In this interview with Flag Turbines founder and CEO Maarten van Oeveren, we talk about the origins of the company, the benefits of starting your own business, and his hopes for a more sustainable future.
How did you come up with the idea for the business?
In physics, I graduated in the research of aerodynamic behaviour of an aeroplane wing in comparison to blowing wind from a fan. At that time, I was a glider pilot and had a fascination with aerodynamics for sailing and flying. From that research, it became obvious that a vertically oriented wind turbine, with the majority of lift force acting on the extremities, would be a much stronger solution than the conventional turbine.
The conceptualization went into prototyping when I was a member of a high-tech product development team. We developed products on customer demand, ranging from robotized production lines for the automotive industry, climbing cranes for wind turbine installation, Ferris wheels and automated driving trucks.
With my peer colleagues, we debated during lunch break about radical improvements in wind turbines, and after some lab tests, we concluded that the potential of the concept of a vertical axis, variable pitching wind turbine was immense. That was 2019, and since then we built, tested and improved over 9 consecutive models.
Why does the industry need the solution you're providing?
The energy transition is hampered by energy distribution. It is often said that the amount of renewable energy on earth is much more than we globally consume. The challenge is to get that energy where and when you need it. Our flag turbines operate at low speed, with low signature, and therefore they are easier to install near the power consumer. Or to navigate them to high-wind locations. It is therefore a more accurate turbine, which fits better with the energy consumption profile of the power consumer.
Secondly, the turbine is mechanically advanced, rather than aerodynamically. As a result, the design is inherently cheaper to build, with shorter supply chains and better recyclability of the components. We even offer upcycling options for the blades. How cool is that, using polluting plastic garbage for wind turbine blades?
What have you enjoyed most about starting your own company?
Being decisive with my colleagues. The nature of our development is tricky, and we tried many things to get assured about a certain level of performance. Trying also means that we are open to fail. Failing gives evidence that a first, simple and straight forward concept is not the way to go.
The combination of developing new technology, in combination with developing a company and market around it, makes the invested time and money worth it. We loved to take these extra steps, without the obligation to ask our customers or superiors for approvals.
What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning of your journey?
The start is all about convincing yourself and others. After a few laboratory tests we applied and received innovation loans. Then a side process starts with the involvement of non-technicians. Time is very scarce in that phase, and you try to get more evidence that your envisioned solution is viable.
The proof-of-concepts that we build in that phase were purely focused on understanding the turbine behavior and didn’t have many attractive design features. They couldn’t count on a lot of creditability from financiers, marketeers, or fellow citizens around us. As technicians we knew the main issues of state-of-art technologies, and we had our positive observations for the behavior of our mechanism. You can only rely on that, while advancing and improving.
Any bits of advice for entrepreneurs getting started in this space?
Team up with experts, have a vision about the end game, and keep improving until you have what you want. Make simple and solid agreements with each other, and put them on paper. Experiment on the value proposition by convincing others, and try to sell the product as soon as possible. Selling isn’t a big deal; you only have to find one. Then try to deliver on what you sold. Don’t sell more until you delivered and promise that you will keep improving.
What's the plan for the future of the business? Where do you see the company in 3-5 years?
We plan to start delivering pre-series turbines in 2024, and will improve and standardize on the production line. We envision highly automated and standardized production cells in every regional market center. The first turbines will be relatively small scale, with a unique power sizing. These turbines are ideal for power supply on remote islands, or to pump (rain) water from agricultural land.
We expect large quantities of the smaller size turbines in 2025. They are all equipped with remote IoT connectivity, which will enable us to retrieve and compare performance data with different settings. This data can be used to find ideal settings. We made the turbine design fully modular, and will offer system hardware upgrades and software updates. The first 1000 buyers will automatically be part of the continuous evaluation and improvement program.
Our turbine technology is fully scalable towards larger wind turbines and hydro or tidal turbines. The findings on a smaller scale are therefore also relevant for design on larger scale models. We will further develop our design into new turbines, with the intention to develop a 1MW turbine for off shore floating wind and tidal power.
We aim to attract more capital to develop these solutions, and are drafting an investment prospectus for the investors. The nature of our company enables us to easily trade shares, so that everyone with interest can buy and sell. This way of public investor funding is indicating how fast we can grow, and how much more we can invest into product and market development.
This will lead to a situation in which we have a massive distribution network of data and production cells. By getting the organization as lean as needed, and as distributed as possible we expect to achieve record low costs for energy. We hope that communities will take maximum benefit of that in our journey towards a sustainable future.