“We started up right in the middle of the pandemic”
Claas Blume had a dream. “I always dreamed of having a high-tech startup!” he says. But he did not just leave it at that. While still studying mechanical engineering, he founded his first company, which had prisoners producing stickers for MacBooks. However, the idea did not have long-term viability. He applied to the Fraunhofer Institute for Production Systems and Design Technology IPK in Berlin to complete his master’s thesis. “After all, there’s no better place to look for technology for a startup than Fraunhofer,” he says during our video interview, and grins at his laptop camera. In the course of various Fraunhofer IPK research projects in the area of toolmaking, Blume observed that mechanical and plant engineering has been placed under huge time and cost pressure as a result of globalization. “We have been involved in shaping Industrie 4.0 and have achieved great success with it. But when you look at the process steps prior to the production stage, you can see that in the past 30 years, little or perhaps nothing has changed. You have a highly-qualified, highly-paid engineer who’s sitting there wasting their valuable time on tasks that actually aren’t really that complex,” states the young founder. “For me that just didn’t add up.”
Making the startup dream a reality
Blume and his Fraunhofer IPK colleague Thomas Vorsatz, who was also won over by his idea, focused on how to translate these kinds of tasks into algorithms and automate them. Since full automation is too expensive and did not work as a business idea, the two mechanical engineers developed algorithms that split entire engineering processes into a number of simplified steps. These tasks can be completed independently of each other, meaning they can be run parallel. This significantly reduces the biggest cost factor for a production company, i.e. the time taken to bring an idea to a successful prototype test.
The idea proved to be viable. Engineers can now isolate less complex tasks using the algorithms and assign these to clous GmbH, the startup founded by Blume and Vorsatz. The company outsources these tasks for processing by a master’s student in Germany or an engineer in India overnight, for example. In the future, the clous founders aim to use algorithms to evaluate these tasks as well. There are two advantages of the service offered by clous GmbH: First, the engineer has more time for their own tasks, and second, it is more cost-effective for the company’s bottom line. “We often compare it to how a head surgeon works. They let the anesthetist work with the patient first, and then they focus on the main task, for instance, heart surgery. Engineers can and should continue focusing on core tasks too. We can take care of all their basic tasks for them – at the press of a button and at a set price,” outlines Blume.
Available for advice and support at all times
Blume was supported during the startup process by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft. By taking part in FDays® − short for Fraunhofer Days, where business models are developed and evaluated systematically − he encountered professional startup culture for the first time. This spurred him on even further. “A large part of what got us actually up and running was provided by the Fraunhofer technology transfer program AHEAD, which was just being established at the time. Our two contacts at Fraunhofer Venture were available for advice and support at all times, whether that was regarding legal questions or access to venture capital,” recalls the clous GmbH CEO.
There were some obstacles to the dream at the beginning, however. “We started up right in the middle of the pandemic,” says 34-year old Blume. More specifically, the company was launched in December 2019, but by March 2020, it was in a tight spot, with industry sponsors who had made a verbal commitment pulling out. Then co-investors opted out too. “That of course was a particularly deep plunge on this roller-coaster ride. We could not extend contracts for our first research assistants,” says Blume, somewhat self-consciously. “But we were determined to do it!” Fraunhofer Venture remained steadfast at the startup’s side, and things began to look up. In May 2020, the young founding team succeeded in bringing Axel Springer Porsche GmbH & Co. KG in as an investor, and in September 2020, they were approved for early stage financing by Investitionsbank Berlin, a business development bank. The company was able to attract more angel investors, get venture capital funding and expand their reach. And what’s more, they are set to grow from an initial two founders and two research assistants to 12 employees by the end of 2021. “Our goal for the next half year is to develop robust processes – from sales pitch through to satisfied customers,” says Blume. “That’s what makes this kind of startup so appealing.”