Technology

25 Years Research & Development

A lot has changed since Nunzio La Vecchia launched his independent research firm in 1996. What hasn’t changed throughout the life of the Swiss R&D firm is always having a spectacular innovation mindset and the power to deliver world changing technologies. In this interview we talk with Nunzio La Vecchia, CEO of nanoFlowcell Holdings Ltd, about highlights, challenges and milestone achievements over the years and what the anniversary means to him. 

Nunzio La Vecchia got himself into the business of R&D soon after concluding his private studies in quantum mechanics and quantum physics, when opening his first research firm Juno Technologies in 1996 – the predecessor to nanoFlowcell Holdings. Ever since, he has pursued a consistent and ambitious strategy: to master a set of core technologies for hundreds of applications based on those technologies. Let’s gain some insights from Nunzio La Vecchia, how he made nanoFlowcell Holdings become a world-leading research & development firm for flow cell energy technology. 

What does the 25-year anniversary mean to you?
From a personal perspective, it’s fantastic to be the CEO of a company like nanoFlowcell. I am very happy now that I had the guts to follow my own dreams and founded Juno Technology Products AG 25 years ago – the predecessor to nanoFlowcell. From humble beginnings in a confined space, we have evolved into a globally leading research and development firm in a relatively short period of time. Progress is the most noticeable with our nanoFlowcell® technology and its application. When I began my research, I was on my own. Today, I have access to a wide network of research and engineering resources to support our projects such as the QUANT EV models. The experience and the opportunities it presented along the way, have been amazing. I have worked with facinating people from around the world: exchanging with like-minded developers, collaborating with fellow scientists and engineers – driving our company's innovation power is a big part of my role at nanoFlowcell and it’s incredibly enjoyable.

The wide range of industries we are working for is unbelievable. I started my career refining solar technologies and I never thought that, one day, I would lead a company that creates ground-breaking mobile energy technologies and energy applications with such tremendous positive impact on people’s life. The fact that my company is playing a decisive part in developing clean, save and eco-sustainable energy technologies, which ultimately will preserve our environment – the basis of our all existence – is a great motivation for me and the team at nanoFlowcell.

“The most challenging part of innovations is to convince people to accept the change that comes wih it.”

Is there a secret to generate innovative technologies such as the nanoFlowcell flow cell system?
Actually, … there is no secret. To create innovation, you have to look for innovation. You have to do new things and break with traditions. That sounds simple, but is also that hard.  I am studying advanced energy technologies for most of my life and I am not the only one in the world doing that; there are smart people out there that could have done the same as I did. But I had determination, an unbiased point of view in science and the guts to do things differently in engineering - against common practice and against all advice. I defy mainstream and trusted in what I believed is the right thing to do. My success is a mix of self-confidence and trust in my and my team’s abilities, hard dedicated labour, the relentless pursue of perfection ... and a little bit of luck. However, you should know that creating an innovation is one thing, having created a disruptive technology takes the challenge to a complete differnet level. Because innovation management isn’t about the product only, but it is also about sales and services as much as it is about the technology itself. How do you sell a product no one has seen before? How do you persuade a manufacturer to accept us as a single source for a central component? Or as business partner for whom there is no alterantive, once business is running. I think, we spend more time on selling as we do on research and development.

What do you like most about working in research and development?
It is a challenging, complex work with innumerable problems to solve daily. In the beginning I often found myself tilting at windmills, because classic science research thinks mathematical: proof as the error-free derivation of correctness or incorrectness of a mathematical statement from a set of axioms that are assumed to be true as well as other statements that have already been proven. I realized, our ability to problem solving is constraint by accepting assumptions. As independent researcher and engineer, I can think freely. I don’t have to accept anything “assumed to be true” and don’t have to follow the dictate of established academia. I am free to creatively use my know-how and knowledge without limiting myself to someone else’s project framework or research paradigm set by others just to receive public funding. I like the freedom I have with nanoFlowcell and I am relentless in correcting assumptions and constantly call into question nearly everything we thought we knew. That is not an end in itself, but the way we create progress. I see the industry changing quickly as new political and social demands arise, and new technologies make their way into the market. We see plenty of opportunities for our technologies arising daily and moreover, I can sense the impact of our work will have, which makes me extremely excited to go the extra mile to perfect our products. We didn’t stop at the nanoFlowcell® flow cell, but tried to understand its wider application environment e.g. in electric mobility, which lead to the development of the most advanced electrical drive system and then to our class leading EVs such as the QUANT 48VOLT and QUANTiNO 48VOLT. Both wouldn’t exist, if I would trust in “assumed to be true”.

“In science it is like in music – either you go mainstream and please or you have the balls to go your own way.”

Was it your dream working as scientist and developing innovations?
Well, I have many interests and passions, but science is my life’s purpose. As CEO and CTO of NFC I am in the lucky position to combine my adventure-seeking and purpose-driven nature. 
I have a passion for making music as a means to share and connect with people. I love driving fast cars to the extent that I got myself involved in professional racing – as race driver for an Italian premium brand. I am continuously exploring new materials and cutting-edge technologies, which inspired me to make my pilot license – by the way the only PPL for a PC-7 Mk II; I am fascinated by mechanical perfection, which also may explain why I am still owning a luxury watch manufacturing – time pieces of mechanical perfection, a fusion of art and engineering. 
Many people share my passions, but I also experienced that not everybody has an open mind. My work as researcher and engineer means a lot to me, but it is hard to succeed in this business when you encounter envy and jealousy along the way like I did. Don’t get me wrong, my purpose is not to prove myself, nor create innovations to please others. However, I know that our work at nanoFlowcell will help the world to make a turn for the better. That always has been and still is my motivation.

Is the sign on your desk your slogan or self-conception as R&D company?
You mean the card that says, “Little Things Make Big Things Happen”? Well, that is neither slogan nor allusion to our corporate naming. It is an important learning I made during years of wearisome research. When I paid attention to negligible details and aberrations in my data analysis, which someone else might have interpreted as data error, I achieved breakthrough results. 

What were your biggest obstacles you experienced so far? 
We are our biggest obstacle ourselves, aren’t we?! For a R&D firm to make progress, it has to make its achievements become obsolete as fast as possible, not to rest on success, and constantly develop new innovations. In our business, success is the worst enemy of progress. All too often a company has developed an important new product and spends years asking itself how can we make it a little better, a little cheaper, a little more refined? Yes, I am talking also about myself and my urge for perfection. If I wouldn’t have realized that, we would have spend  a lot of time and energy reducing costs and outmanoeuvring the competition that is popping up. And in the end, we would have products that are only incrementally, but not fundamentally better. We have to be careful not to let the entire momentum of our innovation power revolve around making products faster, better, or cheaper than competitors can. I want products for which there is no competition. For that we have to continuously return to asking more fundamental questions, e.g. are there differnet ways to solve the problem – ways that might cut costs or raise performance. This is how we went from a singular technology, to low voltage EV drive systems and finally to entire applications such as the QUANT 48VOLT.

“The challenge for many analysts and investors is to quantify the intangible value of NFC’s innovations. Our’s is protecting it.”

Has money never been an obstacle for you? 
Well, it would not be true to say no. At the time of Juno Technology Products AG, I realized projects with less financial resources but by trading my technologies with other people for their technologies – a kind of barter trading or pooling of technologies. However, my business objective wasn’t to develop patents, but to make a living from what I was doing. 
Even though there were disappointing and frustrating periods because of lack of funding, I never wanted to apply for public research funding or subsidies because of its aforementioned implications – I would lose intellectual autonomy. Today, I am very lucky that I did so and also to have investors who are respectful towards uncommon ideas and approaches, and who are mindful that innovation takes patient capital. We are in a fortunate position not to have to rely on public funding for our research projects, but have the financial means to move forward with our R&D and our production plans without raising additional capital; the least our business needs is additional pressure from the stock market and people who want to make a quick profit. We have discussed our plans with few strategic investors and concluded it would take some billion Euro to establish a bi-ION production, to bring our nanoFlowcell technology to market, and to make the business venture profitable.

Is the process of R&D different now than when you started in 1996? What has changed?
The fundamentals remained the same: The birth of an innovation is a brilliant idea. Then you determine whether the brilliant idea is working and whether it is worth pursuing, both from a technical and business point of view. That is the fun part, because it is intellectually the most stimulating phase. After that the tough work starts: moving the brilliant idea into a real product. Or what I called the donkeywork in innovation. We are excited about an idea, but then have to go to the workshop for a small eternity, to try to turn that idea into a real-life product – which ideally can be manufactured industrially. Luckily for us, some things have changed; I constantly integrate new technologies into our workflow to make R&D processes more efficient and reliable, because competitiveness in R&D is becoming a matter of IT efficiency and AI proficiency. We are investing since over 25 years in state-of-the-art digital design, engineering, and development facilities as well as inhouse AI competences. We are developing and perfecting new methods, frequently down to atomic and molecular level, with AI-generated input for the simulation and analysis of new materials with the highest possible accuracy. The nice thing about that is: our state-of-the-art AI / VR research environment and digital engineering capabilities have eliminated much of the tedious and frustrating part of innovation, and speed up the process from conceiving ideas to market launch. Well, where there is light, there is also shadow: what worries me is the enormous expenses to apply for and to secure intellectual property rights, but to realize the limited effectiveness and reliability of their internal control systems. What took NFC 25 years to develop could be reversed engineered with the right technology within days.

“AI will make us stronger, if we learn using it for our advantage.”

Do you have a favourite project you have worked on?
Over the years, I have worked on so many projects and I enjoyed all of them. I enjoyed working on the QUANT E, a project we finished in 2014, because it was the first mobile application for our nanoFlowcell® technology that demonstrated the performance & power of our flow cell system: The world’s first road-legal electric vehicle with a nanoFlowcell® drive. That made me very proud. However, QUANTiNO is my favourite, because this project challenged us in so many ways: low-voltage drive technology, the world’s first flow cell with variable output control, new levels of drive efficiency to reach a fully electric driving distance of over 1,400 kilometres, and much more. The most important project for my company is by far QUANT-City, our new R&D facilities with integrated production for nanoFlowcell® flow cell membranes and bi-ION® electrolyte liquids. You have to know that the transfer of the bi-ION® electrolyte production from laboratory production level to industrial production level is the prerequisite for the entire business case for our nanoFlowcell technology and all of its applications.

A genuine project of the heart is my human robotics project. It has developed from our advanced methods to integrate AI in our research and engineering processes. I want to combine all the excellence and skills of NFC within this single project – flow cell and 48 volts technology, profound materials knowledge, extensive electrical and mechanical engineering skills, advanced programming capabilities - it is such a challenge, and yes, that is currently my favourite project (for some years now) and certainly one that will have a lasting impact on NFC’s future.

“My venture is to make the world a better place – after all it has to accommodate me for several decades to come, because Marse is no option for me.”

What are your most favourite memories from the last 25 years?
There are so many unforgettable and happy moments related to small incremental progress and major breakthroughs we achieved. Many vibrant and lasting memories come from working with incredible people. And it is to them that I am saying, with appreciation and respect, every day now for the past 25 years: Looking forward to the next project, the next venture, the next challenge we will be working on together tomorrow!

Let's look to the future with a classic question: what’s your wish for your anniversary?
I am excited by the direction our business is taking and I am looking forward to all the new and exciting challenges ahead of us. Most notably QUANT-City, our new R&D center and hub of excellence for international flow cell energy research, which will accelerate the new energy revolution - and our business. When I go online and screen the web for what people concern themselves with, I wouldn’t go five-minutes without hearing about clean energy, sustainable mobility and environmental protection. This is the future, and we have been working on that for 25 years now. Some people feel that after a quarter of a century, they have to come to an end of what they are doing, but I feel totally the opposite. We just begun „energizing” the world. We are doing stunning development work for a long time already and we are well positioned for more!

As creator of the nanoFlowcell® flow cell, I sincerely hope that this technology will be given the chance to realize its full potential and that our flow cell receives recognition for what it is and what it can do: a unique energy technology that performs without compromises.

I wish that NFC will continue to deliver R&D that impresses customers and partners with strong and innovative products, that our technical innovations continue to contribute to a cleaner and healthier environment, and that we stay alert to support the economic and social well-being of our society without causing undue stress to the environment.