ValCUN is shaping the future of metal 3D printing
This Ghent-based start-up is focusing on making 3D printing sustainable and cost-efficient.
Our “Ghent techies” are ambitious and love to talk extensively about their products. Two such ambitious entrepreneurs founded ValCUN. The name is derived from the Roman god of fire and blacksmiths, Vulcanus. By exchanging the 'u' and 'a, the material they work with comes to the fore: 'al' from aluminium. They are developing a 3D printer for metal.
Their work aligns with our cherished ambition: to make Ghent grow into the European Technology Capital. Thanks to innovative technologies, we can introduce research into our industrial sectors. We are all working together within cleantech to rapidly transition to a circular economy and make Ghent climate-neutral by 2050. We have a strong network of innovative players active in energy, materials, water, and mobility.
The founders of ValCUN, Jonas Galle and Jan De Pauw, told us more about their history and the path to a promising future, with its ups and downs.
Partners in progress
During his PhD in Electromechanics, Jonas discovered that technologies for metal 3D printing were costly. "I always seek out challenges," he says. "Where others might give up, I see an opportunity. I got involved in a new and challenging project: developing a renewed rocket engine. The required parts are extremely complex due to the cooling and minimal weight. It occurred to me that perhaps there was an alternative approach possible. That's when I first came across metal printing. I looked for an existing and affordable solution on the market but found that it simply didn’t exist. That was the decisive motivation to start working on it myself."
But how do you take that first step towards your product? For Jonas, it was the feasibility study through VLAIO. Although this was completed in 2018, he initially hesitated to take immediate action. "I hesitated because I didn't have a concrete product then and thought this was a requirement. Eventually, I quit my job and made that leap. And then I saw Jan in the corridors of Ghent University again."
The two had known each other since their time as civil engineering students. However, after graduation, their paths diverged, admits Jan. "We both completed our PhDs but were in different departments. After my PhD, I wanted to start my own spin-off but encountered some obstacles. That's when Jonas walked through the hallway, as he was there to talk to my professor to explore what subsidy opportunities were available for his project. His story strongly interested me since I also wanted to start a company but faced a few obstacles. So, I met him at the right time! In early 2019, I officially became a co-founder of ValCUN."
Beta testers are of great importance. As technicians, we can create a fantastic product, but if it's not user-friendly, all the effort is in vain.
Beyond the start
Jonas and Jan found their first industrial office space in 2019, followed by an initial capital round in 2021. These printers can be produced through an extrusion process of liquid aluminium. This process offers many possibilities, ranging from light fixtures to machine parts. "At this point in our entrepreneurship," Jan shares, "we strive to optimise the printer as much as possible. Only then can we consider further trajectories, such as the possibility of producing high-quality products from recycled material."
"Indeed," says Jonas, "because you know what they say: 'shit in, shit out' (laughs). Recycled material remains a residual product, and it is necessary to return to the pure form of the material to ensure quality. At the moment, we are not yet able to treat or separate these residual products. However, this is certainly an aspect we will focus on in the future."
"Our main goal is to bring a cost-efficient and easily deployable variant of a 3D metal printer to the market, without compromising on quality," emphasises Jan. "Current installations quickly cost 500,000 euros, which is unaffordable for the average SME. Furthermore, the current printers work with highly flammable powders and are dangerous to transport. Our product, on the other hand, is easy to use."
"You should know," says Jonas, "that aluminium powder is used in the fuel of rocket engines. I don't need to explain that your workspace must be sufficiently safe. Our printer is located in an office space. We are still refining our product, as we are still in the developmental phase. That's why we are still looking for individuals or companies willing to beta-test the printer."
"Beta testers are of great importance," Jonas adds. "As technicians, we can create a fantastic product, but if it's not user-friendly, all the effort is in vain. The more testers we have, the more potential customers we can engage. Only in this way can we see where we need to focus further and what is less efficient."
On the road to growth, thanks to good advice
Although the first printer has already been sold, Jonas and Jan aim to boost sales significantly. "That's why we've also launched a vacancy for a Business Development Lead," says Jan. "Even though we're present at trade shows and speak at various events, we're still too focused on the technical aspects ourselves. An experienced profile could complement our capabilities well."
"Up until now, we were able to manage this ourselves," says Jonas, " surrounding ourselves with stronger people in this area. In November 2022, we attracted two leading professionals in our field. We were at the Formnext trade fair in Germany, and one of our direct competitors had just discontinued its activity in metal printers. The head of that department passed by our stand, and I recognised her. I ran after her because she was walking quickly (laughs). I approached her and convinced her to come to our stand. She listened with interest and asked questions but also wanted to involve her technical expert. So, the next day, they both came to our stand, which began our collaboration with these two advisors. It's already been particularly instructive because they've previously gone through many of the steps we are taking now in another company. Sometimes, you have to dare to take a leap of faith. To this day, we have weekly meetings with them. They prepare us for meetings or podcasts, for example. They ask us the difficult questions that often need to be asked and guide us in areas where we have little or no experience."
Taking a good beating
There are countless moments of pride for Jonas and Jan. "We're particularly proud that we have been able to start a startup from scratch," says Jan. "As you know, startup founders are particularly ambitious and go to the extreme to find the solution." "Us too," adds Jonas, "but make no mistake, we have ‘taken a good beating’ several times. Sometimes that's just necessary. We have repeatedly adjusted our course, even completely overhauled it, fearing the company might fail. It turned out afterwards that every time, we made the right decision, both technically and in our relationships with investors. There was a moment, just before the outbreak of COVID-19, when we found ourselves in the final phase of signing a contract. During that meeting, we both felt that something wasn't right. We simply said ' no ' without regard for possible other investors."
Jan and Jonas also connect ambitious entrepreneurship with solid principles. "We have made a promise to ourselves," says Jonas. "If we fail, it will never be due to cash flow problems. There is always a way out of a tough situation. You always find a way to bring in money again; we have learned that by now. If the product doesn't take off or there are insufficient sales, that's a different story. But money will never be the death blow. We are also very grateful that we were able to participate in the IEC program last year, which also provides a lot of support."
We're particularly proud that we have been able to start a startup from scratch.
The chicken or the egg
In the beginning, Jonas found it challenging to take the plunge and start a company. "I felt it would work," he shares, "since I had theoretical evidence. In practice, investors often expect a concrete product before they are willing to invest. But I needed money to develop the technology, which puts you in a deadlock. Actually, it's straightforward: you have to make sure you can make it, whatever it takes. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of time before realising that. I want to tell all other entrepreneurs: just do it!"
Soon after Jan joined, the COVID-19 crisis broke out. "Honestly, that period was key to making certain decisions," Jonas says. "We couldn't pitch anymore; all funding sources dried up, so we didn't need to make those considerations anymore. Finally, we had to fully focus on our product without distraction. In that way, we achieved our goal for the VLAIO subsidy."
They quickly saw the importance of having an advisory board as well. "At that time, our board consisted of a complementary team of tech entrepreneurs, potential customers, salespeople, someone with a financial background, and so on. These were all experienced people, complementing us, young and naive. This board also included two business angels who ultimately, together with three others, invested in our company. That was only possible because they had witnessed our evolution and saw the team’s potential. Our resilience appealed to them."
"I would also like to advise fellow entrepreneurs not to get fixated on statistics," Jonas adds. "In statistics, for example, only 1 in 10 startups survive. Only 1 in 10 startups focuses on hardware. In other words, theoretically, our company has only a 1% chance of success. That is discouraging because it implies that we are doomed to fail from the start. However, these figures do not take into account the context. Because actually, these percentages are inaccurate. Among those, 9 out of 10 startups are many who just want to start a business to get rich quickly. You give up at the first setback if you don’t have a real passion for your product or service. You have to be willing to give something to your company, of course. And then we come to the typical Ghent motto: ‘nie neute, nie pleuje’ which means as much as ‘don’t fuss, don’t give up’."