Little may be known about Luxembourg but its burgeoning startup scene is causing quite a stir, we were lucky enough to talk to serial entrepreneur Bogdan Serban from Apateq, Startup Europe Award Winner 2016.
First can you tell us a bit about your job? What does your company do?
We are in the water treatment business and we’re a little bit different than all of the other companies because we are focusing on wastewater treatment, specifically on industrial wastewater and waters that are very difficult to treat. We are not in the drinking water business, or generic municipal wastewater treatment, these are rather trivial things. I would even call them commodities; we provide a very specific kind of treatment for demanding applications.
What brought you to this area?
Well I worked in the automotive industry for 19 years, I’m an electronics engineer. I saw that kind of business and because I was travelling a lot and had a very broad network, I saw what was happening in the world and how the environment is affected by all kind of activities. Whether we like it or not, all industrial activities directly or indirectly lead to a certain type of pollution, whether it’s air, soil or water pollution. It might not always be at a high degree, but it does happen. And I saw a place to intervene and also was at a point where I wanted to turn the page and do something else. I knew some people and finally we decided to enter this field, and it might sound cliché but indeed we are believers in what we are saying: let’s try to make the environment a little bit better. I mean, it’s a small drop in the ocean but still it’ll help and our main driver was that we realised that during the oil & gas production a lot of wastewater resulted.
Just to put things into perspective, worldwide there are approximately 77 billion barrels of water produced in the course of oil and gas extraction every year, 21 billion barrels of it in the US alone. And this water is contaminated; part of it is re-injected, so something has to be done with it before it can be reused. Because we have the technology and know-how, we ended up working to repurpose and treat the water, which was resulting from all kinds of industrial processes.
Last year, we were the first ones in the world to offer such a plant, it was an onshore plant to treat scrub water, the water that results from the washing of the exhaust gases of very large vessels. These vessels use bunker fuel, it’s a very heavy fuel, contains a lot of sulphur and all kind of stuff. All these contaminants were discharged to atmosphere, thus new regulations were put in place. It was by pure chance they started simultaneously in the United States and Europe imposing that when these vessels are close to the shore to not discharge that much contaminants, so the solution was to clean those gases. Yes, the gases were clean, but what do you do with the water, which was used to clean the gases? That water was contaminated and something had to be done and this is where we intervened. We created an installation in a harbour in Denmark that treats the water, which is brought by these vessels on a continuous basis. We made the first installation of this kind in the world and are now also working on similar installations, which have to be implemented on vessels on-board in such a way that the treated water can be discharged in the ocean according to the most stringent international legislations. Whereas with the onshore installations, the water is discharged in the harbour very close to the shore.
What time does your day start, and what does your typical workday schedule look like?
It varies, it has to vary because in a start-up you have all kind of unexpected things but I would say in a start-up it is definitely not 9-5 during the week, it is rather 95. It starts early, it ends late and besides meetings, personally I’m also very hands-on. So I’m involved in all kinds of discussions whether it’s technical, customer, suppliers, and many times on the production floor because we develop, assemble and test everything here in Luxembourg. I’m almost everywhere and like I said, I’ve come from the automotive industry. I know what production means, so yes, I have to be hands on. We are solution providers, we are not only doing the engineering but we also manufacture the products that we offer and we service and operate them, so we have to have all those kinds of expertise in place and you have to watch everything that is going on. And as we provide the hardware, we definitely have to have people in house that are hands on and inevitably I’m one of them.
What kind of projects are you currently working on?
We try to focus and I would say this is one of the main things for a start-up in order to achieve a certain level of success. We try to focus on specific niches because, like I said, we are not a municipal wastewater treatment company and our competitors could be the very large companies worldwide in water treatment. The markets we are focusing on are produced water treatment, frack flowback and all sorts of industrial wastewater that are resulting from food and some chemical industries.
We are now in some projects that could turn to be some of the largest treatment plants in Europe. We are also working on some on-board installation projects where the challenge is that they have to be very compact and to withstand very tough conditions, vibrations, environmental, and also price. Within the 3 years of existence, our company has already shipped 11 installations and 2 of them were in direct competition with some of the largest wastewater treatment companies in the world, and we won the job.
What do you consider the greatest achievement in your work to date?
I think I should mention at least two, one being that we got granted orders where other very large companies were involved and we have been given the job. This is an achievement especially considering that we’re a young company and are new to the market. The other is that for both scrub and produced water treatment, we have solutions which are not yet available from other companies, so we managed to propose on the market products on an industrial scale within such a short time which are running in the field with very pleased customers.
What is the one app you could not live without?
I cannot name an app I cannot live without because by nature I’m trying to find other types of solutions to things, so if I don’t have it I will live without it. If I had to name an app that I appreciate and use often it would be Uber, I like it, it’s very practical but again I could live without it.
What’s the best thing about working at your company?
I’ve worked in start-ups for many years, when I worked in the automotive industry that was also a start-up which began with 10 people and when I left there were 1500 or so. So with time I learned and I experienced what drives a start-up to success and makes it grow, I tried to implement all of those things here at APATEQ. In terms of culture, firstly we are a family, we all work in an open environment, from the mind-set, we all wear several hats, and all that is made within a very strong, linked team. We have the courage to fight the big ones and ask the difficult questions’ ‘why, why not, when’ and to change things, if not we won’t move mountains and we have to. This is how we can do things that weren’t done before, to change things, we have to.
Where is the after work hangout?
On our company premises we have a billiard table, a pool table, so we can play football, we do very often play badminton together and especially when it doesn’t rain or snow, we do all sorts of outdoor sports. We all have hobbies that we like to do, personally I like car racing, classical music and lots of other things. If you come to work and you want to be successful you have to have fun, otherwise you will not be successful, you will not do things properly. I do have a problem if I don’t see that my colleagues have a smile on their faces. Obviously everyday is a fight, we have to find solutions but we have to have a smile from time to time, if not, we won’t move forward.
Who is your professional role model?
I cannot name one in particular, because each character has his/her own highlights so to say, but if I had to mention somebody from the industry environment, Bill Gates is one who has achieved many things and Elon Musk, rather more Elon Musk than Bill Gates.
What makes Luxembourg a good city for technology and start-ups?
First of all position, Luxembourg is very central, within an hour flight you get to the main European capitals, you cover almost 80% of the European GDP. Luxembourg is surrounded by very powerful countries in terms of industrial development; Germany, France, Belgium. Luxembourg might be tiny but you have access to everything. We have very strong support for start-ups, because obviously as a small country the government likes to diversify, to support initiatives and industry so it makes all the sense to be in Luxembourg.
Which tech trends are you most excited about?
I have to answer from our perspective, what we are doing and obviously the fourth industrial revolution is something we have to not only be involved in and to work with but we have to be part of. And these trends that are having everything interconnected, these trends are having data, analysing data, having access remotely from everything that we are producing obviously for us is paramount. I would say generally, not that it’s a specific tech trend but the fourth industrial revolution; we are something of this wave, have in mind our installations are remotely controlled, from Luxembourg we can have control, we can change parameters, we can see what’s happening, and data which we gather there can be used in other installations, installed e.g. in Middle East and things like that.
What are the top 3 qualities you look for in an employee?
1) Open-minded – in the broad sense meaning accepting everything, this is one aspect.
2) Strong team approach – at our company it’s rare that one can do things along, all the good things are done in a team, and if you’re not a good team player it doesn’t work. It happened to me in the past to separate from people, not because they were not good technically or their attitudes/standpoints but because they were not a good team player.
3) Positive attitude; I prefer to work with someone who is a glass half full type than glass half empty. Of course we also need the ones who are very realistic and say ‘hey don’t fly to high, come back to earth a little’ but if we only see problems, we’ll never get to the moon or to mars.
What advice would you give your younger self when starting out?
Yes, you should have done it earlier. All of my life I’ve been an employee and this is the first company that I’ve founded and am behind it, and I realise I should have done it much earlier.
And finally, what is the one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur starting out?
Obviously there are several, but I would say the most important would be resilience or call it stubbornness or never giving up but this is the idea, because you’ll always have problems you have to overcome and for me this is the number one thing. Obviously you can mention focus, hard work but still I’d rather see focus as a technicality, as a tool, you can focus as much as you want, you’re still going to encounter a lot of problems and if you are not stubborn, if you are not resilient and you give up, you have to push, push, push. Even if you don’t see the sun anymore, you still have to push and believe in what you are doing and all that could be called stubbornness/resilience/passion, but it’s all the same thing.