigm change, one that will have an impact in many ways—on business and on the planet itself. If you look at our growing global population, consumption is growing by leaps and bounds. However, our planet has very limited resources, and there are few solutions to this growing dilemma. Of course, behavioral change is one element of the solution but we cannot rely on that. In the end, the solutions are primarily going to be found in new technologies that use minimal resources but have a large impact. That’s the sweet spot and that’s exactly what ebeam technology enables.
TetraPak has been an ideal partner, bringing over sixty years of food packaging experience and the same vision of a more secure, efficient, and environmentally conscious solution for food packaging.
Usually, the process of developing these technologies takes a great deal of time and money, and those higher costs get passed along to the manufacturer or consumer. That can make it difficult to scale new solutions. ebeam is different. Yes, ebeam has a green element, meaning it has a positive impact on our population and the planet. But it is also lower-cost and higher-performance. That’s why we call it “blue” technology (which is the actual color of the electron “beam”) and why we say, “Blue is the new green.” Blue technology has environmental benefits and business benefits. Blue technology has higher performance, requires less energy, uses no chemicals, lowers costs, and increases production speed.
This means that ebeam is able to create a market “pull” as a technology. It’s not a technology we are trying to force onto the market. Quite the opposite. The market will make the decision to integrate ebeam as a new solution because it is a viable, cost-effective, business-savvy option, and the green benefits are simply part of the overall product offering.
12. Could you say more about the environmental benefits of using ebeam technology?
ebeam technology can be integrated into many diverse fields and applications. Now, this takes time and requires the right partners, permits, and licenses, so it’s not something that is going to happen overnight. But where we have been able to implement ebeam technology as a solution, it has proven to save 50-80% on energy usage, which is significant.
ebeam is also being used as an alternative to toxic chemicals for sterilization purposes, meaning that you don’t just decrease the amount of chemicals in use; you cut the chemicals out completely! That’s an environmentally friendly solution and has a tangible, positive impact on the planet. So there are many areas of application that are made more environmentally friendly by the integration of ebeam—from making food more safe to the creation of new materials to the reduction in energy usage.
13. Can you tell us a little about the areas of business application where you feel ebeam can be a truly disruptive, game-changing technology?
One example would be the printing industry. ebeam technology presents the opportunity to stop using toxic photo initiators for curing. If this technology can move us away from the toxic chemicals that are currently used in drying ink and offer a more cost effective option, that is truly game-changing. Another area is the digital 3D printing market, where ebeam technology shows a lot of promise.
The most radical area of application may be in creating new materials. We are in a position to open up entirely new and unexplored areas of potential application—in some cases to create entirely new materials with new properties. I’m not talking about optimizing an existing material; I mean creating a new one. This may be the most disruptive potential application, but it’s an area that we yet have to really dive into and explore.
14. What is your relationship to academic research and university labs? Is the potential of ebeam technology becoming better known in top research institutions?
Yes, ebeam technology is receiving a lot of interest from universities and research institutes. Researchers are very interested in running trials, conducting studies, and integrating this new technology into their curriculum. The academic interest is high, which is very important for us because academic experts who study ebeam have their own networks and the more interest they express and experiments they conduct that feature ebeam technology, the more third party recognition and awareness will come our way. This is also the reason we developed a product called EBLab, which is specifically designed for research facilities. It is a stand-alone lab featuring ebeam technology that is very easy to use.
15. Imagine manufacturing ten years from now. What is your vision for the future of ebeam technology?
Our vision is that in ten years ebeam has become a standard technology for diverse applications that are used in our daily lives. And our hope is that ebeam will have a positive impact on the planet by lessening the strain on the earth’s resources and helping us to support the higher consumption rate of a fast-growing population.