PowerON CEO, Dr. Markus Henke, will on November 26th be on the panel at a webinar about the AI and robotic industry in Saxony. Together with Maria Piechnick – Chief Product Officer of Wandelbots GmbH and Christoph Biering – Head of AI at Wandelbots GmbH, he will offer insights into recent developments in robotics in Saxony and Germany. Robotics has gained so much momentum there that Saxony is commonly known in the media as “Robotic Valley”.
“Saxony’s ecosystem for robotics technologies meant Dresden was the right home for our German operations” said Dr. Henke. “I’m please to take part in the panel and share some of PowerON’s experience and progress since starting our GmbH two months ago.”
Dr. Henke also added: “At PowerON we are recruiting now as we start to build out our German and European team. Along with the colleagues from Wandelbots, I’ll be sharing insights on the technology and the skills needed to thrive in it as a working professional in our sector – a European industry sunrise success story.”
Meet Dr. Henke at the webinar by registering your attendance here.
To better serve customers in Germany and the wider European Union, PowerON has established a subsidiary GmbH which will be operating from September. Commenting on the expansion, Dr. Markus Henke, PowerON CEO, noted: “An upside of the Covid-19 crisis – if there is one – is a significant uptick of interest from companies wanting to automate production processes: robots are immune to Covid and keep people away from harm.”
Dr. Henke observed that implementing major changes, like new ways of automation, required investment over long time horizons. “Germany and the European Union lead the world in robotics and automation. At PowerON we saw a significant increase in enquiries during the COVID-19 shutdown, so we decided to bring our plans for Germany forward.” He said there were clear signs that companies were planning ahead to prepare for the next pandemic, aiming to automate a wider range of tasks that today put people at risk.” Dr. Henke: “Although it’s still early days for PowerON, we are encouraged that customers recognize the transformational possibilities that PowerON’s technology bring to robotics.”
As PowerON GmbH gears up, people are being added in customer support and business development roles. “Now we can support customers across the EU from the same time zone” said Dr. Henke, “and, over time, PowerON GmbH will begin product manufacture close to end customers”.
PowerON GmbH is based in Dresden. Dr. Henke said that the choice of location was easy: “We have a strong collaboration already with the TU Dresden.” Amongst the largest technology-oriented universities in Germany, TU Dresden was named a “University of Excellence” by the German Research Society, recognizing the strong track record of innovation. The past few years have seen large research institutes, including Fraunhofer, Helmholtz and Leibniz establishing around TU Dresden, augmenting a vibrant start-up environment. “To grow a game changing start up in robotics now, Dresden is the obvious place to be. By setting up there PowerON can access world-class facilities as well as strengthening customer support”, Dr. Henke concluded.
Even today, robots struggle with tasks that people find easy: harvesting sensitive fruit, moving over difficult terrain and care tasks for patients and convalescents are beyond current capabilities. This is set to change: scientists at TU Dresden are developing a new generation of robots and robotic components. As part of the Emmy Noether Programme, 2 million Euros from the German Research Foundation (DFG) is supporting the newly-established “MEiTNER – Mulitfunctional Dielectric Electronics for Next Generation Soft Robotics” research group. Over the next six years, the MEiTNER will deliver smart and flexible materials, manufacturing processes and complex bionic components for highly capable, adaptive, robotic systems.
Conventional robots use hard components controlled by rigid electronics and are useful for manufacturing processes needing repetitive, pre-programmed movements – kept away from people for safety. There is a pressing need for more flexibility and adaptability if robot applications are to increase, freeing people from mundane tasks. “Flexible robot systems will open up completely new applications that seem unimaginable to engineers today. We draw inspiration from the natural world around us – the end result of millions of years of evolution.” says Dr. Markus Henke, MEiTNER group leader at TU Dresden and PowerON’s CEO. For example, bionic robots made of flexible materials can mimic insects – and crawl into danger areas for disaster reconnaissance. The same technology gives sense of touch to robot “gripper systems”- robot hands.
Dr. Henke noted that robots with adaptive, intelligent, gripper systems can finally take over heavy work from people, while safely working together with human colleagues. “We see applications medium-term in harvesting robots for sensitive agricultural products such as asparagus, avocados or kiwis and for e-commerce fulfilment centres.” said Dr. Henke. Many applications in medical technology will open up as the technology matures: intelligent, lifelike, prosthetic components, medication pumps built as soft skins and much more. “I know this sounds like science fiction”, Dr. Henke observed, “but these are already demonstrated in our laboratory. MEiTNER is a significant step towards commercial readiness.”
MEiTNER is further developing flexible electronic systems made of multifunctional dielectric elastomers, often referred to as “artificial muscles”. Dielectric elastomers are sophisticated polymers incorporating electrically conductive particles. Dr. Henke: “We work at micro-scale now and we see great possibilities for nano-scale implementations as MEiTNER improves our processes.” Dresden researchers are cooperating with the Biomimetics Laboratory, led by Professor Iain Anderson, at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Under an exclusive arrangement, MEiTNER outputs will be commercialized by PowerON, a new company with operations in Auckland and Dresden. Katie Wilson, PowerON CTO said: “We are grateful for the DFG’s support, which will accelerate PowerON’s commercialization mission. I look forward to working closely with the Dresden colleagues throughout MEiTNER.”
PowerON’s CTO, Katie Wilson, commented that: “With the launch of our new website, it’s a good opportunity to acknowledge the R&D Project Grant received recently from Callaghan Innovation, New Zealand’s innovation agency. Callaghan is providing 40% co-funding as the PowerON team works towards customer samples of elastomer electronic devices – notably our gates and oscillators.” Ms. Wilson noted further that customer response to PowerON’s offer of tactile detector arrays for robotics had been strong: “It’s clear that our patented geometric switch detector arrays are filling a gap in the market – and we plan to back that up with additional devices based round our proprietary continuum switch technology.”
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PowerON is pleased to announce membership of the German-New Zealand Chamber of Commerce. PowerON’s CEO, Dr. Markus Henke said: “As a new company building business in the competitive European marketplace, we value the support the Chamber offers.” He noted that there were already 270 companies involved with the Chamber, commenting that: “Being on opposite sides of the globe is no barrier to business now. PowerON recognized that it needed to support international customers from the outset; the Chamber has been a good source of advice as we expand our operations in Germany.”
PowerON anticipates a long-lasting relationship with the Chamber and its member companies as business grows. The membership will be a valuable link for the company to politicians, institutions and decision-makers of both countries.
As with almost all companies worldwide, the tragic events around Covid-19 have impacted PowerON’s team and work practices. Dr. Markus Henke, PowerON CEO commented: “With operating divisions in Germany and New Zealand, PowerON lives in the Cloud with videoconferencing anyway, so we’ve been affected a little less than others who had to pick up a completely new way of working”. Dr. Henke noted that PowerON’s team, as with most technology start-ups, had a backlog of tasks and enquiries that were being dealt with. He said: “To be honest, the Covid shutdown has given our team an opportunity to focus on planning, documentation and product configuration details that needed attention as we come up to launch later this year.” Asked about launch plans, he noted that PowerON had been signalling offers of evaluation kits to qualified prospective customers, supported by a specialised High Voltage Signal Generator (HV SG), used for artificial muscle actuators and PowerON’s proprietary elastomer electronics: “Sure, we’ve had some delays. Covid has put back regulatory approval tests for our HV SG – that’s a problem because we have orders outstanding. Covid laboratory shutdowns for around 6 weeks now have also put back availability of our customer-ready elastomer device kits – but we’ll be back on track for later in the year.” Dr. Henke’s final comments were about industry events delayed or cancelled through Covid-19: “Frankly, the largest downside for us, and no doubt others, has been the train wreck Covid has put through the Northern Hemisphere tradeshow and conference season. Hannover Fair was cancelled while other industry events important for PowerON either went on-line or were cancelled, putting a dent in our plans. But it’s given us the opportunity to connect with customers in other ways and get our product offers right.”
Our team in Auckland has successfully moved to its new office space called Cloud9. The Auckland Bioengineering Institute is providing us a space where we can grow our team and our business under one roof with several other ABI spin-out companies. Enjoying a great view over the Auckland Harbour, our team can work on new products and develop new technology in our own office space.
“We set up Cloud 9 to nurture our fledgling spin-out companies in one space – where they can exchange ideas, work closely with their research groups and continue their R&D – until they are more established.”, says the ABI.
In the framework of this event PowerOn was able to pitch our idea and technology in a pitch competition. It was a very close race! We got second. Besides that we got to know a lot of interesting people from industry, politics and even the new Finnish ambassadress to Germany.
“IP Group plc, the University of Auckland Inventors Fund and local investor Matū Fund have together invested in another spin-out from the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at The University of Auckland. PowerON Limited utilises unique dielectric elastomer switch technology to produce customisable, soft and flexible switches, actuators and logic capabilities. Applications range from simple direct limit switches to distributed intelligence and, eventually, lifelike, nature-inspired, soft and collaborative robots. PowerON’s soft devices enable localised processing and control, conferring biological-like reflexes and multiple degrees of freedom – exemplified in nature by the limb capabilities of the octopus and others. Current soft robotics often have a centralised processing and control module that is bulky, heavy and rigid: not compatible with a future where robots assist people in their everyday lives. PowerON believes its proprietary technology will be a key component for autonomous soft robots free from tethered control – and will offer a practical alternative for many other market areas.
This is the third start-up out of the Biomimetics Lab in the Auckland Bioengineering Institute at The University of Auckland after StretchSense Limited (2012) and Electroclear Limited (2018). The founder and director of the Biomimetics Lab, Associate Professor Iain Anderson, is also a founder of each start-up, managing his involvement while retaining his full time academic role. His past PhDs and Post Doc Researchers have taken the lead in forming and managing the new companies. Associate Professor Anderson sees his participation as providing a conduit for new technologies to market. “In attracting smart and driven students the Biomimetics Lab has advanced our core technology through high-quality research. Focusing on developments with commercial potential has kept us at the international forefront with bio-inspired materials and afforded the opportunity to spin out companies backed by experienced investors”.
The lead investor, IP Group is a leading intellectual property commercialisation company focused on evolving great ideas from its partner universities into world-changing businesses. IPGroup pioneered a unique approach to developing these ideas and the resulting businesses by providing access to business building expertise, capital, scientific insight and the supporting infrastructure. In Australia and New Zealand, IP Group works in close partnership with the Go8 Universities and The University of Auckland to identify ground breaking technologies, rooted in hard science, which have the most promising commercial potential. IP Group, which is listed on the Main Market of the London Stock Exchange, has a strong track record of success and its portfolio comprises holdings in early-stage to mature businesses across life sciences and technology. IP Group has pledged to invest AU$200M over the next 10 years into technologies being developed by the top 8 universities in Australia and The University of Auckland. Head of Physical Sciences at IP Group Australia, Paul Barrett says “we are excited to make our first investment in NZ through our partnership with the University of Auckland. PowerON is a great example of the world-leading technology that we invest in, and we look forward to working with Iain and the PowerOn team in building an outstanding company”. Associate Professor Iain Anderson says that “having IP Group invest is a great validation in the work and expertise of the lab and also of the commercial potential for the technology. They also bring deep expertise in intellectual property management, manufacturing, and what is required to take products to market”.
The University of Auckland Inventors Fund is an evergreen, open-ended $20 million investment fund owned and managed by Auckland UniServices Limited, the commercial company for The University of Auckland. The Inventors Fund provides seed-capital for ventures started out of the University of Auckland. They are typically the first investor for many ventures out of the university, from both students and university staff. Through the specialist ReturnOnScience investment committees researchers and students are able to pitch their ideas receiving valuable feedback, advice, networks and the possibility of investment from the Inventors Fund. Because the Inventors Fund is focused on supporting university research and the wider university ecosystem they tend to invest earlier than most other institutional investors, and their relationships with local and international angel, venture capital investors provides the opportunity to attract co-investment from other investors.
Matū Fund is a venture capital fund investing in early-stage science and technology commercialisation from education and research institutions and the private sector. As an open and evergreen fund, Matū takes a long-term investment view and is aimed at turning ground-breaking ideas into globally focused, IP-rich companies. Matū provides intelligent capital with active governance, executive management, operational support, and mentorship for founding and executive teams.”
We also acknowledge our support from the EXIST programme of the Federal Ministry for Business and Technology, from TU Dresden and the Auckland Bioengineering Institute.