Emil Johansson is part of a group of researchers that met at EIT Manufacturing’s first MatchMaking event. The group first went on to start an international research project on how to turn industrial robots into 3D printers. Now, they have established a spin-off company to commercialise their idea. We talk to Emil Johansson about the journey from EIT Manufacturing’s MatchMaking to startup founder.
Hi Emil! So, as a researcher at RISE (Research Institutes of Sweden) you were invited to EIT Manufacturing’s first MatchMaking event in February 2019 in San Sebastian, Spain. What happened there?
“Well, EIT Manufacturing was newly established at that point so we didn’t know what to expect. Ahead of the event, I was asked to prepare two slides about my idea. When I got there, they had organised short pitch sessions in four different strategic areas, one of which was additive manufacturing (3D printing), which is my specialty. Afterwards, you could book speed-dating sessions others to discuss. From these discussions, the concept that later became SoftDREAM started to take shape.”
How is this process different to how you have worked with research projects previously?
“It’s pretty common for a researcher like me to approach a company with an idea that you have worked on for a long time, and then you try to convince the company, with everything you’ve got, that this is the idea that they should be working on together with you. In contrast, through the EIT Manufacturing’s Matchmaking, companies and researchers meet to see which type of research would be most useful for the companies involved. For my own part, I came to San Sebastian with a specific idea in mind to develop large 3D-printed components using a specific type of robot, but through these discussions with the other partners, and discussions with Volkswagen about their needs, the focus shifted. Today, we are working on developing software that could be used to turn a robot of any brand into an additive manufacturing cell (3D printer). Another big difference is the size of initial research project. All in all, we were ten people working with SoftDREAM project, some of us full time and some people part time. That gives you the focus and capacity to get quite far.”
Who are the other people and entities involved in the project?
“I didn’t know the other people in the SoftDREAM team before the MatchMaking event, we met in San Sebastian. In all, we are three research partners in the project, including people from RISE in Sweden, Braunschweig University of Technology in Germany and ESTIA Institute of Technology, a French engineering and research school. The companies involved are Volkswagen, as well as a Swedish SME called Spectrum Technologies.”
How long did it all take?
“After the MatchMaking in February, we handed in our first application to EIT Manufacturing in April. After getting some feedback on that, we sent in the final proposal in June. The idea to start a company came quite late in the process. Through the work with Volkswagen, we had identified a gap in the market, and we also looked at what outcome EIT Manufacturing wanted, which is commercialisation. About two weeks before sending in our proposal, we decided to that our end goal would be to start a spin-off company. Now, after working with SoftDREAM as a research project for some time, we started a spin-off company in the beginning of 2021.”
This feels like quite an unusual way to start a company!
“It does feel unusual. We are a group of people who travelled to San Sebastian and hadn’t met before. Then, quite soon afterwards, we headed up a large research project together and decided to start a company together. And then the COVID-19 pandemic starts. So, we couldn’t meet all that much. But even with all this going on, it all feels so right. We were able to find exactly the right people for the team, with the right competences and the perfect person in every role in the project.”
Any tips for others who join a MatchMaking Event?
“I think flexibility is key. Join with an open mind and don’t become too attached to realising the exact project you started with.”
More about SoftDream
Read more about SoftDREAM here: https://softdream-project.eu/
More about EIT Manufacturing’s next MatchMaking Event
EIT Manufacturing’s 2021 MatchMaking Event will take place on February 23-25 2021, to prepare for EIT Manufacturing’s Open Call 2022.