PowerON’s work and technology is attracting further attention in Germany. Our CEO Markus Henke has been interviewed by Thomas Trabert from the HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management. Thomas and Markus discussed PowerON, its history, journey, developments and vision. The article has been published in the framework of Success Stories at “Zukunftsland Sachsen”. You can find the article here (German original).
Below, you can read an English translation of the article:
Creating the next generation of robotics
The German-New Zealand startup PowerON is engaged in developing completely flexible electronic components for the next generation of robots. The team around co-founder Dr. E.-F. Markus Henke has nothing less in mind than to fundamentally revolutionize robotics as we know it from traditional industrial manufacturing.
“We want to make robots more human and teach them to feel.” To do this, PowerON is solving one of the fundamental problems of robotics. It is still difficult for robots to interact safely with their environment and, for example, to handle various randomly shaped objects. To change this, PowerON is looking at so-called multifunctional dielectric elastomers. These are flexible materials that can be used as artificial muscles to enable bioinspired movements, as artificial skins to provide robots with a sense of touch, and even as a kind of bioinspired nervous system that gives robots reflexes.
The evolution away from “Big, metal, cold and stiff colleagues in the factory,” as Dr. Henke calls them, to bionically designed assistance systems that interact with us every day in various applications is necessary, in PowerON’s view, to solve burning problems of the future, but which have already become apparent during the pandemic. “We have clearly seen in the last two years what happens to supply chains when entire companies have to close due to a pandemic,” says Dr. Henke, “Or how bad things are for the asparagus harvest when no helpers can be found. The dramatic situation in nursing is now obvious even to outsiders.” From PowerON’s point of view, there is a very great potential in the future to bring robotic assistance systems into use in many applications where it is not yet possible today. Flexible technology will offer a significant contribution to this. “It’s not now that we want to do away with industrial robots. They do their jobs in the production lines exceptionally well. But we want to make it possible for the significant advantages of automation technology to be available to the broad masses, precisely through bio-inspired systems that can work safely with us. “
And this is precisely what the compliance of materials in combination with electronics is supposed to make possible. To this end, the company has a broad patent portfolio in various areas, which is constantly being expanded. PowerON works primarily with tactile surfaces, which are used as fingertips in robot grippers and enable them to feel different surfaces and things. Currently, a demonstrator is being developed from the prototypes, together with an industrial partner, which will show the enormous potential of tactile gripping. “From the fingertips, we will subsequently create entire skins”, says. Dr. Henke. With these skins, PowerON wants to give complete robotic systems a tactile surface so that users can interact with them via buttons and gestures, similar to a hand on the shoulder. This feature is not only useful as a safety feature, as the robot can minimize consequences of possible collisions, but rather such skins will change the way we interact with technical systems in real-time and without further aids. Through location-resolved tactile sensing, they are enabling robots to recognize and respond to appropriate tactile gestures.
PowerON is also working on so-called “artificial muscles”. These are compliant materials that convert electrical energy into kinetic energy and have similar properties to biological muscles. This leads not only to a safer but also a more pleasant haptic experience than would be possible with classic actuators, such as motors. Furthermore, these actuators move silently, which is advantageous for use close to the body. Here, too, the first demonstrators have already been developed and built together with pilot customers.
“To the best of our knowledge, function integration at this depth, covering everything from sensor to actuator to signal processing with one material system, does not work with any other known technology.”
Dr. Ing. E.F. Markus Henke
CEO PowerON GmbH, CEO PowerON Ltd.
The greatest technological potential, however, still lies in the future, according to PowerON. “What we are most excited about is the possibility of being able to process signals through a clever combination of actuators and special sensors, which we call “artificial neurons,” and thus equip technical systems such as robots with reflexes and a certain autonomy” Dr. Henke elaborates. PowerON is developing autonomous, compliant signal processing units that can be directly integrated into flexible structures and provide them with some intelligence. “To the best of our knowledge, functional integration of this depth, which covers everything from the sensor to actuator to signal processing with one material system, does not work with any other known technology. “, says Dr. Henke.
Silicones with different degrees of hardness are used as the basis for all developments and are selected specifically for the respective type of application. In this way, customer-specific solutions can be created. To create the electronic components, the silicones are mixed with various carbon compounds and printed.
In addition to mechanical compliance, one advantage of the technology is that signals can be registered and processed directly where they occur, and a direct reflexive response can be elicited. Detection directly at the point of contact offers numerous advantages. For example, there is no need to integrate additional sensor technology in the motors and joints of robots, as is often the case today. The greatest potential, however, probably lies in opening up applications that no one is reckoning with today.
From science to application
After completing his Ph.D. at TU Dresden, Dr. Henke spent two years from 2015 to 2017 as a PostDoc at the Bioengineering Institute of the University of Auckland in New Zealand. There he worked on flexible artificial muscles, artificial neurons, and bioinspired robots. While there, he met the company’s current COO, Dr. Ross Martin Green, an already successful entrepreneur from New Zealand. Based on his experience in technology development, Dr. Green also recognized the commercial potential of the scientific work early on and was quickly convinced that further development would also be worthwhile. At the end of 2015, PowerON’s current CTO, Dr. Katie Wilson, came to New Zealand for her Ph.D. and complemented the team.
In 2017, Dr. Henke returned to Germany with the firm decision to set up a company in the field of soft robotics together with the team in New Zealand. In 2019, the time had come. With the support of investors from Australia and New Zealand, as well as the University of Auckland, PowerON Ltd. was founded. In addition, the founding team received support from Dresden|exist, and the TU Dresden in the form of an exist Business Startup Grant. This enabled the team to gain a foothold in Europe as well. In 2020, as a result of this support, PowerON GmbH was founded as a subsidiary in Dresden. Close cooperation with both universities continues and offers an excellent opportunity for mutual exchange.
Due to the geographical distance between Germany and New Zealand, PowerON is ideally positioned for a digital future. For example, weekly cross-company management meetings and supervisory board meetings have been held exclusively online since day 1. What other companies first had to implement and learn at the beginning of the Corona pandemic was already “best practice” for PowerON’s founding team.
A generally big challenge is always to bring visionary ideas to the broad market. This requires a comparatively large amount of money for a hardware startup like PowerON. This is invested primarily in specialists, laboratory equipment, and later in building up production capacities. Therefore, such disruptive, future-oriented developments are only possible with the support of external investors. “Just like us as founders, our investors believe in the technology and the impact our products will have in the near future. And perhaps more importantly, they believe in us as a team. “, says Dr. Henke.
This is also demonstrated by the fact that the investors, who incidentally have to date come exclusively from Australia and New Zealand, were prepared to invest in PowerON’s vision of next-generation bio-inspired robots at an early stage. In the upcoming financing round, German and European investors should now also be convinced of the potential.
For a young startup like PowerON, it is always fascinating, sometimes surprising, with what rules, procedures, and processes the German administrative apparatus comes up with. Therefore, it quickly became clear to PowerON that it was inevitable to establish a GmbH (limited liability company) based in Dresden in addition to the Ltd. that existed at the beginning in order to be able to exploit the full potential of opportunities in Germany and Europe. The PowerON team received significant support in this process from the network around Dresden|exist. It was also exciting to observe how quickly it can happen that a good idea can quickly reach the management level in large established companies and discuss its ideas with decision-makers there.
Currently, PowerON employs 15 people in Dresden and Auckland. By the end of next year, the company aims to double the size of its team.
As a young company, you should not underestimate the challenges that come with expanding your team. For example, the onboarding of new employees, especially in the beginning, ties up a lot of free resources that cannot be used in other areas of work.
The biggest challenge, especially at the beginning, was to transform the university background, with its focus on research, into product development with a focus on customer benefits. This transformation has been very successful, especially due to the cooperation with various pilot customers.