IonKraft is, at first sight, a classic start-up. This is reflected by the number of employees at the young company, by the obvious commitment and enormous motivation of its founders, and by the compelling idea behind the undertaking: By means of plasma technology, the founders want to make plastic packaging for barrier applications in the chemical industry recyclable and thus replace multi-material solutions. This technology has its origin in the research work carried by the plasma technology working group at IKV (Institute for Plastics Processing, RWTH Aachen University), and now, with IonKraft, aims to find its way into industrial application. It is, however, not a typical start-up company in one key respect: Montgomery Jaritz and Benedikt Heuer have launched a deep tech start-up, whose technology will be used in plant engineering and packaging production. Unlike with digital products, they are operating here in a more conservative segment with high capital requirements and sometimes long decision-making paths. Their project was thoroughly examined at the very beginning by an external jury of experts – that, too, is unusual for a start-up, but brought the founders the privilege of being largely financed by the EXIST research transfer programme of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi).
In the interview, Montgomery Jaritz and Benedikt Heuer explain what targets they are pursuing with IonKraft.
Question 1: What is your main motivation for introducing a production technology that uses plasma for recyclable plastic packs?
Jaritz: I have been occupied with the plasma technology since my time as a student worker at IKV, in other words for more than 10 years. The advantages of barrier coats were at that time nowhere near widely known. Since then I have not only experienced all the development stages on the research side, I have also been actively involved in their further development, for example in Collaborative Research Centre TR 87. For that reason I know that the technology has made a real development leap and can now be used industrially in an extremely wide variety of applications. The plasma technology has reached a level of maturity with which genuine problems can be tackled. What is still missing is the technological transfer into production technology of the processes we have developed. With IonKraft, we are now taking it into our own hands to transfer our plasma technology to industry in order to enable the production of plastic packs that are particularly lightweight, as dense as glass, absolutely chemically resistant and nevertheless fully recyclable. This means we can assume responsibility for a very concrete problem in our society. That motivates me.
Heuer: For company start-ups, the right timing is always important, and I am convinced that we have set out to establish a very good idea at the right time. Precisely now, the problem of plastics is attracting a great deal of attention in public. Companies thus have a strong external drive to seek recyclable alternatives. Protecting a pack’s contents with a barrier coat has always been a challenge, and this is where we bring our coating technology into play.
Question 2: The company is financed by the EXIST research transfer programme. What precisely is the aim of this financial support and what do you have to do in return?
Jaritz: At the end of the first support phase is the prototype of our innovative reactor, with which plasma coatings with a barrier effect can be applied to large-volume containers of mono materials such as PE or PET. All the demands on the industrial production of present-day packaging solutions have been met on a laboratory scale and process safety/reliability is ensured. Then, at the very latest, comes the move to enter into a strategic partnership with a machine manufacturer with whom we can upscale our product to industrial standards.
Heuer: Apart from the financial support for this target, we have access to the RWTH infrastructure through the EXIST research transfer programme. Without the support of the RWTH and IKV, the project would not be realisable, because for the development we need permanent access to measurement technology, laboratories and machines that we could definitely not have under financial and organisational aspects. In addition to that, we profited enormously back at the pitch phase – in other words before the promise of support by the BMWi – from IKV’s know-how and from the support by RWTH Innovation GmbH.
Question 3: What does IonKraft's actual business model look like? With what do you want to basically generate income after the financing phase?
Heuer: Our core expertise is the development and production of the reactor, which coats plastic packaging for the chemical industry and provides it with barrier functions. At the end, we want to market the finished reactors in cooperation with a strategic partner still to be found. The partner should then be responsible in particular for the production and automation technology. These are aspects that we do not count among our core competences and on which we at IonKraft will not additionally concentrate. Part of our business model is also, however, that we make our know-how available to the customer. At the customer’s premises, we will, for example, take care of the service that accompanies the production technology. This covers among other things the process set-up, because different packaging geometries necessarily require a process modification. We regard this service as part of our business model.
Jaritz: For the necessary process modifications, we can fall back on a development routine developed at IKV, which is diagnostic-based. This means that, instead of empirical trials, we offer a diagnostic-based coating development that quickly guarantees the best functionality of the coating geared exactly to the respective product. For this, we look at the plasma properties by means of emission spectroscopy, we simulate the gas distribution in the plastic container, and thus obtain an optimum result for the individual pack. In this way, we are able to initially carry out feasibility analyses for the customer's product range and, in addition to that, configure and offer the right production technology.
Question 4: To what extent are the coatings applied by the reactor oriented to a specific application? Or, put another way, in which branches of industry are there conceivable areas of application?
Jaritz: The coatings produced by plasma offer a strong migration barrier. Packaging in the agricultural industry often requires, for example, a solvent barrier. With our first reactor design, we will be able to coat pack sizes of up to 20 litres, which meets the needs of the agricultural industry for the packaging of fertilisers or crop protection products. The advantage of the coatings applied by plasma technology is that they can be applied extremely thinly to monomer materials. The coatings have a positive effect in that they do not impair the recycling of the pack. This effect can definitely be utilised for many other applications.
With the plasma coating, however, it is also possible to produce an oxygen barrier that prevents oxidising of the contents. This advantage is particularly interesting for the packaging of beverages and other foodstuffs. The plasma coating has already been approved for the food segment.
Our special reactor can also coat containers from both the inside and the outside, which means that our plasma coating can serve, for example, as an odour barrier, which, so to speak, encloses the bad odour of the recyclate. If an odour barrier is created by plasma coating, it means that, in principle, the area of application of recyclates can be widened and the plastic cycle closed at a later point. In a separate project at IKV, research is being carried out in this respect on the extent to which our coatings are suitable for making post-consumer recyclate safe for reuse in the food sector. As a result, we are opening up completely new options for the use of recyclate. The potential spectrum of application is thus extremely large.