The startup Ferr-Tech from Drenthe purifies wastewater using the strongest oxidant in the world: Ferrate(VI). Their innovation is so groundbreaking that there is already demand from abroad.
One year after starting up, they are already working on their first international expansion in the United States. We discussed it with co-owner Judith le Fèvre, who has been with the company from the start. "We officially exist from April 2020, but my partners were already busy before that. At that time, I was lobby coordinator with the Overijssel province and was doing interim work on their other startup in air purification."
When Judith stopped working for the province, she started looking for a new challenge. The 2 partners saw their chances and asked her to join Ferr-Tech. Judith did not need to think twice, "But then I also wanted to become an owner!"
A revolutionary formula
Ferrate(VI) is not new, but it was not used much in the past. "Science has known for decades that Ferrate(VI) is effective for purifying water", Judith explains. "But it was not used before because it was not possible to make it stable or preserve it."
"One of our co-founders discovered a formula during his Master's research. This formula made a huge change. The chemical is now stable, and we can preserve it for 2 months instead of only a few seconds. So we can now distribute it to our end users."
This substance is special because it makes it possible to treat wastewater with chemicals in an environment-friendly way. The process does not use harmful chemicals. "It is a genuine eco-friendly chemical. It does not release harmful by-products. It does not harm people or ecological systems. We are the only operation in the world that can do this. It is cool to contribute to solving the water shortage problem. I think it is very important to have the chance to work on an innovation that can help make the world a better place. It is what gets me out of bed every morning."
Crossing borders from the start
While many companies first investigate whether their product is taking off in the Netherlands, Ferr-Tech is already looking abroad. The company is looking into the Middle East and working on a pilot project in the United States. "In the United States, we are working with a company that grows crops on water. First, we did a trial on a testing ground in Drenthe, and now we are shipping our Ferrate(VI) to California by air freight. We need to transport the chemicals under special conditions. This makes the transport costs very high. If the pilot is successful, we will also set up a plant there."
Judith is receiving support in preparing for this new step from the Netherlands Enterprise Agency (RVO). "They are a great help in finding distribution partners and potential licensees. They are also helping us find locations to set up the business."
The sales trap
Larger operations often scout Ferr-Tech. The companies are impressed with the technology's possibilities. For example, Judith tells us that they just started some R&D projects for consultants and suppliers in the steel and dairy industries. "Sales are an easy option but also an instant trap. We have to take many steps before we actually sell our product. For example, we often first take water samples to our lab, then look at the results, choose the best sample and test it in practice."
The fledgling company could therefore use some working capital. Judith and her partners have had talks on this with a variety of informal investors. "You do get a wad of money from that kind of investor, but you also have to give away part of your company. And then you often end up having someone in your office one day a week wanting to make changes. We found that we would have to give away too much control. And we felt that was a bit premature. We are looking for partners with added value, which is why we have now entered into a financing agreement with MKB fonds Drenthe."
Innovation Award honoree (award winner) at CES in the US
In January, Ferr-Tech was at one of the largest tech fairs in the world: the Consumer Technology Association (CES). Judith was very happy CES selected her company. "It is cool. We were even chosen as an Innovation Award honoree. Just crazy!" she relates. "My RVO account manager tipped me off about it. He said it really would be something for us. And indeed, it is a perfect fit, especially since we are already expanding into the US. It allows us to visit our partners and potential clients in California immediately. And it also gives us a lot of publicity. We want the world to know that this solution exists. That is why we prepared a showcase and checked which other companies would be there and who we wanted to speak to."
As a participant of RVO's FastLane programme, Ferr-Tech has its own account manager. FastLane selects promising startups and scale-ups. You cannot apply for the programme, but RVO has advisors and liaisons who guide you and give you personalised advice. That is somewhat less intensive and exclusive but just as good.
"We get excellent support. The programme is very well put together. For example, RVO gives us training about culture, and we get sessions from David Beckett, the best pitch trainer you could ever have. Pitching works differently in the US: you have to exaggerate everything and make it bigger. You have to drop names, claim to be the biggest and the best, and announce what your next year's turnover is going to be. As companies in this 'base camp', we also have a nice ecosystem and interaction. RVO helps us not only with internationalisation but also in other areas. For example, financial engineering, intellectual property advice, and access to relevant national and international networks."
Tips for other entrepreneurs
Judith has a tip to help other Dutch startups make the leap abroad. "The Netherlands has a great ecosystem. Make use of all the help available. RVO has a vast amount of in-house knowledge and tools to help you scale up your company. They will make it much easier for you. So think about what you need and start scouting around."
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