What’s the worst that could happen? In January 1996, with this thought in mind, Jan-Jaap Koppert took the bold step of launching his company Advanced Lightweight Engineering. Now, 18 years later, his ‘shop’ is valued at €50 million, and Koppert has a wealth of stories and anecdotes.
Just ask Jan-Jaap Koppert about the origins and development of his company Advanced Lightweight Engineering (ALE) and stand back. From his years in the materials department of the faculty of Aerospace Engineering, he proceeds to tell of the poor labour market he entered as a young graduate in the mid-1990s. The scene shifts to show him sitting uncomfortably in an organisational consultancy firm, thinking about his future, wondering whether he should start his own company – obviously in the field of composites. ‘I had no mortgage, no children. I thought, “What’s the worst that could happen?” And so I did it.’
Koppert wrote ‘a little business plan’ and started searching for money. Banks were no help, but he was able to scratch together €4000 from people who understood him – entrepreneurs. These six men coached him and provided him with access to their networks. Koppert gave himself one year. ‘After that, I would analyse how things had gone’.
No sooner had Koppert started than he was summoned to a shipyard. There, he saw a luxurious 50-metre yacht under construction. ‘The customer wanted to be able to sail it at the unprecedented speed of 90 km/h. The hull was finished, made entirely of steel. Any weight to be eliminated would have to come from the interior. We made composite floors and walls. This allowed the yacht to reach the desired speed.’
One part of ALE is an engineering firm that specialises in composites. For example, Koppert and his 20 employees are working for the aircraft manufacturer Airbus to develop a method for virtual imaging of invisible damage to composite fuselages. In addition, ALE produces automobile parts and antennae for satellites. The company has been earning money with these types of activities from the start.
This allowed him to finance his passion: producing composite overwrapped pressure vessels. Because they weigh much less than steel vessels, their uses include reducing the weight carried by cars running on LPG, thus improving their fuel efficiency. The largest consumer market that Koppert is currently targeting, however, is located in countries where people cook with bottled gas. ‘Steel tanks are heavy, they rust, they require considerable maintenance and they can explode. We can reduce the weight by 80% with our much safer, flexible tanks. Using the machines we developed, we can overwrap them in two minutes.’
Malaysia was the first country in which ALE sold a licence. The Delft company shipped its overwrapping machines overseas to Kuala Lumpur. If Koppert has his way, Brazil, Russia and other countries will soon follow.
This would usher in the time for which he has been working for nearly 20 years: ‘Our engineering firm is really an ordinary wage factory. We don’t earn anything except when we’re working. Now we’ll be earning money while we sleep as well.’
Name: Jan-Jaap Koppert
Degree programme: aerospace engineering
Company: Advanced Lightweight Engineering
Established in: 1996
Sells: composite pressure vessels and materials knowledge
Mission: to make pressure vessels safer and lighter
In 5 years: ALE composite pressure vessels will be sold in many countries