Presenting former Technoport entrepreneurs, we want to tell you the successful story of a Luxembourgish industrial company, Agilis Engineering, which left Technoport in December 2018 to continue the journey in its own new industrial building in Grass. We had the pleasure to visit their new facilities and have a chat with Isabelle Saint-Antoine and Baptiste Cristini, co-founders and CEOs of the company.
(Featured Image: Agilis Engineering’s team in their new industrial building / Image Credit © Agilis Engineering)
Hi Isabelle, hi Baptiste, let’s start with the basics: what is Agilis Engineering about?
Agilis Engineering proposes a full range of customized services in the graphite business. Basically, we follow the total life cycle of the graphite products for our clients and we help them to cut costs by finding and providing the solutions that best suit their own business.
Every company requiring high temperature processes can be our client. The client portfolio is indeed very diversified, covering companies in the fields of hard materials, photovoltaic, space, aluminium, glass, automotive, semiconductors, etc. It is a custom basis niche market, so it requires high level of flexibility and of proximity to the client. That is why we focused our customer base development in Europe, and we opted for a steady growth.
Your company is mainly an industrial service company, so what is your unique selling proposition or competitive advantage?
We sell an innovative approach on the total cost of ownership of this product, and we provide homemade and tailored solutions with the latest technologies by always being aware of what is new in the market.
There are companies specialized in each single process but no one of them is covering the full range of services as we do. Agilis starts from the engineering process to end with the recycling one, and that way of working with the client was and still is new in the market of graphite. The same client can decide to renew some parts, or to change the materials, in that case we help him to adapt the process by developing new suitable solutions. The result is that at the end our clients see us more as a partner than as a supplier.
In addition, we can say to be a sustainable company taking care of the environment by following the circular economy principles.
When did this journey start and what was the triggering event?
The company was created on May 12th, 2009 by 3 main co-founders: we – Isabelle and Baptiste, both CEO of Agilis – and Pierre Wolff. We were all three colleagues working in a carbon and graphite company, and each of us had different competences and roles. We together came up with the idea to develop a new business for graphite within the company, seeing the need and high interest of the clients for that kind of services. But since the company refused our proposal because it was not its core business, we decided to quit our job of employees to start our own business.
“Since the beginning, we have never involved any investor, we used our own investment plus SNCI and bank loans and subsidies from the Ministry of the Economy.”
If you think back, what are the 3 main milestones that you would like to point out?
First one, the decision to quit the job and the creation of the company by the 3 co-founders in 2009.
Initially it was a trading company, but we soon realized that it was complicated to have subcontractors. This understanding led to the second very important milestone to solve that subcontracting problem: the creation of our own industrial workshop (in only 9 months) by mid-2011.
The third milestone that we would point out is the huge investment in new machines and for the creation of our own building (since we had to leave the incubator and there was no suitable free space to rent), that took us more than 2 years of time.
Since the beginning, we have never involved any investor, we used our own investment plus SNCI and bank loans and subsidies from the Ministry of the Economy.
What are your keys of success?
Without no doubt:
The complementarity not just of the 3 co-founders in terms of expertise and competences and also of different roles but within the whole team (senior vs junior and in gender);
The deep trust among the founders, our affinity and the same shared values. We are like real partners but in business;
The common willingness of always proposing new ideas (in total freedom), looking for new challenges and addressing these challenges with persistence;
Having good feeling with customers and maintaining good relationship of mutual trust with them.
“Being three co-founders with one not involved in the daily business has been an excellent set-up for us since he can see things from outside.”
And the main lessons learned from your entrepreneurial experience?
First of all, never give up. Keep the same idea (of course if its market potential is validated), be patient and persist. We know that the concept is good, and it is still the same as when we started, our mentality to face challenges did not change as well.
The world is changing fast, so being flexible and able to change very quickly is crucial. For us, it is important to understand where the industry is heading and integrate the new technologies/innovations in our processes (which of course require investments decisions). We could do an analogy with nature: to survive, you need a strong life spirit and constant awareness of what is around.
Be close to your customer and stakeholders by building honest and trusty relationships. But at the same time, diversify your sources. We have more than one supplier for the procurement of the same material. This limits our risks.
When you become an employer, you become responsible of your employees – this should push you to always perform at your best for the company.
Another important lesson: being three co-founders with one not involved in the daily business has been an excellent set-up for us since he can see things from outside. Try to have an odd number of people for decision taking purpose. If we would have been two it could have been our ruin. We already mentioned the importance of the team. Our objective is also to take care of people and to pass the expertise to the new generations. The goal being that, once we will retire, the business could go on through them.
Last but not least: when you achieve something, celebrate and never forget!
Would you change something looking back?
By looking back, we would for sure have spent more time and money to receive a better service from more competent people, in general. Even if a high-quality performance costs more, at the end you save time and efforts because you get things done, properly.
When you have to deal with something that is not your core business (so basically every day when you are a startup, even to choose the best legal status of the company for instance), you do not have always time to go in details, so it can happen to make the wrong decision. To solve that, we found very useful both to receive business mentoring (today for instance you can easily address institutions like the House of Entrepreneurship and Luxinnovation) and to spend more time to source the right experts for the services we need. In a nutshell, being more prepared about the different options and opportunities.
“We have received daily mentoring from industry experts, help in business plan creation and subsidies from the government thanks to the link between Technoport and Luxinnovation.”
Have support schemes as Technoport (or others) been crucial for your development?
We started the business in Technoport in 2009 (at that time Ecostart) with a small office and then in 2011 we moved into one of Technoport’s industrial facilities which has been crucial to reshape and concretely start the business. If possible, we would have stayed 10 years more to avoid the 2-years period of troubles to build our own infrastructure!
The business support has been very important too: we have received daily mentoring from industry experts, help in business plan creation and subsidies from the government thanks to the link between Technoport and Luxinnovation.
In general, we received a great help thanks to the people, the infrastructure and the flexibility. All elements that enhanced the company development in a faster and safer environment.
What’s next for Agilis Engineering?
The new building is finally ready, and we can start to focus again 100% on our activities. Now we have in plan some business development projects: we will develop new businesses regarding what we propose to the customers, through new products, new machines and new applications.
And for Isabelle and Baptiste?
We will continue to keep the spirit in terms of innovation, creativity and way of working, and to maintain good relationships and care about people.