It was one of the more inauspicious beginnings in the history of Eindhoven startups, followed by one of the most dramatic pivots.
The first iteration of inPhocal was a tech-heavy team, strong in physics and engineering, but not so strong on the business side. The team saw all the potential applications of the laser-based marking technology, but even by their own recollection, no one gave enough thought to, “Okay, so what’s the actual business case? How can we turn this into revenue and to make it a good, solid financially growing company?”
inPhocal was making progress on the technical side, but “nothing was really happening on the business side,” said Martijn Boerkamp, who was CEO at that time. That led to some, well, tension as inPhocal worked its way through HighTechXL’s nine-month venture building program.
The laser technology came originally from CERN, the giant particle research institute in Switzerland. HighTechXL picked up the technology to take it to market, then put a team around it in 2019. But a few months into the program, the effort stalled to the point that HighTechXL founder Guus Frericks was threatening to shut down the team.
That’s when Martijn decided to bring in a friend and fellow physicist he knew would understand the science and who also has the marketing chops. Enter Robert van Tankeren, who’d worked with Martijn at TMC, an Eindhoven-based consultancy firm. Robert remembers that moment well when Martijn called.
“He convinced me to join the team,” Robert said. “And I remember on a Thursday evening, I told him, ‘Let’s go for this. Let’s have some fun and see where it goes …’ ”
The next morning at the HighTechXL office, a meeting with Guus was no fun at all.
Guus told Robert and Martijn they were two weeks before XL Day, HighTechXL’s big demo day in July 2020, and that if inPhocal didn’t improve immediately, he was going to pull the plug.
“So, this was my introduction to the program,” Robert says. But at that XL Day, Robert nailed the pitch … and changed inPhocal’s fortunes, Martijn said: “He’s a natural presenter.”
This changing of the guard could have been tense. But Robert said he only wanted to help build on the sound technical base Martijn had created. That base is inPhocal’s laser, a small box that can magically mark anything, even curved surfaces.
In this second iteration, the team ticked both the boxes, Martijn said – technical and business. And both Robert and Martijn agree the pivot put both in the right roles, part of a leadership triumvirate that includes CFO Kathy Vredeveldt.
They are three very different personalities. Martijn and Kathy like working behind the scenes while Robert is an extrovert.
“We are all three complementary skills. But we seem to challenge each other,” Robert says. “We also seem to be able to understand each other. I’m sort of the buffer between Martijn’s technical side and Kathy’s financial side, and I can talk to both.
“I will never be able to take over their positions, but I understand what they’re doing.”
Together, the team is convinced they’re on the right trajectory.
inPhocal is focused, well, like a laser on one market, the marking industry for food and beverages, because Robert, Kathy and Martijn know the industry is in the process of transferring from the inkjet technology they use now into the laser technology for several different reasons, the main one being sustainability.
There are other areas they can dominate, such as semiconductor and automotive. But rather than spread their resources too thin, Kathy makes sure they focus for now on marking, which makes more money quicker and has a bigger upside. Other applications can wait …
Another major turning point was getting their lab in Waddinxveen in partnership with Christiaan de Snoo, Martijn says.
“Having a lab … that’s the kind of thing that in a startup sometimes is lacking, because in the beginning you don’t have the funds to start a lab. And investors like to see results before they put money in,” he said. “And so, you’re always sort of in this vicious circle of never getting things done.”
Once they got a working prototype, people started to understand what inPhocal is all about.
Before the lab, when the team pitched different kinds of potential customers, “it was like, ‘Yeah, this is a nice idea. But I don’t see it working anyway. Come back when you actually have it,’ ” Robert said. So, for 2022, the goal is to build a number of units and install them with clients to prove they can do laser marking on an industrial scale.
That’s when the fun is going to start, because they pitch clients who are not looking for one, two or maybe three machines. “When looking or talking to clients like Heineken, like PepsiCo, like Coca-Cola … those have the potential to scale up towards hundreds or even thousands of machines,” Robert notes.
“That’s when the fun begins!”
inPhocal already has pilot projects planned with global beverage companies, projects that could put their machine in the biggest market of them all, the United States. They also are working with a major semiconductor company to explore silicon wafer dicing in the future.
“I was just talking to Kathy (and she said) in 2025, our revenue is going to be just below 100 million with a very financially sound cash position. And the year after that, it is going to double. And those are conservative based on very, very conservative market penetration.”
The team has had the good fortune of getting advice from HighTechXL CEO John Bell and founder Guus Frericks “and from the people in our own network,” Robert said. “Those are the people who will give us some unique insights into what it means to take a company from this level to the next.”