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How a historian created the device that supplies wearables with the energy of the human body.
He studied history, worked as a journalist and became managing director of the Graubündner online newspaper GRHeute at the age of 26. But instead of pursuing this path, he dramatically changed his life and founded a tech start-up.
Franco Membrini is founder and CEO of Mithras Technology AG, the company that converts heat into electricity. Mithras is developing among other things a wristband that enables every consumer to charge their wearables with the energy generated by their own body, as well as an integrated solution that does not require any external chargers at all. In this interview, Franco explains what the similarities between history and tech start-ups are, what is so fascinating about energy harvesting and why dreams could be way more fruitful than detailed planning.
Your story sounds very exciting. How did it all start, what interests have led you to your professional decisions?
I have always been very curious. As a child I was a bookworm: I read a lot and developed a great interest in big questions very early on. History was one of my biggest passions. For me, the key to understanding these ‘big questions’ has always been ‘Why?’. Why are things the way they are? And, of course, history offers excellent answers to these questions.
So a degree in history was a pretty logical next step for you, wasn’t it?
Yes, I think so. I followed that path pretty consistently: I studied history at the University of Bern, then spent a semester in Bologna and finally got my master’s degree in Edinburgh.
I realized that from a career perspective, history is not the most promising field to study.
During your studies, did you have any idea how your career should develop? Where did you want to work?
I always had big plans, but I didn’t know exactly in which direction I would go. The main wish was to do something that would challenge me, and preferably to be independent. However, it is rather difficult to achieve independence with a degree in history. During my studies I was thinking of a career working for the state, for example in the Foreign Office. And then, towards the end of my education, I came up with new interests. That was when I realized that from a career perspective, history is not the most promising field to study. Of course, there are some possibilities, such as teaching, working in a museum or archive, or for international organizations. However, in these fields of work independence is rather limited.
Yet you have found a good way to apply your knowledge in pursuing a journalistic career in an online newspaper. How did it actually happen?
During my studies I started writing articles about foreign policy. Then I was able to switch to the production of the newspaper, which meant I was then setting up the entire online edition. After my graduation, I was offered the opportunity to overtake the management, which I gladly accepted and I became managing director of the newspaper. It was a big responsibility for someone fresh out of university, so I was very happy to have been given this trust.
How was it for you taking on this important role?
It was like jumping into cold water. You come straight out of university, you have no idea of anything but history, and you have to find your way in the real world of business. That was certainly a crash course for me.
How did you deal with these difficulties?
I was lucky to get a lot of support from the existing team and from the founders, which was very valuable. I learned a lot from them.
One could say that your career started successfully. And yet, less than 2 years later, you decided to start from scratch and build a company in a completely different field. Why did it happen?
That’s true, I could have continued my career in media and it could have gone well for me given my background and experience. I am often asked why I made this drastic change and I still don’t have a good answer. I’ve probably always wanted to do something bigger; it just took me time to understand what exactly.
There was a book I was reading at that time about a person who developed an engine that was going to revolutionize the world. That inspired me to think about the whole topic of energy and modern technologies. I started researching the subject and reading about it. The more I read, the more I realized how unlimited technical potential is, how many great solutions we are not yet using, and how they could change our lives in the future.
The conflict in the energy industry is centralized production and decentralized demand. Energy is not produced where we need it.
Why exactly did you choose energy harvesting and what attracted your attention most in this regard?
The conflict in the energy industry is centralized production and decentralized demand. Energy is not produced where we need it, where we use it. For example, there is a power station that produces energy, and here is my house that consumes energy. They are not in the same place.
Another conflict lies in the mobility of our society. We are all constantly on the move and not just tied to a particular place. It is therefore extremely valuable if the energy is produced where it is actually needed, i.e. where I am at the moment. The solution, or at least the reduction of this gap, holds tremendous economic potential of course, but also adds value for the user. This aspect is certainly one of the most fascinating.
The creation of such a solution sounds really great and resembles some kind of sci-fi movie plot. Was it your own idea or did you get it from other sources?
In fact, the idea for this technology is very old. For example, there was Thomas Seebeck, who formulated the thermoelectric effect as early as 1821, and since then the idea of thermoelectric generators has existed. But only today have we reached the point where technological efficiency is so high that its commercialization is worthwhile.
Thanks to advances in materials science and microstructuring, we can now build generators that actually produce enough energy to energetically support many of the devices we use every day and even make some completely autonomous, i.e. independent of other energy sources.
As a person who comes from a completely different field, have you not worried that there is actually a reason why this technology does not yet exist? That maybe there are some particular challenges? Have you asked yourself these questions?
Absolutely. Not only did I ask myself this question, but in the initial phase of the project it was a justified objection from many who had doubts about the idea. But if you read into the topic, you will realize relatively quickly why this promising technology hasn’t existed until now. For clarification, it has to be said that thermoelectric generators have been used in industrial scenarios for quite some time. For example, the current Mars Rover is also equipped with such a generator.
The difference between these generators and our vision is that the temperature differences, which are essential for their functioning, are very small in the human body. This means that until recently, the potential yield of a thermoelectric generator on humans was simply too low. But now there is a trend for energy production to become more and more efficient – mainly because of advances in materials science and microstructuring. On the other hand, applications in the medical sector, for example, consume less and less energy. These two factors meet in the middle and it’s just becoming exciting.
After a short time I started looking for people who obviously knew more about it than I did as a historian.
How did you develop the technology?
First, I researched the topic myself and after a short time I started looking for people who obviously knew more about it than I did as a historian. So by no means can you say I developed the technology; I rather designed our product prototypes.
After a short time, I came across my current co-founder, Dr. Moritz Thielen from ETH Zurich, with whom I had an in-depth look at possible technical solutions. Not only is he an outstanding scientist in his very specific field, he was also enthusiastic about the idea right from the start.
So you’re a dreamer with an active approach, aren’t you?
You could say that. A dreamer, yes, but one who not only dreams, but also tries to turn his ideas into reality.
In the beginning, what kind of product did you dream of? What was your ultimate goal?
The big vision was to offer such a solution for certain applications, especially in the medical field, so that they would never need a battery or an external charger again. It’s still our plan.
Indeed, it might be very valuable in many fields. But as a first step you have decided to develop a bracelet for regular customers so that they basically always have their charger with them, right?
Exactly, this is the idea for users in the consumer sector. You can call it a little powerhouse that you can recharge over and over by just carrying it on your wrist. So you always have an extra power reserve to support your smartphone battery or other device.
How exactly does the bracelet work?
Our body absorbs energy in the form of food. We then release part of this energy back into our environment in the form of heat. Today, this heat energy is lost unused. Our technology will help to collect it, transform it and make it usable again. This is done through two elements: a power bank and a thermoelectric generator, which are implemented in the wristband. The thermoelectric generator uses the temperature difference between our body and the environment to trigger the charging of the battery. When you have produced enough power, you can connect the bracelet to your smartphone via the cable and charge it.
The thermoelectric generator uses the temperature difference between our body and the environment to trigger the charging of the battery.
Are there limitations to this process or specific requirements?
Well, basically none, except for the need for temperature difference, which is almost always present. It also does not matter whether our body is warmer or colder than the environment, the generator works in both ways. Of course, the greater the temperature difference, the better – this means that the Power Bank charges faster.
That’s amazing! But it’s not the only product you’re working on, is it? What other solutions are you developing?
The second product is called Mithras Core. This is the generator integrated directly into the end device, e.g. on the back of the smartphone or directly into a device from the MedTech sector. This means that the device no longer needs to be physically connected to an external charger. The device is automatically recharged by touching or any physical contact with the body.
At what stage of development are your products today?
We are in an active development phase and our goal is to bring the product to market in 2022. At the ETH we have already developed the first prototypes; now we have to turn them into marketable products. This requires a further development effort, which we will be able to complete by mid-2021.
Resources are a very important issue for a technology start-up. Seems like you’ve got it covered. How did you work on it?
I was very lucky that my family supported us right from the beginning and helped to provide financial resources for the start. Without that, it would not have been possible to start the project immediately. Basically, we started to professionalize the company half a year after I had the idea, which is really quick for such a project.
What were your other steps in collecting resources?
When you are looking for investors, it is very important that you have something concrete to present to them. Not only with regard to the product, but also in terms of the general appearance of the start-up. That’s why we started marketing campaigns almost immediately to make some noise about our solution. Shortly afterwards we were awarded the spin-off label by ETH Zurich. Listing as an ETH spin-off gives us great advantages. First, because it makes it easier to find us; we have already been approached by various people from London to Tokyo. Secondly, it means that our product is not just a creative idea, but can actually work, which gives potential investors a certain degree of security, even if they have limited understanding of the technology behind it.
The technical development is very costly, which is why we are constantly looking for new investors.
How did these attempts work for you? Did you find investors?
So far, we were able to find two smaller investors that enabled us to continue product development. For example, we were able to build the first demonstrator in the ETH laboratory. However, the technical development is very costly, which is why we are constantly looking for new investors. Our top priority at the moment is to complete the development of the product prototype. Until then, we are trying to keep our other costs low.
We sincerely hope that you manage to achieve these goals in the shortest possible time! Now I would like to ask you about your experiences with starting a technology start-up. Was it a big difference to your previous job?
It’s not as big a difference as one might think. My role is all about project management, which I have done before. Of course, the content and materials we work with, are different, but otherwise there are many things in common.
How did your studies and professional experience help you develop this project?
History or the social sciences and humanities in general use a very helpful working method: you collect information, interpret it and then make a decision. This decision-making ability is of great importance for any project or company, whether you are the managing director of a newspaper or the founder of a start-up.
I would say: planning is good, acting is better.
Can you tell us about any mistakes you made in the development of the company?
We underestimated how difficult it really is to find the resources, especially investors. We were very convinced of our project from the very beginning: There are hundreds of applications for this technology, the market potential is nearly unlimited. So we thought: Why should it be difficult to find an investor? After half a year, however, we realized it wasn’t as easy as we had expected. It is particularly difficult at an early stage of product development, because you have to convince the investors that not only does your idea have great potential, but that it can really be implemented and scaled.
What else can you recommend to prospective entrepreneurs? Which approaches should you pursue, which mistakes should you avoid?
I would say: planning is good, acting is better. The business plan we have today and the one I first formulated a year and a half ago are only conditionally similar. You can update the plan every week or after every meeting. It changes all the time, so if you wait for the perfect plan, you will never make any progress.
Thank you very much for this interesting conversation and useful tips! We wish you all the success with your projects!
Learn more about Mithras