Kai Schlage and Mehdi Ramin Moayed want to use the method of oblique coating to specifically improve functional thin films. Applications include optics and surface coating as well as magnetic microsensors. They are now working on the spin-off of their project in the Helmholtz Enterprise spin-off program.
You have developed a process to apply special coatings more precisely and evenly. What is so special about it?
Kai Schlage: Our spin-off project is about two things: First, we have developed an innovative way to homogeneously coat objects with very thin layers in order to tailor-modify their properties. For example, a transparent glass sphere with a nanometer-thin gold coating becomes a three-dimensional, semi-transparent mirror and thus a central component for a high-precision measuring apparatus.
In our second project focus, it is exactly the opposite. Here we coat planar objects at arbitrarily flat angles and can thus vary the surface properties functionally. This applies, for example, to the color and reflectivity of surfaces or magnetic properties in sensors. Both types of these innovative, high-precision coating methods can improve many products.
And you can't do that by conventionally applying the coatings vertically?
Mehdi Ramin Moayed: No. Both of the applications described previously are only made possible by our 3D coating processes. This is the only way, for example, to flexibly and cost-effectively adjust the function of magnetic sensors, such as those installed in every car, by adjusting the properties of the magnetic layers via the coating angle. With three-dimensional objects, perpendicular coating always leads to unwanted layer thickness variations, which are avoided with our method.
But there are already functioning magnetic sensors in cars.
Kai Schlage: Of course. At present, they usually consist of six to ten thin layers and have to be completely redeveloped for each application. With a new layer structure, new materials. In contrast, our slanted coating approach has two advantages: These sensors can be manufactured from one and the same layer structure for a wide variety of measurement tasks, and the functionality can be tailored for each application via the adjustable angles. This allows us to flexibly adapt and improve these measurement systems. For example, a sensor for the steering wheel can be made more accurate, or the sensor for ABS can be made more cost-effective. This is what sets us apart from the competition in magnetic sensors. There are still no competitors for three-dimensional thin-film coating in terms of quality and coating variety. Our process also conserves resources because the material is applied in a targeted manner.
Which industries are you primarily targeting?
Kai Schlage: We definitely want to continue in the field of magnetic sensor technology, the original topic of our industry-relevant coating activities at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron DESY. Optics is another area where it is extremely relevant to apply thin layer stacks homogeneously in a precise thickness. Reflectors or filters for visible or X-ray light are just a few examples of applications here. Furthermore, we cooperate with external research groups that already use or would like to use our large area coating capabilities in the medium term to produce more sophisticated sample systems for basic and applied research. The areas of solar technology, nanomechanical surfaces and biofunctional surfaces are also of interest to us. However, we only want to tackle these in a second step. In the future, we may be able to contribute to improving the efficiency of thin-film solar cells or thin-film battery cells. But that is still up in the air.
Which customers do you want to address?
Kai Schlage: In the field of sensor technology, our target customers are major manufacturers of so-called magnetoresistance sensors. We were recently able to successfully carry out a first validation project with such a potential customer at DESY. In addition, we are targeting small and medium-sized companies with a need for special coatings. For example, we are currently working with a company that wants us to significantly improve its microscopy products.
In addition to industry and especially their development departments, universities and research organizations are also of great interest to us. Here at DESY, the diversity of our clientele is already evident from the diversity of current coating requests. On the one hand, we are approached by scientists who require highly complex thin-film structures on a wide variety of surfaces for their research projects. But we are also approached by engineers who need special coatings for various components for new technological developments.
Our main goal with the founding project of the Helmholtz Association is to win industry representatives as customers in a targeted and increased manner with our innovative coating possibilities.
You have been conducting research for many years at the large-scale research facilities at DESY, but also at the European X-ray Light Source ESRF. Do you take away findings from this research work for your project?
Mehdi Ramin Moayed: Absolutely. For one thing, we discovered the huge potential of the functional adjustment possibilities offered by the oblique coating. That led to the first patent for tailored magnetic sensors. Thin-film coatings have always been the basis of our scientific investigations. Because we wanted to keep improving them, we developed project-specific coating systems ourselves using innovative approaches. Our recently completed vacuum system for functional, oblique coating in industrial format is based on this experience. The network in the research sector that has developed over the years also plays a major role, of course, and we benefit enormously from this.
How do you intend to transfer this to industry and ensure production on an industrial scale?
To do this, it is particularly important to make our novel coating options better known. To this end, we are currently developing thin-film demonstrators with a unique selling point, which we will present at a trade show in the summer. In addition, we are in intensive exchange with potential customers from industry in order to identify open problems in the coating area. We also carry out quality control of our automated coatings using control software developed in-house. We can determine the coating properties with various laboratory measuring instruments at DESY. For industrial-scale production, our coating system could even be technically expanded or replicated to significantly increase throughput. We want to attract as many customers as possible who can make their products significantly more efficient only with our coating capabilities.
In the "Helmholtz Enterprise" spin-off program, you have already successfully completed the Field Study Fellowship. In the program, you were able to specifically sound out the needs of your potential customers. What did you find out in the process?
Mehdi Ramin Moayed: During the Field Study Fellowship, we had contact with several companies and external research groups and were already able to identify new, interesting application areas. We will actively pursue two major inquiries. In addition to technical feasibility and economic feasibility, the risk assessment for our technical equipment was a new aspect for us, which unfortunately also led to the rejection of economically highly interesting inquiries. All in all, we were able to confirm our assumption during the customer research that our coating systems provide an economically interesting technological basis for a spin-off.
Now you want to take your project further in the Helmholtz spin-off program. What advantages does the program offer?
Kai Schlage: I think the Helmholtz Enterprise Program is really phenomenal. It's exactly what you need at this stage: You are convinced of your product, but there are still concerns about whether you should really take the next steps into the risk of self-employment. The program helps you to assess your own position on the market and to acquire customers. Such a form of support certainly nudges many potential start-ups: Dare to make your wish come true!
When do you expect the project to be officially launched?
Mehdi Ramin Moayed: If everything goes well, we would like to officially spin out at the end of this year or at the beginning of next year at the latest.
Interview: Thomas Röbke