Some problems you first have to realize are problems. Kent Bridgewater was alerted to just such a difficulty while having dinner with an engineer friend: Overhead conveyor belts on the ceilings of industrial production facilities are every now and then dripping oil onto products below, such as freshly painted auto parts or raw sides of pork.
Conveyor chains, the friend explained, are driven by small wheels mounted on ball bearings. In order for them to work smoothly, they have to be oiled. Only then can they reliably transport industrial parts or food stuffs. But as they tick over, a fine dust or grit is created – a mixture of dust, paint particles and sometimes even a little oil.
It’s a huge problem when this oily mixture falls down on a piece of metal’s fresh paint because touching it up takes time and money. If it falls on freshly cut meat in slaughterhouses, “it quickly becomes unappetizing and unhygienic,” said Mr. Bridgewater.
Mr. Bridgewater sensed an opportunity for an easy to operate cleaning system. The idea haunted the 36-year-old German-American. Now, three years later, there is a company, called Brige, and a prototype, which consists of a combination wet cleaning system and high-pressure dryer. Talks with potential customers are proving very promising, according to Mr. Bridgewater.
It’s difficult to get started without equity. You can’t make a prototype, which means you have nothing to show. Kent Bridgewater, Founder, Brige
“The problem is the drops of oil,” said Jakob Larsson, head of the Danish conveyor systems maker, Conveyor Teknik. “It isn’t nice when they drop down. Until now, there had been no solution for that.” Mr. Larsson has just recently began partnering with Brige and plans to offer the wash and dry system through his sales network.
There is interest. After all, the manufacturers and producers have done everything to avoid the debris from above: Spread netting beneath the conveyor systems, used brushes. “They tried to take care of it themselves,” said Mr. Bridgewater. “But nothing really helped.”
On top of that, the cleaning of the conveyor chains, which are sometimes over a kilometer, or about half a mile, in length, was costly and time consuming when they had to be stopped for cleaning – which was daily, or after every shift in the case of the food industry.
The Brige cleaning system, a device the size of a large cardboard box, is placed on the conveyor belt and, while travelling at about two meters per minute, pressure cleans then immediately blow dries oily components. The drying is the decisive point for Mr Larssen. “Otherwise water is always left and drops down on the products hanging beneath,” he said. Brige eliminates that. “At any rate, the tests look good.”
Sven Simeitis, an old school friend of Mr. Bridgewater, constructed the box and the wet cleaning system with turbo dryer. The two know each other from their childhood days in Frankfurt. While Mr. Bridgewater was subsequently drawn to the coast, where he worked as a buyer for a shipping line, Mr. Simeitis, who is 35, studied engineering.
The pair were able to make a lot of good contacts at the Hannover Messe, says Mr. Simeitis, when the world’s largest industrial fair for the first time offered young companies from the world of engineering a platform to promote their products.
Mr. Simeitis is the inventive tinkerer who developed and screwed together the prototype, which is now being put to work in a former textile factory in Bremen for demonstration purposes. For a small company with just three other employees, getting that far was a tremendous effort. “It’s difficult to get started without equity,” says Mr. Bridgewater. “You can’t make a prototype, which means you have nothing to show. If you can’t show anything, you won’t get any capital.”
That’s the difference between an engineering start-up and an app developer from the digital world, he said. The two managed it thanks to public support for entrepreneurs and a loan granted to them by a North German bank. They each hold a 46.25 percent interest in Brige, with two private investors holding the rest. “We want to remain independent,” said Mr. Bridgewater, “and become a partner for all conveyor systems manufacturers.”
In contrast to the multitude of digital start-ups, who are primarily concerned with growing as quickly as possible in the beginning and later selling the company at a high price, the short-term goals at Brige are set more modestly. The company is looking to sell 15 units this year, says Mr. Bridgewater. Then it would have done well.
The two founders have enough ideas to spur growth. They want to expand their service, take over the proactive maintenance of their systems as well as the conveyor chains via digital connection, and at some point completely do away with water and concentrate only on dry cleaning. “We want to show what we can do and become a sound operational company,” said Mr. Bridgewater.
But despite all the modesty, he hasn’t given up the dream shared by many start-up founders of finding an investor with millions.
Martin Wocher writes about mechanical engineering and steel. To contact the author: [email protected]