Coaching Corner with Radisurf: overcoming startup growth pains
Often, we tell startups' stories through their achievements: the disruptive innovations, the new funding rounds or international partnerships. But to get there, innovators have to undertake a long journey, facing the challenges of an unknown market, conducting pilots and trying to find a place in the middle of the crowd. For the second Coaching Corner episode, we bring together Mikkel Kongsfelt, CEO and founder of the Danish company RadiSurf and Chris Kirby, the business coach that followed their EIC-funded project.
Every startup aiming to succeed needs a mix of special ingredients. An innovative vision, specialized knowledge and perseverance are important, but today we will tell you RadiSurf's recipe for moving from the lab to the market. The project started five years ago in a small laboratory at Aarhus University, and it is now ready to dive into the global market. But you're probably wondering what innovation they will bring? And which journey they followed to achieve the startup dream? Stay connected to our coaching corner, and we will tell you everything about this Danish nanotechnology company.
Origin: when cluelessness turns out to be an asset
RadiSurf saw the light of the day through its founder Mikkel Kongsfelt. The founder has a PhD in Nanoscience and was part of a research project focused on nano-coatings of polymer brushes at Aarhus University. In 2015, Mikkel saw a good opportunity to make a spin-off company with his three supervisors and didn't miss the call. The four founders created the RadiBond technology: an innovation that makes it possible to weld plastics directly to metals thanks to a newly developed polymer brush-based coating. The project enables the bonding of plastics to metal, glass and carbon directly in welding and over-moulding processes.
The pressure to produce safe and sustainable products within a circular economy perspective is growing. However, many modern products continue to rely on engineering plastics, using industrial glue that makes it difficult to recycle the plastic part. With RadiSurf technology, people can forget about industrial glue. The innovation benefits hybrid assemblies – joints of dissimilar materials, which are vital in modern product design and found everywhere, from smartphones, cars and TVs to dishwashers and aeroplanes.
According to Mikkel, everything was a challenge during their first business steps, but ironically, his naïve mindset helped him cross that rough path. "Everything has been a challenge. I'm happy that I didn't know all these challenges when I started, because I wouldn't have dared to do it. Sometimes it's good that we are a little bit naïve. We have some bigger mountains to climb, but we have to take one step at a time. If you don't know how many steps you need to take, I think it's a little bit easier", he said, laughing.
It's a common analogy, often heard, that businesses are like children for those early years of development: they start off small, with little resources, needing support (i.e., from coaches, investors), and as they grow, they start developing growth problems. Chris Kirby was there when RadiSurf started facing their first 'startup growth pains'. The company received the first grant from the European Innovation Council in 2017, followed by a coaching experience that took a deep dive into their IP developments, business strategy and market readiness.
Phase 2: From a laboratory scale to a product readiness technology
When the coaching experience started, COVID knocked at their doors, and presential meetings became impossible. But the pandemic scenario didn't slow down their work. Through several virtual calls, the CEO Mikkel and the responsible for Business Development Kaspar Eriksen had multiple discussions with the EIC business coach. In the beginning, Chris tried to tackle one of the most common problems for startups: which market would they focus on? "We looked to their manufacturing technique, business model, contract manufacturing, etc. That gave me a big overall picture on where I could assist, and I played with my strength and experience".
Chris shared multiple contacts from his network with RadiSurf and focused on their technology development strategy and licensing contracts. Mikkel believes that the EIC Funding and this coaching opportunity appeared exactly at the right time, allowing the company to take an important step: "we transformed a laboratory scale technology into a mature and product readiness technology. That has been the goal of our EIC project, and we are very proud. We have been able to ensure that we find customers that are not only interested in working with us on a lab-scale and test basis. They are also interested in implementing our technology", he highlighted.
3rd stage: transforming innovation into a profitable business
During the coaching, Chris also gave them a lot of advice on joint IP development, its dangers, and how to do it so that other people wouldn't end up partially owning their IP, which could limit the value. "It's not something that investors like to see", he explained.
The good outcomes of this work were visible in May 2021, when Radisurf received a 100+ million DKK investment from a family office private equity investment fund with a worldwide presence. "They had a solid IP position, and a compelling plan to create value from it. I think this position helped to get that crucial investment over the line, and they managed the completion very quickly", mentioned Chris. "That's what investors are looking for. They look for investable people, who have a clear market understanding and a strategy to create sustainable value, and I'm sure these investors have made a wise decision".
With this investment, RadiSurf will build the world's first factory to produce the polymer brush coating agents – ready for global distribution - in Risskov, Denmark. According to Mikkel, the company is now prepared to transform their innovation into a profitable business. "We are finally proving that our innovation can be profitable, and we also have the funding to scale it up to a production technology on a commercial basis. That's what the next steps are all about. We want to make sure that when we scale it up, it becomes a profitable business", Mikkel concluded.
The EIC Business Coach Chris followed their achievements closely, and he is convinced that Radisurf has all the right tools and assets to continue succeeding. "They have great technology, but not only that. They had all the qualities they needed from a management perspective to achieve. Perhaps they also had a little bit of luck, which is normal. Everybody running highly innovative businesses knows that you need to have some luck. But you have to make your luck as well, and this is what Mikkel and his colleagues have done. They deserve all they have achieved, and that's a great story", Chris concluded.