Things moved very quickly indeed when a group of young researchers with a couple of patents under their belts was paired with an experienced entrepreneur. Together, they are now on the point of entering the brewery market with their company Specshell—introducing a new, advanced technology designed to improve beer production.
The newly established company has developed a technology that can measure chemical processes while they are actually taking place. The first market on Specshell’s radar is the brewing industry, where the company’s advanced measuring equipment is perfectly suited to helping breweries optimize a crucial phase of beer production: mashing. This should translate into improved control of the process and thus better-tasting beer, along with the opportunity to optimize the work procedure and enjoy significant financial benefits.
A new technology is born
The history of Specshell starts when, during his PhD project on catalytic production of chemicals from biomass, Andreas Kunov-Kruse finds he is lacking a measuring method. He needs to be able to follow exactly how and when cellulose is broken down in different catalytic processes. He has at his disposal a unit for measuring infra-red spectroscopy, and using a couple of technical ‘building blocks’, Andreas Kunov-Kruse puts together a couple of gizmos that enable him to use the equipment continuously to record spectra during the reaction. In other words, he has the capacity to measure the chemical process while it is actually taking place. Even though this is a new way of using infra-red spectroscopy, he can see that his method functions.
Working with Design and Innovation students Jens Piltoft and Christian Petersen, he produces some neat and robust sampling cells that are suitable for industrial use. These cells are quickly patented, and the three students are now ready to start a business. Via the ‘Bridging the Gap’ innovation project, they get together with Erik Hoffmann-Petersen, the businessman and entrepreneur, who has such faith in the project that he ends up becoming co-founder and CEO of Specshell.
From brewing beer to …
It was Erik Hoffmann-Petersen who suggested that the team should start off by targeting their input towards the brewing industry, because it is such a huge market and one that stands to reap major benefits from Specshell’s technology. The mashing process in particular would be a good place to start, as mashing is currently a recipe-based process that relies heavily on trial and error. Things generally go well enough, but even the biggest breweries sometimes experience a failed mashing process, and this does not become apparent until three or four weeks after fermentation has finished. So a new measurement method with the capacity to tell the master brewer precisely what is happening in the tank would have considerable potential for all breweries.
“Our technology opens the doors to a whole new world, because when you can suddenly track the entire mashing process in real time and at molecular level, you can also explain why precisely this beer turned out especially well. In the long term, it may even pave the way to exciting new types of beer. What is more, the barley malt that forms the basis for mashing process is the most expensive ingredient used in brewing. This means that if breweries succeed in raising the level of utilization by even a few per cent, they stand to enjoy a significant financial benefit,” says Erik Hoffmann-Petersen.
Specshell expects to have its first prototype system installed around March 2015. Basing its calculations on market potential of around 5,000 systems selling at more than half a million kroner each, the company anticipates developing into a medium-sized Danish industrial enterprise over the next three years. This would mean that in 2017, Specshell could well be employing around 30 people. So the future is looking bright for Specshell.
The right match
Specshell’s success is music to the ears of Majken Kramer Overgaard, Project Manager for ‘Bridging the Gap’:
“Specshell is an excellent example of how things really get moving once you find the right match between an external entrepreneur and a team of researchers,” she says, and adds:
“There are all kinds of new and exciting technologies just waiting to be utilized and commercialized. The challenge is typically to find the right markets and the initial financing. And that’s precisely where the external entrepreneurs can make all the difference. In addition, a corporate constellation that comprises both professional business people and researchers from the very start makes it much easier for researchers to commit to start-up projects while continuing their research careers. This is very significant in relation to researchers’ motivation.”
Researcher with a company
Andreas Kunov-Kruse certainly has no plans to turn his back on the world of research, even though he has become a company owner. On the contrary, it transpires that the two aspects supplement one other perfectly:
“Even though brewing beer is a familiar process—one that has existed for thousands of years—it actually comprises a range of extremely complex biochemical reactions. The interesting thing is that no-one has taken a good, hard look at the process from this perspective before. So in actual fact we’re breaking new ground from both commercial and research perspectives.
At the moment we’re not only running quantum mechanical spectra simulations, but also constructing mathematical models that allow us to perform calculations on the simulations. It may appear a bit chemistry-nerd basic research-like, but it is incredibly useful when it comes to developing a mashing model. It’s been fascinating for me as a researcher to experience how relatively sophisticated scientific methods can be applied to solving an extremely down-to-earth problem in the food industry.”