Gerard & Anton Awards: Etulipa, electronic billboards without light pollution
Jul 26, 2016 4:24:25 PM. By: High Tech Campus
Ten startups from Eindhoven have been honoured with the Gerard and Anton Award 2016. The jury of the awards thinks these ten have all it takes to follow the footsteps of Gerard and Anton Philips who, 125 years ago, formed the first truly successful startup in the region. Every day we highlight one of those startups. Today: Etulipa.
For ten years already, Hans Feil is working on the constant improvement of the electrowetting technique. Still, this did not yet lead to bringing a product to market. But that will change next year. “In 2017 we will enter the US market.” Hans Feil, CEO of Etulipa, is confident. For the Top 10 Startups to watch, we visited this Philips spin off. The startup is developing huge screens that act like paper when it comes to reading convenience. “With traditional screens, your eyes get tired, this works much better, easier. Moreover, this technique is a hundred times more efficient than LED screens.”
Thanks to Philips, Eindhoven is a breeding place for display technology. This spinout takes displays to a higher level, functioning with low energy and it takes away the need for light polluting billboards.
Etulipa recently signed a deal with an American investor and early next year, the first changeable copy board will be seen in the US. “We will sell the first real boards based on electrowetting techniques. Everyone will be able to see how great it works.”
The old Natlab Electrowetting display technology has been developed in the old Natlab at Philips, in the last century. “Ten years ago Philips decided to stop developing it. However, I saw plenty of opportunities for this technology. With four people we started building a dimmable car mirror for the German market. The technology was not ready so we had to develop it ourselves. We constantly ran into new problems. That was very frustrating. We even thought of stopping, but in the end we succeeded. Only for the German car industry the mirror was too late, we missed our chance.”
Feil makes a pivot and decides to focus on billboards. “The knowledge I had gained in dimming mirrors, I could bring into this project.” For now, Etulipa focuses on the US market with monochrome copyboards. In the future this will change to full color billboards, Feil says. But he thinks bigger already: “Decorating buildings and cities for example. Believe me, the possibilities are endless.” Feil starts laughing: “We have a long list of applications that are possible with companies and people whom I would want to work with.” He makes great gestures with his arms. “But we only have a small team, eight men. So if we have to approach every company, we would sit and chat all day. We would have no time left for production. Of course it helps enormously that our investor in the US has a large network of potential customers. Now there’s less need to talk.”
How does it work? The big screen consists of small tiles with two glass plates and lots of tiny little cells. The cells are filled with a dark liquid, a kind of ink. If a voltage is applied in the cell, the liquid forms a small droplet in the middle of the cell. If there’s no voltage, then the ink flows out over the entire cell, and the ink becomes visible. That means you can create images on the screen. Unlike traditional screens, this display emits no light. Light is only reflected. Colors can be formed by adding three layers of tiles – cyan, magenta and yellow – in the glass plates on top of each other. With these three colors you can combine endlessly, the same way as in printing technique. “We produce the liquids in our own cleanrooms, here we have the freedom to try new things. In Taiwan the serial production has been set up.”
Currently, Feil and his Taiwanese partners work on the automation of the production and the increase of the volume of the initial tile, which is now 8 to 12 centimeters. “That’s a big job. For example because other laws and regulations on the use of chemicals apply in this factory. We keep looking for alternatives that work just as well, or better. You are always looking for better materials, our task is never finished.”
Startup life? “As a startup you constantly look into the abyss, you have to be able to handle it. We have to continue to perform, there’s no other way. Technically, you will always find new problems. You solve them one after the other, and go on. But financially it is difficult as well, you always have just enough money to get through for a couple of months. I sometimes get the question whether it was all worth the journey, because I’ve obviously been putting a lot of time and energy into the development of our product. But I have been doing this for so long that I just can’t let go, especially now that the first sale come in sight. You must keep some kind of open-mindedness, that’s what I always keep in mind.”