As the world progresses towards a sustainable tomorrow, the importance of hydrogen has come to the forefront. Fuel cell and hydrogen technologies not only play a crucial part in the future of the European economy but also create a healthy and a sustainable tomorrow. In this exclusive interview, our founder and CEO – Ivar Kruusenberg addresses the challenges he faced during the early years of setting up his start-up, how the company keeps up with innovations in the fuel cell industry and his inspiration behind creating a product that makes everyday lives of people cleaner and safer.
From being a research student at the University of Tartu to establishing your own company in Silicon Valley and Estonia, you have come a long way. What impact do you think formal education has had in your journey to becoming an entrepreneur? Do you think it has helped you acquire entrepreneurial skills?
Ivar: I think formal education or higher education helps everyone in general, who wants to get a better understanding of the subject they are studying. When I started out, I did not have a clue about entrepreneurship even though I took a course at the university. While doing my PhD, I got my startup idea. That is when I started thinking about entrepreneurship. However, I had to learn everything from scratch like downloading research papers about how things work, how to calculate financials etc. So, I think higher education has taught me, and will teach anyone else as well, how to look for answers. With experience and a deeper understanding, one learns even more when challenges start arising.
In your opinion what are the pre-requisites for being an entrepreneur? Is there an ideal time or age for becoming an entrepreneur or the start-up bug can strike you at any time/age?
Ivar: I would say it is best to start as young as you can because the start-up business demands a lot of sleepless nights and endless working hours. So, this means that your body needs to really be able to take it. If you are in your late 40s, most probably, it is going to be tough. But, on the contrary, it is never too late to pursue your passion and work towards something you really believe in. Some people are able to start off in their 20’s or 30’s and some venture out only after having enough experience. There are pros and cons to both.
What are the typical challenges you faced during the testing and incubation phase of PowerUP Energy Technologies? How did you address these challenges?
Ivar: I would say getting together the perfect team is the biggest challenge for an entrepreneur. Usually entrepreneurs prefer staying with their old team from one startup to another. And I know several entrepreneurs who have done that. They make some exits and then they keep going forward with the same team but with a new idea. So, in my opinion finding the right people, whom you can trust, and who are smart enough to be able to take responsibility is the most challenging part.
You have a diverse set of target audience which ranges from maritime industry, RV’s, telecommunications and even the military. How important is customer centricity to your business?
Ivar: Customer centricity lies at the heart of our business. In fact, it is one of the biggest challenges that we are currently facing, as we are still in the product development and beta testing phase, depending on the product. Every customer segment needs some amount of customisation. And, as they say, a product which is working everywhere, is not working at all. So, we have already made several different products keeping in mind pre-requisites from diverse sectors such as market specific facilities in some connectors, customising the power output, or something as simple as the product’s physical appearance. Having said that, we are going to have two to three new products coming out soon, which will cater to specific markets and will address consumer needs.
What is the role of R&D and innovation in delivering enhanced and effective solutions for your customers?
Ivar: Speaking of research, I started with fundamental research and went towards a more applied research and from there to the industry. This has helped me gain the technical know-how and build strong connections in the industry. For our customers, it is important to get the most innovative product possible in the market because fuel cells are still in the development phase. Developments, such as new catalyst materials coming out or modifications of membranes is happening as we speak. This means that the fuel cell’s lifetime is expanding very rapidly. So, whenever an innovation is coming out in the market, we need to reinforce the innovation in our products. And this is done to give our customers what they are looking for. They always want to have the latest technology products and our team works towards delivering the same to them. For instance, a customer wants to have the generator which lasts the longest. In this case, the lifetime of the generator would not be 5000 or 10,000 hours, but in the perfect world it would be 50,000 hours. And we at PowerUP Energy Technologies drive to create such products by involving the biggest innovations from renowned research institutes and from the market and ultimately integrating this knowledge into our products. So, we are using latest innovations and technical know-how which helps develop the end product. This I think, is one of the biggest advantages we have as a company.
PowerUP Energy Technologies produces zero-emission and sustainable products. What was your focus and priority while designing and creating the product?
Ivar: I first started with the basic research of fuel cells and catalyst materials before going ahead and developing fuel cells for my own company. While testing the catalysts in the fuel cells I produced myself, I wanted to do something that would help the world. Amidst endless research hours, writing numerous papers I wanted to make something with my own hands and give back to the society. Something which was possible for anyone to touch and feel. Research often helps one arise at results that might not be easy for a common man to comprehend, in the larger scheme of things. I wanted to build a product which would bring a change in the common man’s life. And I wanted to make something in the field that I studied which was fuel cells and hydrogen. And what better than to create a product which can help the world be a more sustainable place.
I must admit, I have always admired clean tech products. In my opinion, changing the current energy production into being more sustainable and cleaner should be the goal of the whole industry. And being part of this change is wonderful!
How far have you reached when it comes to achieving your company’s mission?
Ivar: Our mission is to contribute to the emergence of hydrogen economy by offering
products and technologies that make everyday lives of people cleaner and safe. So, I would say, we are almost there. We have made a lot of developments in our products in the last three years. Now, we have reached a place where the product is ready and our customers are testing it. We are in the position where we can show the world that our product is working. While working with hydrogen I realised that it is safe and easy for the customer to use. We are planning to introduce new products to consumers already next year. We have a clear plan for the next few years, in fact we have a plan for the coming six years. Keeping in mind the current market scenario, however, it is difficult to predict the future and be ascertain on what to expect. You never know, we might start making a train with some partner or building a car.
In one sentence, what does PowerUP Energy Technologies stand for today?
Ivar: PowerUP Energy Technologies is part of the hydrogen revolution happening right now. We are working towards creating that shift among consumers from old diesel generators to best in class hydrogen fuel cell based electric generators. We are committed to building a sustainable world and a sustainable tomorrow for our customers.