Software as a service for virtual prototypes of industrial bulk mixers
Within two weeks of their start at the University of Twente, assistant professor Thomas Weinhart and his colleague (now adjunct) professor Anthony Thornton decided to work together on new software for virtual prototyping. Anthony: “Other academic codes at the time originated from the nineties. We wanted to start with clean, modern programming and benefit from code we would fully understand.” Since then, over thirty academics contributed, over ten million euros have been invested, and the software now solves problems more efficiently and more accurately for lots of companies.
From open-source software to business model
They have been working on the project since 2009 and decided to start a company in 2014. “Segregation, or demixing, is a significant problem in a variety of industries. The commercial closed software on the market is a black box”, according to CEO Anthony Thornton. “You cannot check its content. Is it up-to-date and accurate? Our prototyping software is open-source. Anyone can use it and check its validity. But as its academic software, it can be quite difficult to use, there is no GUI. That’s why we decided to take it to the market as Software as a Service. We solve customers’ problems with the use of our software”, he clarifies the business model.
Building a team is a challenge
With the help of business developer Rogier de Haan, MercuryLab received a take-off grant. “We used this grant for market research, hardware and we hired a programmer to further develop the software.” Building a team is a challenge for the colleagues. Anthony: “We combine our academic work with starting our company. Since it was difficult to find good programmers, we took on two PDEng students who we can train. One of their goals is developing a graphical interface that makes the software easier to use.” Anthony also looks forward to welcoming a new colleague next month. “My intent was always to start the company and then hand over the running of the company to someone else.”
Business idea? Make it concrete
Anthony Thornton: “The Early Business Development Bootcamp helped us structure our ideas. It gave us a canvas and timetable to work on. The business canvas is still on the wall of our office.” And he adds a tip: “Don’t sit on cash at the start of your company. Invest and take risks, there is always a plan B. And once the company has taken off, reserve money so you have deep pockets in times of need.”
Rogier de Haan @Novel-T
“MercuryLab operates in a specialist market with some very large companies who could really benefit from their solution”, business developer Rogier de Haan explains. “We helped MercuryLab accelerate through our business development bootcamp, but also by our support on business, legal and funding matters, for example, a take-off grant. As with other UT spin-offs, we have supported the startup process from research results to a company which offers a commercial product and makes true science accessible for the industry.”
In July 2019 MercuryLab organized a conference on particle simulation methods: 8th International Conference on Discrete Element Methods. And in December 2019 MercuryLab hosted a forum on Blending and Segregation with both academic and industrial partners.