Interviewed by Gayathri Hariharan and Sowmya Kumar

Written by Sowmya Kumar

Zero Emission Fuels (ZEF). The name says it all. 

Seated amidst the research labs of the Process and Energy department of 3Me, ZEF is a technology-based start-up that aspires to produce Methanol from sunlight and air. Why Methanol? Figures may vary from one scientific report to another but the message is clear – fossil fuels aren’t going to last long.  With the global community looking at a paradigm shift towards alternative energy sources, the market for clean technology has never been more promising. The energy demands of the world are in the form of electricity and fuel. Building clean technology to produce Methanol is ZEF’s answer to the fuel demands of our future.

In today’s research community, ‘Sustainability’ is finding the interest and attention it deserves. MNC’s, start-ups, and research labs have begun to focus on re-balancing the earth’s natural cycles. What sets ZEF apart? While organizations have focused on carbon capture or hydrogen production individually, ZEF aims to develop each of these sub-systems, but most importantly, also integrate them to develop a ‘micro-plant’ that produces methanol. “Say you are in the desert with CO2 or H2. What do you do with it? That’s why we want to produce an easily transportable liquid”, says Ulrich. Much like the extensive solar and wind farms, ZEF plans to have tens of thousands of the micro-plants working alongside each other.

“If you have an Entrepreneurial spirit, you are going to go places!”

The founders of ZEF had an entrepreneurial past. “Some of them (start-ups) were successful, some less successful”, admits Ulrich. “But all these experiences have helped us with ZEF.” The key to knowing if you are cut out to be an Entrepreneur is self-awareness, according to Ulrich. “I am going to get a little philosophical now” he jokingly remarks. “What makes you happy? What drives you? Is it trying new projects? That is the clear sign of an Entrepreneur.”

Since the mention of an ‘Entrepreneur’ could exclude the career interests of some of us, Ulrich emphasizes that the spirit of Entrepreneurship is far-reaching and a valuable asset that makes the difference in what we can do, irrespective of our career choices. “What is Entrepreneurship?”, he asks. “It is the spirit to try new things. It means to take initiative and work on things you aren’t told to do, or aren’t paid to do. People working in big companies work on projects, beginning from scratch. It isn’t very different from building a start-up. You need not have a company. Building things can happen in many ways. It is about the Entrepreneurial spirit. That is an asset, no matter what you do.”

Routing from Start-up to a Company

“Maybe as an entrepreneur, you aren’t the best judge of your idea “, says Ulrich. “Ask yourself, ‘Are people willing to pay for your product?’. With a product like Methanol, the answer is less ambiguous. As long as we meet the quality requirements and are able to produce it at a cost lower than the current market price, I have a business. But the answer is not so clear in case of ,say, a gadget.”

What future can you make of a ‘promising idea’?

There is no single formula to progress from ideation to realization. When you identify a problem you can solve, you start prototyping. Then, you enter the stage of validation. You show the value created by your product and prove that it is possible to execute your vision. To do this, you create a minimum viable product. For example, for ZEF, building each sub-system and having them up and running would prove that it is possible to execute their vision.  You, then, take your minimum viable product and build an organization around it. When you have customers, who want to buy your product and repeatedly so, you have a company. “Knowing who to go to is essential to getting further along the road.”, says Mrigank. “Being in the TU, we have the obvious advantage of being able to walk up to any professor or engineer to discuss our problems. Furthermore, ZEF has guided over 250 students in the past years and in return, we have learnt from their experiences.”

ZEF is currently in the prototyping and validation phase of the journey. “Different subsystems are running. We are currently testing these systems. The homework for us is to determine the energy the system uses and how much we produce”, says Ulrich. “We would then integrate the sub-systems and test it in the relevant environment.” The work-flow methods they employ during this development phase is the scrum methodology, which is popular in software building start-ups. “The traditional working method is the waterfall methodology”, explains Ulrich. “It works well when we have a predefined process. Stages are defined and one moves to the next stage when the previous stage is completed. But with technology development, risks and uncertainties are high. Hence, we work in iterations. We must be able to adapt and change plans.”

The mention of ‘plans’ pushes into the spotlight, the elephant in the room that we have been ignoring. What kind of robust organization and planning goes into the holistic realization of an idea? “The first thing to accept is that planning is fluid “, says Ulrich. “You will learn new things that affect your plan. That is the mindset we adopt.”

When it comes to implementation, ZEF maintains a product backlog. This document lists the requirements of their product. “You can’t meet goals that you cannot define”, says Ulrich. “After defining the larger goals, we break them down into smaller chunks. For example, the micro-plant is the system we would like to develop and the subsystems are the manageable chunks we carve out. We define a cost target for each subsystem that dictates its efficiency. Having arrived at these target figures, we are able to frame questions we seek answers for, to attain these targets. We take these questions and make a thesis project or internship project out of them.”

A good framework to adopt as your planning methodology is one that enables you to re-assess, not only pre-assess. “Everything isn’t perfect with our plans “, admits Ulrich. “We are also messing things up. Sometimes the planning is vague and unclear. Important thing is to pick yourself up and plan again. Have a framework to revisit and adjust plans.”

ZEF and EFPT- In a (symbiotic) relationship

The founders of ZEF were once students at TU Delft. “We (co-founders of ZEF) just started”, recounts Ulrich. We came to the department. We have a background in EPT ourselves and had begun researching synthetic fuels. We made some presentations in the department and started collaborating through small thesis projects. The collaboration grew. Today, when we (ZEF) have an idea, we collaborate with the department to apply for research grants. For our research, we use the facilities of the EFPT labs and in return we share our equipment and provide strong guidance to master students who work with us. Many start-ups that are situated elsewhere also collaborate with the department. They use the facilities here or have part of their research carried out by the department. ZEF, being seated within the building itself, is visually most representative of this kind of relationship.”

In start-ups, capital investment is always a challenge. “Since we have limited means, we are forced to be creative”, says Ulrich. “If we don’t have a machine, we need to ask ourselves ‘who has it?’. And how can we help them in return? Getting a big investment in one go is one thing. But it can also make you lazy. When you are short of capital, you are forced to build and achieve with what you have.” To this, Mrigank adds that most of the set-ups in the ZEF lab are built by themselves.

Focus is important to build a start-up. “If you look back, there may be 2-3 things you can pick out to sum up your life”, concludes Ulrich. “Focus on them. Everything boils down to priorities.”