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LayerWise - metal additive manufacturing

“In the end, as an entrepreneur, you have to do it yourself, but it’s good to know you can always fall back on people that have more experience in starting up a business.”

Peter Mercelis & Jonas Van Vaerenbergh

Founders of LayerWise (now part of 3D Systems)

LayerWise is a spin-off from the KU Leuven Department of Mechanical Engineering that focuses on Additive Manufacturing for metal components. We both did our Ph.D. thesis research on selective laser melting, a technology that allows to make solid metal objects from metal powder. While doing this research, we became aware of the industrial applications of this technology. We decided to start preparations for the creation of a spin-off company, partly because we were regularly consulted by companies to manufacture metal prototypes of their components, and also because we wanted to stay active in the domain of Additive Manufacturing after finishing our Ph.D. studies. At the time, there were no other companies on the Benelux market that focused on metal Additive Manufacturing.

Market analysis showed us that there was interest in this technology in Belgium and the Netherlands. It wasn’t exactly clear where or in which industrial sectors the technology would prove successful. We already knew of possibilities in the dental field, and in the longer term the technology could offer significant advantages in the market of medical implants. In the beginning, a lot of people advised us to focus on one market segment. We completely ignored this advice, since we didn’t yet know where our technology would prove to have the most added value. It’s very difficult to make such a decision before you’re actually operational and before you have any feedback about your products from the market. If you focus on one particular market and make the wrong choice, it’s over. We decided to spread the risk. We started our company in March 2008, at the time the economic crisis hit for the first time. If we would have targeted only the automotive industry, LayerWise probably wouldn’t exist anymore.

We had also patented some of the findings of our Ph.D. research, but this has not been crucial for the creation of LayerWise. One of the patents has been transferred to the spin-off, while we have a permanent license for the other. Looking back, we would probably have also been able to set up our company without protected intellectual property, but we do believe that IP protection is important when operating in a rather new technology field that is still fully in development.

We have always had an entrepreneurial mindset, even when we were still researchers. To a large extent, this has been triggered by the freedom our promotor, Professor Jean-Pierre Kruth, has given us to follow our own path and to choose and monitor our research topic ourselves. He also has a very good feeling for the exploitation potential of fundamental research.

LRD has supported us in developing a business plan and a financial plan, and also managed our intellectual property. LRD has been a good partner in our search for investors. Besides the founders of the company, the KU Leuven Gemma Frisius Fund provided seed capital for our start-up, and together with LRD, we were also able to attract investments from Vinnof-PMV. In the end, as an entrepreneur, you have to do it yourself, but it’s good to know you can always fall back on people that have more experience in starting up a business. Even now, we still turn to LRD to help us perform a market assessment or for legal advice about collaboration agreements with other companies.

A factor that has been crucial in the growth of our company is technological progress. We always had a lead over other market players. Up until today we have been able to hold and extend that lead because we have invested a lot of human resources and other means into R&D. You have to keep reserving time and resources to be able to develop and innovate. For starting companies it’s difficult to find the right balance between managing your daily business and keeping that technological head start. As a researcher, you might be happy you’re doing business, but if your technology remains at the same level, in time, your business will decrease. Because we’re now on a technologically more advanced level, surgeons for example have a lot more confidence in using titanium implants that were produced with Additive Manufacturing technology then five years ago.

An advantage of our technology is that it operates completely digitally. Working for a customer in the United States for example is as easy as working for a customer in  the Benelux, because of this digital workflow. The disadvantage is of course that your existing customers might just as well send their  files to Japan instead of Belgium. So it’s important for a company to be at the top. We’ve been competing with the major players worldwide from the first day we started.

To stay ahead at the technological level, we spend a lot of time and money on our internal R&D programmes. In addition, our collaborations with the KU Leuven Department of Metallurgy and Materials Engineering and the Department of Mechanical Engineering create a synergy for both parties which further pushes the boundaries of the technology. At KU Leuven, scientists have continued to develop Additive Manufacturing, and we benefit from these developments. Of course having know-how and equipment from  KU Leuven is beneficial for a starting spin-off company. We have, for example, hired test equipment from KU Leuven, and our proximity to the university allows us to be more innovative, which enhances our market position. We chose to locate LayerWise at the KU Leuven Innovation & Incubation Centre because of the support KU Leuven provides. Here, it is easy to drop by for a discussion with one of the technology or materials specialists at KU Leuven. The proximity to KU Leuven has also been beneficial for applications of our technologies. The links to the Department of Oral Health Sciences and the Department of Development and Regeneration have resulted in development of new products.

In 2014, LayerWise was acquired by 3D Systems.